*Please note, the Airplane Graveyard was destroyed in May of 2011.
The planes are no longer there*
The Airplane Graveyard in St. Augustine Florida holds a special place in my heart as it was the catalyst for my creative career as a photographer. When I discovered them in January of 2009 I had no idea the images I was taking would be the building blocks for a career that would take off a few years later, or that one of them would be selected by Ron Howard to help inspire a film! I have posts here on the Art of Abandonment about our initial discovery of the planes and their subsequent destruction, but I’d like to take the time now to share the story and history behind these eight Navy planes that found their unlikely home in our nation’s oldest city.
When I was photographing the Grumman S2 trackers back in 2009, my best friend Casey was with me. While I was giddily photographing the insides and outsides of the aircraft, he had the foresight to document the tailfin numbers and identifying marks of each of the planes. This came in handy about two years later when I was contacted by LCdr Gordy. A. Bonnel, USN(ret), the head of RAFS (Real Aviators Flew Stoofs). The term “Stoof” is slang for the popular model number of the Gruman Tracker “S2F”. RAFS represents over 6000 pilots who specifically flew these Gruman S2 trackers both commercially and with the Navy. Gordy had seen my images of the trackers and had written me asking if he could share the images with his members. Of course, I was honored! A few months later I had Casey round up the images of the tailfin numbers and I sent them to Gordy who forwarded them to his pilots. Within days the pilots had scoured their flight logs and we had the names of pilots who had flown every single plane in the graveyard at one point in their career! I was even able to speak with some of them personally and listen to their stories. It was an amazing cross generational connection.
Over the following months George Verney, one of the pilots that identified the planes as ones that he had flown, began going through his archives and found historical photos of these specific planes when they were in operation. He also did a full 55 page write up about how these planes came to St. Augustine.
The following images, and text are used courtesy of, and with permission from George Verney:
The transfer of Grumman S-2E tracker aircraft from storage at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona was actually generated by the fall of Iran and the takeover of that government by Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition to Khomeini’s taking of hostages at our embassy, he shut down all other U. S. installations in Iran including listening posts at the border with the Soviet Union. This action prompted the U. S. government to approach the Turkish government and ask to establish replacement posts in those areas of Turkey bordering the USSR.
The Turkish navy had been operating S-2s for several years and wanted to upgrade their fleet. Sensing themselves to be in a position of strength in the negotiations with the U. S. State Department, they not only asked for eighteen S-2Es but also specified they be delivered to the Naval Station Mayport in Florida… The USN was not happy about this unusual Turkish arrangement. Nonetheless, the navy was told to make it happen and contracting for the service was the next best alternative. That job fell to the S-2 Weapons System Manager (WSM) located at the Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF), Jacksonville.
My employer in 1983 was Logistic Services International, Inc. (LSI)…and was well known to the WSM office because of our S-2 training programs… We were contacted about our interest in ferrying the airplanes from Tucson Arizona to the Mayport station in Florida. Thus began an extended adventure which lasted until June of 1987 when the last two aircraft were delivered to NAS Genghis Topel in Turkey.
Some of the aircraft had been sitting on the desert floor for up to fourteen years. They were preserved to the extent that SPRAYLAT (the cocooning covers) was applied only to areas where water and debris intrusion could occur. They were not fully cocooned. The team had many dealings with the WSM and Davis Air Force folks getting replacements for components which had suffered from their time on the open desert. Some engines had not been properly preserved; some main landing gear assemblies had been damaged or cannibalized. It was the USN’s responsibility to provide us with aircraft that could be made worthy of the one-time ferry provision. Not surprisingly, a good deal of extra work had to be done.
As LSI and WIA prepared to begin ferry operations, LSI was approached by the Turkish Navy asking if we were interested in extending our ferry contract to fly the aircraft all the way to Turkey…. (This) set off further discussions between the WSM office, Grumman St. Augustine Corporation (GSAC), LSI and other potential overhaul providers. While a final resolution was being ironed out, an interim destination for the Trackers now called for them to be flown to NAS Jacksonville instead of Mayport.
In early October 1984 Chip Beedle, John Whitmore and myself (George Verney) arrived in Tucson along with three LSI mechanics to ferry three S-2Es across the country to NAS Jacksonville. Right away we encountered frustration – of an unexpected variety. Tucson experienced heavy rains just prior to our arrival and we were unable to tow the aircraft from WIA’s facility across the desert floor to the hard stand next to Davis-Monthan’s runways. Rain water soaks quite slowly into a hard packed desert floor and it takes the sun days rather than hours before a muddy slurry dissipates… So despite clear blue skies, there was nothing to do but wait for the sun to do its job. Finally on October 5th all three Trackers lifted off from Davis-Monthan…
Chip and John had crossed from Tucson to Ellington unable to communicate with anyone on the ground or with each other. On arrival at Ellington they entered the break rocking wings to signal their loss of communications. The tower gave them green lights and they came aboard only to be met by Air Force brass and the FAA! What they had not known was the Air Force Thunderbird flight demonstration team had been practicing for an air show to be flown the next day and the unscheduled and unannounced arrival of two S-2s disrupted the practice. It is not clear how Chip and John calmed the situation but I have always thought the FAA and Air Force folks felt sorry for them when they saw the condition of what they were flying!
I finally led a three plane departure in the only airplane with operable radio communications. Still, none of the three airplanes could communicate with one another… The weather was good all across the Gulf coast and we reached NAS Jacksonville after 5.3 hours of flight time. As John Whitmore touched down at NAS a main mount tire blew and he had to taxi clear of the runway in that condition because, without communications, he could not advise the tower of his problem.
