Before this week, I never thought much about where airplanes go when they can no longer fly. Really, I never thought about it at all. Why would I?

vusumzi plane sm

A dead South African airplane.

Actually though, airplane death a topic worth thinking about. Airplanes are big, and heavy. It’s not like you can hitch a dead plane to the back of  a tow truck and take it to the nearest junk yard.

It turns out that around here, at least some dead airplanes wind up at an “airplane graveyard” at Lanseria Airport, north of Johannesburg. There are 30 or 40 old planes there, scattered haphazardly in an open field next to an unused airport runway.

Yesterday evening, I was invited to visit the Lanseria Airport graveyard with a small group of photography enthusiasts. I know next to nothing about aviation. I didn’t learn much about where these airplanes came from, how they got there, or what the future holds for them. But I did learn that an airplane graveyard is a really cool place to take photographs.

01 inside trashed plane sm

Inside one of the larger planes. I had to dodge holes in the floor.

02 swazi airways sm

Swazi Express Air Ways: This plane lived in one of my favorite countries.

03 inside plane carcass sm

Checking out the view from inside one of the smaller carcasses. (Photo: Johann Barnard)

06 plane piece sm

A particularly sad little carcass.

07 no step sm

Standing on an airplane wing. I’m such a rebel.

08 trans air congo sm

I’ll bet this old girl has some stories to tell.

The highlight of the day was taking photos inside an old Boeing 727, the largest plane at the graveyard. At first we thought the door was locked and we would only be able to peak inside through a tiny round window. Then someone gave the door a shove, and it opened.

00 walter in 727 b&w sm

Walter Pike explores the cabin of a retired Boeing 727.

It was eerie in there. In some ways it felt the like the pilots and crew had just left. The floor of the cockpit was scattered with papers. The pilots’ headphones and seat cushions were still in place.

I wondered how many places this plane visited, how many miles it flew, and where its final voyage was from.

09 mark in 727 sm

Mark Straw plays with his remote flash inside the 727.

10 control panel sm

In the 727’s cockpit.

11 altitude alert sm

Brings back memories of scary plane crash movies.

12 heather the pilot sm

Look Mom, I’m flying a plane. (Photo: Nola Kropman)

After hanging around the airplane graveyard for a while, I started to feel attached to these planes. Many of them looked almost human. Or at least vaguely mammalian, in a cartoon-like kind of way.

13 noseless plane sm

I love this guy. He looks so cute with his nose broken off. Maybe the nose got taken away for scrap metal.

14 plane nose sm

This one reminds me of Snoopy.

After a couple of hours, night began to fall. We were treated to a dazzling sunset.

15 plane sunset sm

An African airplane graveyard sunset.

16 sunset lanseria sm

The sun finally goes down across the runway.

It got really dark. The other photographers were creeping among the planes with bobbing flashlights, shooting photos with flash. I don’t have a good flash yet, so I figured the photo session was about over for me.

But then, guess what? Lanseria Airport was invaded by UFOs.

17 ufo over hangar sm

A UFO streaks across the sky above an airplane hangar.

18 ufo moon sm

Boy, was I lucky to get this shot. A UFO floats over the barest hint of a new moon.

20 ufo landing sm

This UFO is about to land!

Okay, I lie. The photos above are of airplanes and helicopters taking off and landing at Lanseria. I had fun imagining they were UFOs though, and photographing them was a good way to pass the time while waiting for the strobists to finish up.

Eventually I got tired of shooting. I’d taken hundreds of pictures and my eyes were sore. I laid down, smack-dab in the middle of the runway, and gazed up at the stars. The pavement was still warm from the afternoon heat. It was really peaceful. I dozed off for a bit.

How many people in this world can say they’ve slept on an airport runway?

♦        ♦        ♦        ♦        ♦        ♦

The Lanseria Airport graveyard is not open to the public. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to go there. Thanks to Nola Kropman and Walter Pike for organizing the visit, and to Mark Straw for inviting me along. And thanks to Derek Smith for the ride.

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