Unless otherwise stated, all photography courtesy of Walter Arnold
Like something dreamt up by the writers of Lost, it hits all the right switches for those spellbound by remoteness and abandonment; for those anxious that the world offers nowhere deserted and derelict for a greater good: the need for the human mind to explore the unknown. Founded in 1565, the small Floridian city of St. Augustine is the oldest port in the continental US, and a fitting location for the secret it holds: an airplane graveyard, where the strewn skeletal remains of aircraft lie – the carcasses of an almost forgotten past.
Somewhere near St. Augustine Airport is a property surrounded by a wire fence overrun with sprawling foliage. From across the highway that runs alongside this place, the giant tailfins of at least eight hulking great war planes from bygone days emerge from the stranglehold of trees and dense undergrowth. They might look threatening if there weren’t something so wretched about the way they are slowly but relentlessly being conquered by the untamed nature around them.
To cross the threshold of this overgrown lot is trespassing – occupied houses nearby make discretion a must – yet this hasn’t deterred a flow of photographers and urban explorers. Indeed this haunting spot seems to exert a gravitational pull. The closer you get to the decrepit shells of the airplanes left to rot in this rusting cemetery, the stronger the strange spell of decaying man-made technology set against the steady growth of plant life taking over again – like a vision of the future.
Plus, the buzz of exploration is only heightened by the threat of getting caught. “As we stepped through the brush we walked on and around old pieces of the planes, tires, wings, control boxes, and the occasional beer can,” writes photo-essayist Walter Arnold. “At the first plane I came to I saw that, being aircraft carrier planes, the wings were folded over the top. The engines and propellers had been removed from this particular plane and the nose was missing, but the fuselage was intact.”
The planes are in fact Grumman S2 Trackers, naval bombers from the '60s and '70s said to have been in their present sepulchral location for some fifteen years. Years of neglect may have encouraged weeds, vines and other vegetation to grow up inside the bodies of these machines, but they were once shining new, state-of-the-art anti-submarine aircraft – one of the first types purpose-built to carry either detection gear or weapons for seeking out and destroying underwater targets.
These particular planes were also designed to perform photo reconnaissance work, as Arnold observes. The planes, like the property, are owned by a local resident who bought them and stripped them of parts to sell to Grumman – a major employer in the area. What’s here is what’s left. Despite bombed out cockpits and metal parts laid bare or hazardously projecting, the S2s remain just about stable – though anyone climbing inside would understandably fear their collapse.
Continuing his exploration of the site, Arnold writes: “As we walked under the wing, we came to a small access hatch that was barely big enough for a hobbit to step through without ducking. I stuck my head inside the plane and looked around. The interior of the midsection of the plane had been stripped of all equipment leaving bundles of wire hanging from empty compartments like jungle vines.” Metal and plant matter appear to merge in the airplane graveyard – a cyborg dream.
Once inside the carcass he had chosen to investigate, stooped down Arnold inched his way forward through the fuselage and into the cockpit where, he writes: “What I saw was sheer beauty. Over the years, vines had wound their way up through the windows and skeletal nose of the plane and draped the inside of the deteriorated cockpit. The seats had long ago been stripped of their padding and were now bare metal repositories for dead leaves and debris.”
“Half of the windows were still intact and hazed over by years of grime and fungus, and the other half were either gone completely or partially shattered, giving a broken jagged view of the other sleeping planes half hidden in the surrounding trees and undergrowth. The instrument panels were largely stripped of gauges and dials... Levers, switches, wires, and buttons speckled the ceiling of the cockpit. With the nose of the plane removed you could see right through to the ground below.”
It’s a view the planes in this aircraft cemetery had better get used to. As vines wrap themselves inexorably around their controls, increasingly indistinguishable from the wirings of these once proud hulks of the skies, the earth will become their home – the earth from whence they came.
To read more about Walter Arnold's adventure in the Airplane Graveyard of St. Augustine and see more of his photography of the place click here.