If you’ve spent any time at all in Tucson, you’ve no doubt noticed the incredible diversity of aircraft flying overhead. You can look up at any given time of the day and into the night and you’ll see airliners, helicopters, fighter jets, light piston-driven aircraft and just about everything in between—even hot air balloons and gliders. The 300+ days of sunny weather per year in Tucson makes it the perfect place to take to the skies in whatever craft you happen to have on hand.
The bulk of the flights you see in the air above Tucson originate from Tucson International Airport and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base(DM), although Ryan Field, Marana Regional Airport handle a fair amount of traffic as well. If you’re lucky, as you’re driving north on I-10 north of town, you might even catch a glimpse of a 747 making its final landing at Pinal Air Park.
TIA is the airport that almost all Tucsonans have some direct experience with because most of us have flown in and out of there on a commercial airline flight. What a lot of people don’t know is that The Arizona Air National Guard’s 162ndWing operates a fleet of about 80 F-16s off of a 92-acre base on the northern edge of the airport’s property as well. The military and the Tucson Airport Authority share responsibility for using and maintaining the taxiways and the runways and have done so since the 152nd Fighter Interceptor Squadron set up shop in 1956.
Davis-Monthan sits across I-10 about four miles north of TIA with a single runway that’s oriented parallel to TIA’s main runway. In fact, they look similar enough that more than one pilot over the years has accidentally lined up to land on the wrong one—not that I would know anything about that personally…
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base plays host to several different units that operate A-10s, C-130s, HH-60 helicopters and various aircraft from units temporarily assigned to DM in two or three week blocks. From time to time, you might get to see an old Air Force ghost flying in the form of an F-4 Phantom or other retired jet flying into or out of the Boneyard which is attached to DM. In addition, the US Border Patrol flies Lear Jets and Blackhawk helicopters out of DM. There are a LOT of flying machines at Davis-Monthan!
When you see fighter jets, mostly the 162nd’s F-16s and DM’s A-10s, departing the city, they’re probably heading toward one of three major military airspace complexes: The Barry M Goldwater Range and Sells Military Operating Area (MOA) to the west, the Tombstone MOA to the southeast and the Outlaw/Jackal/Rustler MOA complex to the north. To get there, pilots fly from DM or TIA toward Kitt Peak, Sierra Vista, or Reddington Pass respectively. When they come home, they roughly fly past those same points in the opposite direction.
The flight paths that commercial flights take are also based on the locations of those military operating areas. They come and go from Tucson via the gaps in between them. On weekends and holidays when the military isn’t flying, air traffic control will sometimes let civilian airliners fly through the MOAs because they’re “cold.” These shortcuts often will cut several minutes off a flight.
The biggest difference between military and civilian airplanes you’ll notice on a day-to-day basis is that commercial planes’ sole purpose is to fly as straight a line as possible to the runway to land. They don’t spend any time circling overhead the city.
The military, on the other hand, oftentimes flies multiple patterns on a single flight to practice takeoffs and landings. In fact, the mission of two of the three A-10 squadrons at DM and three of the four F-16 squadrons at TIA is to train new pilots. That means there are a lot of practice takeoffs and landings happening here.