I Died and Went to Airplane Heaven

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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54 Comments

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough March 25, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    Sounds like a great adventure in the end of flight. I would love to visit the place where aviation goes to die. I especially love the dashboard shots.
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers March 25, 2012 at 5:51 pm

      Thanks Kathy! You would have loved this.

  • Reply Howlin' Mad Heather March 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    So amazingly cool! In those last few photos, looks like the Prawns are coming back, doesn’t it? 😉

    • Reply 2summers March 25, 2012 at 5:50 pm

      Yes! That’s what I thought at first.

  • Reply Derek Smith March 25, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    It’s a pleasure – Some great images

    • Reply 2summers March 25, 2012 at 5:50 pm

      Thanks! Looking forward to seeing everyone else’s.

  • Reply alessandro ciapanna March 25, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    wonderful. now i want to go there!

  • Reply Walter Pike March 25, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    It was a great day. As I left I thought of all the shots that were still there to be taken – there were a overwhelming number possible. Too many if truth be told. Not had an opportunity to edit mine.

    Actually been kicking myself all day about an angle I only thought of this morning.

    I love the shot in the cargo 727 it looks faintly military with my tripod strapped to my camera bag. It only took a sharp tug to open that door, think it was probably stuck because it had been very long since it had been open.

    When we drove past the first planes, Nola exclaimed “That’s Kilo Mike Lima – I used to fly her, who would have thought she would have ended up here – that’s so sad.” By the way Nola hates me boasting that she is an aviation pioneer, the first commercial jet pilot in the country.

    Something else happened, I loaned Nola my “old” D90 body and she took some great shots as well and now the photography bug is starting to bite her as well.

    It was great meeting you all.

    Till next time.

    • Reply 2summers March 25, 2012 at 11:29 pm

      Thanks Walter. Wow, I didn’t realize Nola is a pilot! She is very modest. Can’t wait to see both of your sets of pics.

    • Reply Nola March 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      Hey Walt – try first “female”commercial jet pilot in the country.

      Yes I really did enjoy taking the pics with your D90 – so much to learn

      Heather, thanks for a great story and wonderful pics

      • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm

        First female commercial jet pilot — still very impressive!

  • Reply migrationmark March 25, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Wow, that Trans Air Congo, yah, really should have some crazy stories of flight behind that. Love all these photos – so interesting to see all these planes gutted and ready to be explored.

    • Reply 2summers March 25, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      Thanks Mark. I’ll bet these planes have almost as many stories to tell as you do 🙂

  • Reply Charles Visser (Chuckv) March 25, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Great pics and story. Thanks.

  • Reply Angie.Jamieson March 26, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Thanks guys, for the Virtual Visit – i loved it.

  • Reply Angie.Jamieson March 26, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Thanks guys, for the Virtual Visit – i loved it.

  • Reply Sweet and Sour March 26, 2012 at 7:45 am

    The pictures makes me wanna go there..

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Thanks. That’s the best compliment I could hope for.

  • Reply Sweet and Sour March 26, 2012 at 7:45 am

    The pictures makes me wanna go there..

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Thanks. That’s the best compliment I could hope for.

  • Reply Rory Alexander Photography March 26, 2012 at 8:53 am

    “I know next to nothing about aviation.” I do and am so jealous right now. Your photos are fantastic and indeed it does look like a great place to photograph.

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Thanks Rory. I knew that the aviation fans who read this would be insanely jealous. I know I am really lucky 🙂

  • Reply Rory Alexander Photography March 26, 2012 at 8:53 am

    “I know next to nothing about aviation.” I do and am so jealous right now. Your photos are fantastic and indeed it does look like a great place to photograph.

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 9:52 am

      Thanks Rory. I knew that the aviation fans who read this would be insanely jealous. I know I am really lucky 🙂

  • Reply eremophila March 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Great pics, but the one with you at the controls is fabulous – take to the skies Heather!
    Here’s something for you to ponder on – http://inhabitat.com/retired-747-airplane-transformed-into-striking-malibu-home/

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 4:07 pm

      Wow, that’s so cool!

  • Reply eremophila March 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    Great pics, but the one with you at the controls is fabulous – take to the skies Heather!
    Here’s something for you to ponder on – http://inhabitat.com/retired-747-airplane-transformed-into-striking-malibu-home/

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 4:07 pm

      Wow, that’s so cool!

  • Reply 123 March 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    That is so awsome 😀 Wish I could go there though!

  • Reply 123 March 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    That is so awsome 😀 Wish I could go there though!

  • Reply Tenney March 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Great idea. Wonder if there’s a similar resting place around here.

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      I’m sure there is, although most of the big airplane graveyards in the US are in the Southwest.

  • Reply Tenney March 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Great idea. Wonder if there’s a similar resting place around here.

    • Reply 2summers March 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      I’m sure there is, although most of the big airplane graveyards in the US are in the Southwest.

  • Reply Engelsman in Afrika March 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Nice post and photos! I live just down the road from Lanseria and never knew about this. Always wanted to visit the large graveyards in the states, but never got around to it. Do you need special passes to get onto the site?

    • Reply 2summers March 27, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Yes, I think we were only granted access because one of the members of our party works at Lanseria Airport. Not sure how you would get in otherwise, but it could be worth a call to the airport.

  • Reply Engelsman in Afrika March 27, 2012 at 8:00 am

    Nice post and photos! I live just down the road from Lanseria and never knew about this. Always wanted to visit the large graveyards in the states, but never got around to it. Do you need special passes to get onto the site?

    • Reply 2summers March 27, 2012 at 9:12 am

      Yes, I think we were only granted access because one of the members of our party works at Lanseria Airport. Not sure how you would get in otherwise, but it could be worth a call to the airport.

  • Reply Lu March 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Fantastic shots Heather! What a great place to explore – such an amazing opportunity!
    Your “Snoopy” shot actually reminds me of the vegetarian shark in Shark Tale 🙂

    • Reply 2summers March 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Ha. I haven’t seen Shark Tale, but that plane does look very cartoonish.

  • Reply Lu March 27, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Fantastic shots Heather! What a great place to explore – such an amazing opportunity!
    Your “Snoopy” shot actually reminds me of the vegetarian shark in Shark Tale 🙂

    • Reply 2summers March 27, 2012 at 3:42 pm

      Ha. I haven’t seen Shark Tale, but that plane does look very cartoonish.

  • Reply Tilly Bud March 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    My husband is going to be so jealous of your trip when I show him this – as a photographer, airplane geek and proud South African citizen.

    • Reply 2summers March 27, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Haha. Yeah, I seem to be making a lot of people jealous 🙂

  • Reply Tilly Bud March 27, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    My husband is going to be so jealous of your trip when I show him this – as a photographer, airplane geek and proud South African citizen.

    • Reply 2summers March 27, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Haha. Yeah, I seem to be making a lot of people jealous 🙂

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