“I shouldn’t be here.” That’s all I could think as I brought my camera to my eye to frame a shot overlooking the massive expanse of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. I was in a Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter, the door removed at my request. The sun had barely risen over the north Texas landscape as we approached what is typically one of the busiest airports in the world.
Normally, at our altitude and heading, air traffic control would urgently contact us with concern about our intentions. But this morning? Silence. A quick transmission from our pilot to air traffic control was met with, “Approved as requested. Stay west of the tower and advise when leaving the field.” The entire west half of DFW Airport was ours to explore.
Usually I’d be thrilled for this opportunity, but not today. The COVID-19 pandemic has functionally destroyed commercial aviation. Almost overnight air passenger demand plummeted 95%.
The jets are sitting stagnant in what are usually bustling airports, yet no one was covering these jets from an artistic perspective. So, I decided to. Two weeks. Six airports. More than 7,500 images captured. As a photographer I’m not only an artist, but a storyteller. These grounded jets tell not only a story, but one with an uncertain ending, and I wanted to use my cameras to find beauty in what is a devastating scene for those in the aviation industry.
American Airlines celebrated new flight attendant uniforms in early March but, just one month later, the airline was fighting for its very survival. Facing no choice, it joined its peers and parked jets around the country, including at its home base of Dallas/Fort Worth. Today, American Airlines jets were the reason the doors were off of the helicopter.
DFW wasn’t my first airport visit. It was my fourth. And yet, the sight of so many grounded planes still took my breath away. As the pilot and I worked together to find the perspectives I needed, I saw compositions of symmetry and negative space that were never possible before because the airport was so busy.
We flew out to the side of the line of aircraft and then directly over them.
What is normally an oft-used taxiway has become a parking lot. But not forever. These jets will fly again.
While my day at DFW Airport probably had the biggest impact on me during this project (it’s my home airport, after all), my first helicopter ride for this story actually took place just a few miles northwest over Fort Worth’s Alliance Airport.
When I heard Spirit Airlines began storing jets there, this concept and project weighed heavy on my heart. I knew I wanted to find something beautiful in all of this, so I chartered a helicopter and went up with a planespotting friend for a proof of concept. I was prepared to take pictures, but I wasn’t prepared for the gravity of these photos, even from a line of only eight aircraft.
There was symmetry. There was beauty.
The concept worked. It was a melancholy beauty, but it was still beautiful. I had to continue with this project, for no other reason than to honor the determination of these airlines. The world will recover and these jets will fly again.
American Airlines jets at its largest maintenance base
As I planned helicopter flights over other airports, I faced a bit of a transportation conundrum. Flight cancellations were running rampant across the country. I decided to make the trips by driving, fully embracing the irony of driving to airports in order to fly OVER them to photograph grounded planes meant to be in the air.
It seemed fitting fly over Tulsa International Airport to see American jets, as American’s Tulsa Maintenance Base is the largest maintenance base in the world. It made sense for the aircraft to be placed there while American’s operation began to try and fix the carnage caused by Coronavirus. We approached from the south, with a welcome by air traffic controllers that almost felt eager for action.
I thought I was ready to see the sitting jets – I had handled seeing eight Spirit jets just fine – but I wasn’t ready for what I saw. Jets were everywhere. Any spare space available was occupied by aircraft.
These weren’t just the little aircraft either. I was flying directly over a significant portion of American’s international widebody fleet.
I looked through my viewfinder and noticed the jets parked above skidmarks left by the tires of landing aircraft. It’s ironic how what is meant to be an active runway was now relegated to storage.
We made one more lap around the field and I noticed a row of Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft grounded. How sad it was that the 787 and 777s next to them shared the same fate.
As we completed our final orbit over TUL, we heard a very uncommon request to air traffic control. A plane was actually departing! We were in perfect position to capture the American 737 as it took to the skies.
It was almost as if the departing 737 was meant to inspire its grounded sisters in the background, for these jets will fly again.
To the Desert of Arizona
This project isn’t just about American or Spirit. This crisis has affected every airline in the world, some of which will shut down forever. The desert was calling.
Tucson is a beautiful Arizona town surrounded by Saguaro cacti forests. It’s also quite a drive from Dallas. Nevertheless, my brother and I hopped in my Tesla and made our way across Texas and New Mexico (stopping along the way to take an epic picture of an art installation called Prada Marfa). We arrived tired and weary to Tucson.
As the evening sun descended towards the hilly horizon, I drove to the small community of Marana to catch another helicopter ride. This time I was joined by a great friend who I met on the Sony Kando Trip in Oregon last year. Our target? Pinal Airpark. Once a quiet, un-towered landing strip and aircraft boneyard, it was now supposedly overflowing with aircraft.
I had to see for myself. How can a desert be full? It didn’t take long to find out.
I’ve never seen so many jets parked next to, and seemingly on top of, each other. The assorted JetBlue vertical stabilizer designs cast a blue line through a sea of jetliners. It was truly an amazing sight. The primary residents were JetBlue, Air Canada, and some Delta widebodies, not to mention the many retired Delta 747s sitting in the boneyard, a sad sight in its own right.
