David Sirota visits the atomic sites of the American Southwest for an inside look at a booming—and potentially radioactive—new travel industry
Author David Sirota Photography Bryon Darby
On a swath of sun-baked Arizona desert on the southern edge of Tucson, a diverse group of curious Cold War obsessives—myself included—is suffering a 105-degree Monday morning as we queue up to board a bus that will take us back in time.
Among the scrum are a camera-wielding British couple dressed like they’re on safari, a group of Russians sporting thick coffeehouse beards, a pair of Korean War vets wearing matching American Legion caps and me. I’ve made the trek to the American Southwest’s “Nuclear Trail” out of a sense of nostalgia for the uneasy times of my childhood.
As the bus takes us to the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which holds some of the most powerful weaponry in human history, we are required to show identification and to sign a form acknowledging that we may undergo additional security screening. I’m standing behind a beefy, heavily belt-buckled man in his 60s from Buffalo, New York. He was a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in West Berlin from 1969 to ’71, so it’s more than appropriate to call him a Cold War veteran. As he leans on his cane, he reminisces about his tour of duty with our guide, Bob Ratledge, himself a 74-year-old former Air Force pilot.
“They fired at us just to let us know they were there, and we shot back for the same reason,” says the guy from Buffalo, recalling his time flying American spies over the Berlin Wall. “Of course, we always had the nuclear stuff in the back of our minds,” he adds with a chuckle.
That “nuclear stuff” is why many of us are here. The Pima Air & Space Museum and its tour through the nearby Air Force base are part of the growing Atomic Tourism industry, which—thanks to the more than 20 years that have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent declassification of inactive nuclear weapons—is booming. Add to that a sense that we’re finally at a safe distance from the uneasy peace that the U.S. shared with the Soviets, and sites like Nevada’s National Atomic Testing Museum and New Mexico’s National Museum of Nuclear Science & History have in recent years reported 12 to 20 percent bumps in weekend attendance. Pima itself sees 150,000 visitors a year. Meanwhile, websites like Atomic Traveler are attracting tens of thousands of hits a month and, just two years ago, Bloomsbury USA published a critical nonfiction hit titled, A Nuclear Family Vacation.
As the bus makes its way to Pima, Ratledge addresses the tour with a microphone. Burly and avuncular with gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses, he resembles Ernest Borgnine circa the mid-’80s TV adventure drama “Airwolf”—an appropriate reference considering we’re in close proximity to much of the world’s military airpower. To the west is the Arizona Air National Guard, to the south of that is the defense contractor Raytheon Missile Systems, and we’re currently coming up on the checkpoint for Davis-Monthan—home of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), where martial aircraft are either refurbished or left idle in a place locals call “the Boneyard.”
“Tucson was selected for AMARG and lots of other aviation-related activity because there’s very little rain and humidity and so there’s less erosion of the equipment,” Ratledge says in his North Carolina twang, quickly dismissing conspiracy theories that the Southwest’s connection to the military has to do with aliens landing at Roswell. “There’s also the caliche clay in the soil, which means the heavy aircraft don’t end up sinking into the ground.”
Once through the checkpoint, the bus rolls onto 2,600 acres of scrub brush lined with some 4,000 planes. Against these hulking fuselages covered with heat-resistant polymer, the majestic Rincon mountain range in the distance suddenly looks tiny.
“Over here is a full mile of C-130s,” Ratledge says, pointing to a long row of transport planes. “And over there is the F-111, which President Reagan used to bomb Ghadafi in Libya.” This last bit spurs a 50-something behind me to pull his iPhone out of his floral shirt’s breast pocket and snap a picture.
“Remember where we were when we heard that news?” he whispers to his wife. “Crazy that it was that long ago.” Rumbling past the pointy-nosed F-14s and F-15s, a beefy 50-something in an Army T-shirt eagerly asks Ratledge whether “these are the ones that can carry nukes?” Yes, our guide says somberly, these “can carry both conventional and atomic weapons,” his answer prompting a multilingual murmur of excitement through the cabin.
Notably, Ratledge couches his description of all the firepower not in belligerent language, but in a more measured story of potential wars successfully deterred. Once off the base and back on civilian land, I ask him about that, wondering what visitors are supposed to take away from seeing all this lethal power up close.
“Look, people get excited by the power of these planes and weapons, and it’s true, they can kill lots of people,” he says with a knowing sigh. “But there’s another side that we should all remember—their potential power kept us out of World War III. I think visitors here get to see that. They recognize that if we hadn’t had this power, who knows what would have happened?”
Thankfully, direct combat with the Soviets played itself out more in the 1980s pop cultural arena than on the battlefield. Following the incredibly intense hockey game between the U.S. and the Soviets
at the 1980 Winter Olympics, Rocky Balboa squared off against Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and, in the WWF, Hulk Hogan regularly took Nikolai Volkoff to the mat. And let’s not forget the television movie “The Day After,” which 30 years ago scared up some of the biggest Nielsen ratings in TV history. The Pima Air & Space Museum is certainly aware of the pop cultural context. Indeed, in its hangars, every plane that has appeared in a blockbuster film is displayed next to its corresponding movie poster.
“We want to give visitors a frame of reference they can relate to,” says Mary Emich, Pima’s director of visitor services. “There’s no better way to do that than through Hollywood.” On my own self-guided tour of the museum’s nearly 200,000 square feet, I come across a nuclear-capable F-14 Tomcat with its attendant poster of Top Gun, a UH-1 helicopter next to a poster of Apocalypse Now, and two 11-foot-high nuclear missile casings accompanying a shrine to the film Dr. Strangelove.
Strangelove, of course, was a reaction to the duck-and-cover hysteria that predictably followed 1963’s Cuban Missile Crisis. It was, in part, Hollywood’s way of satirizing such a potentially catastrophic non-event. The military had a much less cheeky reaction—one buried next to a lonely road 30 miles south of here, just before you hit the Mexican border.