July 21, 2016

Photo Essay: The Abandoned Morton Air Academy at Gary Field

Uh oh.

That's what I thought when our rental car came to a sluggish halt in the middle of what appeared to be a wash in the Mojave Desert, still on the California side of the Colorado River.

Photo: Google Satellite View

We were looking for the Morton Air Academy, one of our checkpoints on the Rental Car Rally. We'd plugged all the addresses we could find into our GPS when we first departed LA close to midnight, but not everything was terribly accurate.

Photo: Google Satellite View

And we all were a bit frazzled, after having driven all night across Southern California, from Downtown Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley, across the Inland Empire into the low desert of Palm Springs and the Salton Sea. Somehow, I was still awake enough to take over behind the wheel as the sun came up and the rest of my team dozed off.

Photo: Robert Hemedes

But then the whole car woke up when I responded to the navigation by saying, "Here? Here?!" and stopped the car, which got us stuck in relatively deep sand. I tried to remain calm, because I'd been in this situation before. But we might've been doomed out there if one of our fellow teams hadn't arrived at that very moment and helped us get out.

Of course, I'd realized too late that we'd approached the old abandoned airfield from the wrong direction, and that the actual entrance to it was far simpler and less harrowing. In my haste, I parked the car at the opening of the chainlink fence, choosing to walk the rest of the way into the property. I didn't realize that I'd be blocking our opposing teams' access. It turned out to be a happy accident.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by some vandalism that read, "Welcome to Hell." And in that moment, we knew it would be good.

It's always a good adventure when broken glass abounds...

...and roofs are caved in...

...and you can see straight through the skeletons of buildings that have been stripped down to their bare bones blueprints.

But where were we, anyway?

We knew it was some kind of airport—called the W.R. Byron Airport after its most recent owner, Willard R. Byron—but based on its former name, it had also been some kind of military academy, too.

It turns out that cadets for the U.S. Army Air Forces (a predecessor to the U.S. Air Force) learned how to fly here from 1942 to 1944.

But by 1945, it had been decommissioned and designated surplus.

Some of it was put to use by Palo Verde Community College in the 1950s...

...continuing its focus on education...

...but it reverted to its use as an airfield in 1981...

...this time as a private one.

With an asphalt runway 2640 feet in length and 660 feet across, it could easily handle single-engine planes.

After all, the pilots-in-training learned how to fly on planes like the Ryan PT-22 Recruit and the Piper J-3 Cub.

Considering how long it's been out of commission, there are an incredible number of structures still standing at the airport, also known as Gary Field (named after the son of the Morton Academy's general manager).

The signs of life aren't all-too-distant.

Some people actually lived here.

But only one of the two arched roof hangars still exists, only the wood frame of the southern hangar still standing.

Unfortunately, its metal roof with the word "ACADEMY" painted on it was stripped sometime after 2004. And everything but the foundation of the northern hangar was removed sometime between 1953 and 1994.

Photo courtesy of Joe Russo

This piece of World War II history is disappearing at an alarming rate, so I'm glad we got to see it when we did. I wish we could've spent more time there, but there was a feeling amidst our team and all the teams that we had to rush our way through the Rally—even though we were actually being judged on our mileage and not our travel time.

Of course, getting stuck in the sand on the other side of the airport didn't help our odometer much.

But neither did turning back so we could meet the naked bookstore owner, either.

In the end, I think we had the experience we were supposed to have.

For more on the history of Gary Field, click here.

Related Posts:
A Last Resort
I Am Woman, Hear My Story
Photo Essay: Test Pilot Crash Sites in the Mojave Desert
Photo Essay: Desert Center Ghost Town
Photo Essay: Boron Air Force Station / Boron Federal Prison, Abandoned (Mostly)

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