By all accounts the F-22 Raptor was the apex of aviation engineering – the finest fighter plane ever built. Stealth technology, high maneuverability at mach 2.25, and extreme air-to-air lethality against any potential threat made the F-22 unmatched in the field of aerial combat. Unfortunately for Lockheed and their cancelled $1.75 billion U.S. government contract, the F-22 was also unnecessary, wasteful and rolled out of the factory hangar obsolete. It was designed to counter a threat that no longer exists, manifest as a relic of Cold War thinking and a throwback to single combat champions – the hero pilot – who took to the sky to valiantly battle in defense of the U.S. against the Soviet aggressor. And while all that no longer exists, foreign policy is now enforced via aerial drones and suitcases of cash, the dogfights of our collective imagination still reassuringly play out in the Arizona desert at the Pima Air & Space museum.
Pima, and the nearby “boneyard” provide over 2600 acres of land for the display of thousands of surplus and decommissioned aircraft. The dry, arid desert, which can be so punishing to living things, here provides an optimal environment for the preservation of the military’s metal relics. The soil of southern Arizona has an especially high alkaline content, that coupled with the area’s negligible humidity levels, makes this desert an ideal location for storing last century’s war machines safe from corrosion, rust and the other damaging effects of moisture.
That Pima isn’t (and shouldn’t) be in the business of offering a critical history on the use and consequences of bombing campaigns engaged by the Air Force is ok. But Pima certainly does engage in a soft form of propaganda (see also: starring role of an F-22 in the Transformers movie) by harkening back to the mythical, nostalgia-tinted past where technical proficiency and American know-how led to an easily quantifiable military dominance of the skies. The whole site is a monument to American techno prowess. And while the museum does offer a perfunctory survey of novelty civilian planes (smallest plane, lightest plane, etc.), the star of the show is without a doubt the fields of fighter aircraft, including the A-10 and the F-5. Where the lone pilot and his trusty jet update the West’s archetypal portrayal of a solitary hero who abides by his own moral code, characterized here in a collection of popular culture references that stretch from Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels film of 1930 (see the Fokker DVII’s) to the fighter plane spectacles that popped up in the waning days of the Cold War: Tom Cruise and Top Gun (F-14 Tomcat) and Lou Gosset in Iron Eagle (F-16 Fighting Falcon). That there is something comforting in the black and white clarity of the conflicts of the past (we won!) is also played out in the museum’s crowd, which certainly skews toward the grayer end of the demographic spectrum, as do the museum’s volunteers, who can usually be easily spotted by their “retired U.A. Air Force” caps emblazoned with their numbered squadron insignia. On the day we were there, walking between row upon row of fighter planes, their cockpits painted over and engines extracted, we were treated to a flyby from four of the 183 F-22’s that the Pentagon had actually ordered, en route from Nevada. Their distinct silhouette traced a line across the sky. It was a beautiful sight.