Aircraft Crash History in Arizona and the Southwest

I find that Arizona has a long and fascinating military aviation history of training and developing pilots and aircrews that dates back to World War II. Sunny skies and plenty of open, unpopulated land made Arizona a perfect place to accommodate numerous airfields. At the height of aircrew training in World War II there were 17 major airfields, half of which remained open throughout the Cold War. Only three remain open today.

With so many aircraft in the skies, whether under the control of new or experienced pilots, accidents were a certainty. They happened frequently, and sometimes ended tragically with the loss of the pilots and aircrew.

Most of these sites were cleaned up as thoroughly as possible given the resources available at the time. At a few crash sites, far away from populated areas in remote locations, clean-up was simply not considered practical and the wreckage was left after the recovery crews removed the aircrew’s remains, bombsights, and other classified equipment. Many sites from the 1940’s and 1950’s were left intact if they were located in a remote mountain area. Unfortunately, most were scrapped by aluminum salvagers who would melt down the fuselage and wings into ingots and transport it out on mules, leaving behind only the landing gear, engines, and other scattered non-aluminum parts. The military used the highest grade aluminum for which recyclers paid a high price, and that was incentive enough for these men to camp out months on end to melt it down and pack it out.

As an outdoor enthusiast, I enjoy hiking around the state looking for these old crash sites and photographing the historical aviation remnants of the past. I find a great deal of adventure in hiking out into the mountains, miles away from anyone or any roads, armed with nothing but a map and a backpack while attempting to locate an old crash site. Regardless of how much or how little of the aircraft is left, I find that no two sites are the same-- each has its own unique story.

However, finding the crash sites is only half of the puzzle. The other half, tracking down the pilots and aircrews and interviewing them, has also been well worth the challenge. I have established new friendships, gained first-hand knowledge of what transpired from someone who was actually on board, and have gratefully accumulated a collection of original crash photographs and other memorabilia. 

Clearly, most of the crashes are from WWII through the1950’s when a high number of airfields were still operating. Of the approximately 1,100 military aircraft crashes in Arizona from WWII to present, over 850 occurred before January, 1960. The number has steadily decreased over the years as pilot training and aircraft maintenance have greatly improved.

Finding these obscure crash sites can be challenging to say the least, and the proverbial phrase, “needle in the haystack” fittingly applies. Despite my repeated attempts, there are still quite a few sites that have managed to elude me (much to my frustration), but that comes with the territory!

Should you visit a crash site, remember to first obtain a permit or the proper permission before hiking on Indian reservations and other private property. Please be respectful of the site and courteous to others that may visit. I am occasionally surprised by those who choose to litter, as well as ruin a piece of history simply to satisfy their curiosity of finding out what a shotgun blast does to aircraft aluminum.

Here are a few stories that I have chosen from the 400 crash sites I have visited over the years. With so many fascinating stories, it was really a challenge to pick a select few to write about.  I did not reveal specific crash locations for a number of reasons. Besides, half of the adventure is in hiking out there yourself and trying to locate the site! If you are aware of a site and have questions regarding it, contact me-- I should be able to give you some answers. email HERE