Where do ships and planes go to die? | Graveyards as micronations

“At Alang, in India, on a six-mile stretch of oily, smoky beach, 40,000 men tear apart half of the world’s discarded ships, each one a sump of toxic waste. Environmentalists in the West are outraged. The shipbreakers, of course, want to be left alone –and maybe they should be.”
This is how William Langewiesche starts his story The Shipbreakers, a report from Alang [India, see image above] where massive ships are torn apart by hand and turned into scrap metal.

The shipyards at Alang recycle approximately half of all ships salvaged around the world, as we can read here. The yards are located on the Gulf of Khambat, 50 kilometres southeast of Bhavnagar. Environmentalists complain that before shipbreaking began there in June 1983 the beach at Alang was pristine and unspoiled. However, locals say that the work provides a reasonably paid job by local standards, with a steady income used to support their families.

Alang. Caption from Google Earth

This is just one among hundreds of histories that talk about ships or planes graveyards. And is interesting to think how these huge graveyards transform the local communities where they are placed. This is the case of Nouadhibou, Mauritania and it’s ironic to read that the ships’ graveyard is quoted as a turistic attraction. Does it makes any sense?

It is suppossed that such a practice is now less common due to waste regulations and so some dry docks where ships are dismantled [to recycle their metal and remove dangerous materials like asbestos] are also known as ship graveyards. But as we can see in some journalist’s work e.g. Mark Lewis, this is a current and dangerous practice. But focusing also on cities, towns and land use, it’s easy to imagine how these big graveyards has environmental and urban implications. When a ship is beached, it’s met out at sea by the beaching captain and is then sailed a few miles out to sea, turned towards the land, and, at as high a speed as possible is driven onto the shore. The closer it ends up to the high water mark, the easier and cheaper she will be to scrap. And this is how shorelines start its transformation.

Nouadhibou, Mauritania. Caption from Google Earth.

Nouadhibou, Mauritania. Caption from Google Earth.

The towns around ship’s graveyards live completely linked to shipbreaking practices; ecosystem in these areas has been nearly destroyed. The land around the graveyards is heavily polluted and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems. Is there a possible solution to these problems? What happens when we talk about entropy and the life cycle of ships?

It’s really interesting to think that in the near future ships can be done with some kind of materials that will be able to feed the sea once they finish their “life” or even more interesting that they can be used as floating cities, creating permanent dwellings at sea. Until now, most proposed seasteads have been modified cruising vessels; so why not use cargo ships for these means?

One of seven rafts of tethered ships in the Reserve Fleet of Suisun Bay, California, the largest Ghost Fleet left in the country. CLUI photo

Almost the same concepts can be handled when we talk about airplanes graveyards. Airplane graveyards are not just a fence around piles of out dated scrap metal, millions of dollars of surplus parts are salvaged to keep other active aircraft flying. We can think of this place as a huge warehouse for all types of spare parts. At the Airplane Graveyard at Davis Monthan Airforce Base we can read this story collected story from visitors:

“Every pilot I have ever talked to wants to visit but never does. It’s kind of like an elephant graveyard, mysterious, exciting, a place where all kids dreams go. I think that’s why not many of the pilots I’ve talked to have ever really tried to visit.”

Most famous airplane graveyard is Davis–Monthan Air Force Base that was established in 1925. It is striking to see the aerial views and how the graveyard mixes up with residential zones or even with natural parks as Cedar-Gooves Park. The land of the graveyard is separated from urban areas by just a road e. g. 5 Kolbi Rd. at the East side or E. Escalante Rd. to the North.

Davis Monthan Air Force Base Overview 20 Meter GSD

Davis Monthan Air Force Base. Caption from Google Earth.

While surfing through Google Earth, it looks like neighbours can be swimming in their pools at their private homes at the same moment that the airplanes are reaching land for their last flight. The area has a dry, clear and virtually smog-free climate that helps minimize corrosion. It has an alkaline soil so firm that airplanes can be towed and parked on the surface without sinking… great place for a plane to die, but for living?

Another notable airplane graveyard is located in Southern California, at the Mojave Airport, where retired planes are cannibalized for spare parts. Although fenced off with concertina wire and patrolled regularly, it is still possible to walk up to the fence and peer at the many abandoned aircraft.

We can finish this overview going on with the same question, why not use cargo ships or old airplanes for living? We have always dreamed about floating and flying cities and architects, designers and artist had created them starting from nothing. Now that we have these infrastructures, it’s possible to imagine floating and flying micronations as a linked network with an utopian vision. It is just as if we want to keep alive Jonathan Swift‘s dream to inhabitat Laputa, the fictional flying island with an adamantine base, that can be maneuvered by its inhabitants in any direction using magnetic levitation.

It’s possible to think that in the future we can go from this:

to this:

After visiting Archigram’s exhibition Archigram: Experimental Architecture, 1961-74 in Valladolid [post coming soon!] we just came back yesterday with the feeling that utopias are still alive and that the things we dream today can be real in the future.

Further reading:

– About the movie by Michael Kot Shipbreakers
American Ship Breaking: It All Comes Apart at the Bottom of America
– More about airplanes graveyards at Desert USA


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