MARANA -- You don’t know how big a 747 jet airplane is until you are standing on the ground next to it, looking up. It’s not the same as looking out the terminal window at an international airport. The plane’s length and wingspan are both more than 200 feet. The gap between the bottom of the plane’s belly and the ground below is enough to walk through without ducking. The tail stretches more than 60 feet into the sky.

Pinal Ways recently toured a 747 that has not been flown for more than 20 years. That old telephone receiver with the coiled cord that flight attendants picked up to say “fasten your seat belts” was off the hook, lying on the cabin floor. Plastic was stripped from much of the interior walls, revealing a silver insulation material. The cleaning crew hadn’t been through in a while. On one of the seats was a passenger comment card dated Jan. 8, 1997. “Upgrade your seats and interior equipment,” the prescient customer wrote. “This 747 is obsolete.”

That old 747 isn’t the only thing at Pinal Airpark that’s dead. So too is an era of secrecy and private control that kept the public wondering what was going on inside the 2.5-square-mile plot of land with all those airplanes on the side of Interstate 10.

Pinal Airpark, originally known as Marana Army Air Field, was built in 1942 to train pilots for World War II. It turned out 10,000 of them. The CIA, according to many reports, used the facility as its headquarters for Vietnam War operations.

Evergreen Helicopters, which later became part of Evergreen International Aviation, took over as the airpark’s sole lessee in the early 1970s. The “legendary CIA airline,” as Wired magazine called Evergreen, flew the Shah of Iran around in 1980 and ran missions in Afghanistan in 2002 before Operation Enduring Freedom, according to Wired.

“You could spend a full day and a case of beer talking about the history here,” said Jim Petty, the county’s airport manager. “A lot of it has been contentious and a lot of it has been dark. These days things have changed.”

The airpark is often referred to as a “boneyard” because many of the planes will never fly again. Dead airplanes are only part of it, though. About 800 people work either inside the airpark or the next-door Silverbell Army Heliport, a training site for helicopter pilots run by the state Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. Airpark tenants use the space for administration and training, and general aviation services such as fueling, maintenance, repairs and storage for operational planes. No taxpayer money is used to fund operations, Petty said. An enterprise fund, fed by grants and lease revenue, pays the bills.

Pinal Airpark is also a functioning airport. In 2016 it was named the Arizona Department of Transportation’s airport of the year after the upgrades and changes that started when the county got serious about addressing ongoing breaches of its agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration. For instance, the agreement says the county, which has owned the airpark since 1948, must run the facility as a “public airport.” That was impossible when the public couldn’t even get inside.

Under Evergreen, an armed guard and dogs manned the entrance at all times and ran off anyone who dared approach.

In 2012, Todd House was elected to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, and as quoted in an article on the county website, did not get a warm welcome.

“I took a trip out to the airport to see what was going on out there and I was turned away at the gate,” House said. “Here it is, we own the airpark and I couldn’t even enter it.”

Imagine how the average Joe was treated.

“If you didn’t have business in the airport, you weren’t getting in,” said Patrick Connell, general manager of Jet Yard, an aircraft storage and disassembly company that has operated out of the airpark since 2014. “They (Evergreen) had total control.”

Evergreen sold its maintenance operation to Marana Aerospace Solutions in 2011, and the following year MAS took over Evergreen’s lease. An Evergreen subsidiary subleased some land from MAS. (At the end of 2013, Evergreen International Airlines filed for bankruptcy protection.) An amended lease dated July 13, 2013, denied MAS exclusive use of the airpark, opening it up to other tenants.

“They (Evergreen/MAS) had to adjust to the new reality,” Petty said. “Installing that new reality with some people was tough.”

Management removed a sign that said “no photography — cameras can be confiscated,” but even so, guards still snarled at airplane enthusiasts who took photos through the chain-link fence around the perimeter. “The message that the public could take pictures didn’t filter down to the troops,” Petty said.

To combat the lingering feelings of secrecy, Petty started offering public tours in 2014. Because of the air field’s past links to the CIA, and the multitude of conspiracy websites on the internet, Petty occasionally gets nasty phone calls.

“We know you are spraying chemicals to control the civilian population. Stop or we’ll stop it for you,” the voice on the other end of the phone says. When another conspiracy theorist called and wanted a tour for his group, Petty welcomed them.

“I would rather confront that with transparency,” he said. “It’s necessary to change the view of what this place was to what it is now. That’s best accomplished by public engagement.”

In a display of that openness, Petty took Pinal Ways through some of the offices on site to meet representatives of the aviation company tenants. As recently as 2015, MAS was described as “publicity shy” in a news article. A year later Ascent Aviation Services took over MAS. When Pinal Ways visited, David Querio, president of Ascent, was welcoming.

“The airpark has really evolved,” he said. “It’s a public airport now.” A couple of minutes later, he said something impossible to imagine 10 years ago: “Feel free to snoop around.”

Logistic Air specializes in aircraft leasing and aviation support services. It provides material and maintenance support for the 747 Global SuperTanker, the only such plane in the world, which is used to fight fires. Operations manager Brandi Lange has sold airplane parts to TV producers and invited them on campus. “We had a couple of documentaries filmed here, for the History Channel and the Discovery Channel. They were using this as a background,” she said while standing on the blacktop next to that 747 with the 22-year-old comment card.

Connell hails the spirit of cooperation that has developed among tenants since the days of Evergreen’s monopoly and resistance to change. “Like NASCAR teams, if someone needs a tire, you give it to them even though they might beat you in a race,” the Jet Yard GM said. “We’re here to promote our business and we’re here to promote Pinal Airpark. We both have to grow.” | PW