Clearly, this was not a problem free trip. Nonetheless, we learned a good deal about the challenges and did succeed in bringing three S-2E Trackers from Arizona to Florida.
In January 1985… the remaining eleven S-2s at Tucson were left for John and I to bring across. Twice John and I flew as a flight of two aircraft but more often only one S-2 was available and we crossed in a single airplane. These flights were enjoyable. Mostly low altitude trips using a combination of visual and airways navigation which afforded us great views of the southern USA and the gulf coast. John brought six airplanes, including BUNO #149260 which many years later was photographed by free-lance photographer, Walter Arnold, and awarded a prize by film producer Ron Howard. I brought the other five.
As the New Year began, no decision had been made as to which facility would be awarded the overhaul contract so we continued until the end of March to terminate our cross country flights at NAS Jacksonville, eventually staging a total of eleven S-2s along a taxi way on the north side of the field. Once Grumman St. Augustine, now Northrup-Grumman, secured the overhaul contract… the Tucson trips could now terminate at the St. Augustine Airport, SGJ. It was decided that the most economical means of getting the aircraft from NAS to SGJ was by barge as can be seen in the photo which appeared in The Florida Times Union showing nine S-2s passing under Jacksonville’s Main Street Bridge enroute to St. Augustine via the St. Johns River and the Intracoastal Canal.
In the spring of 1985 the overhaul contract was finally signed between the Grumman St. Augustine Corporation and the Turkish government… LSI was also awarded a separate contract to ferry S-2Es after completing overhaul at St. Augustine to the Turkish Naval Air Station, Ghengis Topel. LSI’s contract called for the ferry flights to begin as soon as aircraft completed overhaul. LSI was required to ferry as many as three aircraft at a time beginning in September 1985 and continuing over the winter months into the following year.
By late September of 1986 the first three S-2Es were declared ready for ferry to Turkey. The folks at Grumman jumped through any number of bureaucratic hoops as they schmoozed U. S. Custom officials into ‘going out of their way’ and traveling to St. Augustine to ‘inspect’ the airplanes and provide the necessary General Declarations for all three aircraft and one spare. Ownership of the aircraft enroute seemed to be a nearly insurmountable problem for these officials. The airplanes had USN insignia applied in shadow which could be easily obliterated once in Turkey, while on the nose a large circle enclosed the fouled anchor found on all Turkish naval aircraft. I think customs finally decided to just remain confused.
September 25, 1986 was the big day; first departure from St. Augustine Airport for NAS Brunswick, Maine, final destination: Ghengis Topel Naval Air Station, Turkey. Having significantly increased the S-2s range with the addition of 255 gallons of AVGAS, our routing to Turkey was simplified but every leg would be at least 4.5 hours with several extending to over seven hours. Planned routing took us from St. Augustine direct to NAS Brunswick, Maine. From there we went to St. Johns Newfoundland, then to Lajes in Portugal (the longest over water leg at 1250 miles). From Lajes the next stop was NAS Rota, Spain. Out of Rota we planned to take advantage of our extra fuel and fly straight across the Mediterranean Sea, cross Sicily and land at NAS Sigonella in Italy. The sixth and last leg would head northeast from Sigonella to cross the Ionian Sea and enter Greek airspace just south of the Albanian border. This leg took us across Greece to the western border of Turkey and on into Topel which lies a few miles east of the Turkish Naval Base at Gurlchuk.
The following are excerpts of events transpiring over the course of a year flying the S2’s transatlantic to Turkey:
“…it was on this trip where we encountered the Sicilian Judge. (After flying from Portugal, to Sigonella Italy, we had just arrived at the Sigonella Inn to spend the night) A number of cars pulled in ahead of us as we arrived… As we piled out in our flight gear, carrying parachute bags we were immediately surrounded by a group of young men in bad suits carrying Uzis. One of the cars at the entrance carried a Sicilian Judge who was speaking at a big event that night at the Inn. The Uzi guys were his personal body guards and the sight of four guys in strange outfits carrying large bags made them quite nervous until they realized we were not gunmen out to dispatch his honor. Later that night we could spot some of those same young men patrolling the grounds, complete with Uzis, in a scene right out of The Godfather.”
“This last leg took us northeast past Mt. Etna and across the Ionian Sea to the Greek FIR where we succeeded in making contact with Athens Control. We were now level at, I think, 9,000′ and with Larry Akins in the left seat for this leg, I went aft to switch the valve on the 55 gallon aux tank. Next thing I know Larry is motioning for me to get back up front. A Hellenic F-4 Phantom had intercepted us and the pilot was making close aboard passes while taking photos with a hand held camera for his scrap book…” “…As we entered the Greek FIR we were once again intercepted by one of their F-4s but this time the pilot did not get so darn close. The Greek Air Force intercepted each of our flights to Turkey unless the weather was bad or we came through on a weekend.”
“…Crossing Greece required a climb to thirteen thousand feet in order to clear the Greek Alps. Since we carried no oxygen, we limited our time at that altitude to only what was necessary over the western half of the country. Fortunately, the weather was excellent and the scenery beautiful on this leg…”
Over the next year eleven of the Gruman S-2E’s had been successfully delivered to the Turkish Navy.
Eight of the S2’s originally taken from Tuscon were declared unfit for trans-Atlantic flight and decommissioned in the subsequent years. They were purchased by a man in St. Augustine who parked them in a small plot of land off the side of highway 1 and cannibalized them for parts. The planes sat there for almost 25 years until in May of 2011 when the land changed hands and the new owner had them all destroyed for scrap.
To bring this story a full 360 degrees, I had the honor of meeting George Verney in person at the Gainesville Fall Arts Festival in November of 2013. I can’t even begin to say what an honor it was to meet the man that was personally connected to these planes!