The angles and lines made it look as if the ground crews placed these jets specifically for photographers like me. Really, the jets are lined up as efficiently as possible, with mere feet separating a wing from a fuselage.
Air Canada jets littered the field, from a cavalcade of Air Canada Rogue jets to rows of grounded 737 Max 8s.
American, seemingly ever-present, had some of their regional aircraft placed at Pinal.
We gained some altitude and saw the true scale of the storage facility. I immediately answered my own question. If a desert could feel full, it was here in the filled airpark.
We made our way back to Marana, passing by another group of American Eagle aircraft, formerly owned by Compass and assumed by American Airlines. It was a gut punch, as a friend of mine flies these jets. I had to reel in my excitement of the photos I was capturing. These jets reminded me the gravity of this crisis.
As we landed amidst a desert sunset, I tried to reminded myself to stay positive. We will recover from this. These jets will fly again.
Delta Symmetry in Kansas City
Once back in Dallas, I hopped in my car and made my way north again. This time, past Tulsa and into Missouri. I skipped the hotel and slept during Tesla charging stops until I arrived at a small airfield in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, for my penultimate flight.
My buddy Ryan, who is also one of the most talented planespotters on Instagram, was going to drive down and meet me so we could fly together over Kansas City. Sadly he came down with a dreadful case of food poisoning the night before, so I was on my own.
So, why Kansas City?
Eighty-six Delta jets arranged in one of the most stunning, symmetrical lines I’ve ever seen. Tulsa and Pinal took my breath away, but they had nothing on Kansas City.
Every orbit we made around the field unveiled a new perspective of the jets. It would’ve been epic if it weren’t so sad. These jets should’ve been airborne, carrying 15,000 passengers to vacations, business meetings, and family reunions. Instead they sat silently, their windows taped off to prevent sun from damaging the cockpit.
We continued to gain altitude in search of a different perspective.
Delta jets weren’t the only ones on the ground. Air Canada made another appearance, with a group of 767s (whose permanent retirement, sadly, has since been announced).
Our final orbit around the field culminated in one of the most visually stunning and emotionally intense images of the entire project.
Years from now, these images will represent a dark history from which Delta has recovered. These jets will fly again.
The Final Flight
I had completed what I thought was my last flight and was driving back to Dallas when I received a text from my buddy Ryan who let me know United had begun storing jets at Bush Intercontinental in Houston. I didn’t have a choice. To Houston I went.
I picked up my mom for the trip to Houston, where we’d stay with relatives. My dear Uncle Mike was excited to be joining me for chartered flight.
Before the heat of the day could set in, we departed from West Houston Airport toward Bush Intercontinental. Air traffic control was as agreeable as ever, which still felt astonishing for how busy of an airport we were flying over. Then, off in the distance, I saw them.
What seemed like a small group of planes at first glance quickly grew into an entire taxiway of them.
At the end of the field we turned around for a look down the line. Old and new liveries. Large and small aircraft. They should’ve been in the air with us.
I always look back as we leave the field. The sun cast a beautiful light over these incredible machines as we eased back towards the west. I was glad I looked back. I was glad I came here.
It was an amazing two weeks. I drove 4,232 miles across six states, flew in six Robinson R44 Raven II helicopters, took 7500 pictures, and somehow was blessed with incredible weather the entire trip. I’m grateful for the chance to tell the story of these jets and the women and men who fly them.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American Airlines CEO Don Carty famously said, “Airlines tear down walls, blur borders, and help erase ignorant stereotypes. We are the engine that powers the free flow of people, ideas, goods, hugs, fun, and love. Not only that, but we’re ambitious, we’re diverse and we’re strong. We can be unwieldy, we don’t always get along, but we band together when it counts. We are free, we are determined, and we are not afraid.”
There will be recovery. There will be renewal. And these jets will fly again.
I couldn’t have made this project happen without my friends at Epic Helicopters in Fort Worth, Texas. I’ve flown with them for five years now and they’ve never once hesitated when I come to them with crazy ideas. They put their heads down and figure out how to make it happen. Without their partnership over the years I wouldn’t have been prepared for a project like this.
Additionally, I can’t say thanks enough to the helicopter operators who flew a random dude from Dallas over random airports. I had a specific set of altitudes I needed to get to for each shot and they were all wonderful partners on our flights.
I’d also like to thank the countless friends and family who provided feedback along the way and guided my path on this project. I know the subject matter is hard to see but I think the end result was worth it.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: Thank you to the countless airline team members fighting through these tough times. My hope and prayers are for demand to come back quickly so I can see you in the skies again soon. You will fly again.
About the author: Andy Luten is a Dallas-based travel photographer and blogger whose popular travel blog shares the wonder and joy of traveling. To see more from Luten, visit Andy’s Travel Blog or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram. This post was also published here.
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