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Where Combat Planes Retire

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 02.04.03
  • NOVA

The U.S. military has long been expert at disposing of used and obsolete aircraft. Between January 1940 and August 1945, for example, American companies built nearly 300,000 aircraft, most of them for military use. Roughly half of those outlasted World War II and became surplus, far more than the military deemed necessary to defend the nation. The government needed to get rid of these "white elephants with wings," as one propaganda pamphlet put it—and it did, in several ways.

Looking only slightly less menacing with their protective plastic coatings, a line of F-16As at AMARC await their next assignment. Enlarge Photo credit: WGBH/NOVA/Myth Merchant Films

Some planes overseas that were thought not worth the effort or expense to bring home were bulldozed, buried, or sunk. Thousands of aircraft in this country were offered up for sale. Most were trainers and cargo planes, but tactical aircraft were also available. Prices ranged from $450 for a BT-13 combat trainer to $32,500 for a B-32 bomber. Others were sold cheaply or given away for experimental, educational, or memorial purposes. Still others were stored for possible reuse, particularly C-47 transport and combat aircraft and B-29 Superfortresses, the bomber used to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

It became known as the “boneyard,” the place where old fighters and bombers went to die.

Even after exhausting all these avenues, however, a huge surplus remained. In many cases, the planes' components were hardly worth salvaging. But their aluminum ran to the hundreds of millions of pounds, and could be melted down into ingots and reused. So the government set up a gigantic scrapping operation. To forestall any confusion among the American people, who might wonder why the military was melting down perfectly good airplanes, government spin doctors distributed reassuring literature. One pamphlet of December 1945 stated:

With the end of the war, there will soon be war-weary and obsolete aircraft stacked wing to wing on many airfields. Some of them will glisten when the sun shines on them, and it will be hard to believe that they cannot be used. But they will have been condemned only after every practical use has been studied. They will be awaiting the day when manpower is available to take them apart and put their metal back into use....

As far as the eye can see: Fighters in storage at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Enlarge Photo credit: WGBH/NOVA/Myth Merchant Films

The boneyard

Initially the government had several full-scale storage-and-scrapping facilities around the country. But in 1965 it settled on just one of those, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, Arizona. Davis-Monthan was considered ideal for aircraft storage. It was far from the snowbelt, whose weather conditions could be troublesome, and from coasts, whose salty air quickly corroded and rusted aircraft parts. It had low rainfall and humidity, and its soil was baked so hard by the sun that aircraft could park on it as if on concrete. By 1959, after almost 15 years of scrapping unneeded planes, Davis-Monthan had roughly 4,000 aircraft in storage. It became known as the "boneyard," the place where old fighters and bombers went to die.

But those who ran the facility found that perception not only derogatory but inaccurate. Davis-Monthan had a large scrapping operation, it is true, but it also preserved thousands of planes in case they were needed—and many were. In the first year of the Korean War, for instance, Davis-Monthan polished up and dispatched to Korea more than 80 C-47s left over from World War II. Affectionately known as "Gooney Birds," these old C-47s even played a role in Vietnam. Outfitted with 7.62-millimeter guns in their port windows and cargo doors, these then-20-year-old aircraft helped Air Commando squadrons protect Special Forces camps and remote outposts in Southeast Asia during the 1960s.

A change in image

In 1985, partly in hopes of countering the boneyard image, the Davis-Monthan operation gave itself a new name: the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, or AMARC*. But the work remains the same.

One employee was once sucked into one of the engine intakes of an idling F4.

Processing newly arrived aircraft for maintenance and potential regeneration involves many steps. First workers remove armaments, seat and canopy ejection charges, and any valuable or classified components. They wash the fuselage to remove industrial or marine residues, and inspect it for any corrosion. Navy aircraft that have been exposed to salt air receive a corrosion-inhibitor shower. Other workers drain the engines, tanks, and fuel lines and pump in a lightweight oil; they then drain this to leave a protective coating within hydraulic lines and fuel tanks.

The white Spraylat covering ensures that temperatures inside the aircraft rise no more than 15° above ambient temperatures. Enlarge Photo credit: WGBH/NOVA/Myth Merchant Films

The final step is the sealing process. Crews start by taping all openings on the upper side of the aircraft and covering all engine inlets and exhausts. They then spray on two coats of Spraylat, a weatherproof latex material, leaving the bottom of the aircraft exposed to allow for air circulation. The second coat is white. This is to reflect away as much of the desert sun as possible, so temperatures inside the plane don't rise so high as to cause internal damage.

Hazardous duty

The work is routine but can be hazardous. One employee tells of how, while doing similar work elsewhere before coming to AMARC, he was sucked into one of the engine intakes of an idling F-4. He was able to brace himself against the sides of the intake. But knowing it was only a matter of time before his strength gave out and the engine's powerful suction pulled him into the fan blades, he began tossing everything he had on him into the whirling fan in hopes of seizing up the engine. Pens, pencils, headset, jacket, even the buttons off his shirt went in. He screamed for help, even though he knew the engine's roar would drown out his cries. Fortunately, the engine finally quit and he was able to escape, with only minor injuries.

Even those planes destined for the scrap yard must be handled delicately. In the 1950s, hundreds of B-29s were sold for scrap, but only after workers removed all valuable spare parts, including engines, propellers, fuel and oil tanks, bombsights, and instruments. Detaching these objects caused the B-29's center of gravity to change radically. To ensure the plane didn't tip back onto its tail when it was towed away for removal of its tail section, workers had to attach thick 15-foot timbers to the nose wheel wells, and as many as 25 personnel had to climb into the nose section to weigh it down.

A pilot delivers his F-16 to AMARC. Though it can be a melancholy moment for the pilot, premier aircraft such as this one often take to the skies again. Enlarge Photo credit: WGBH/NOVA/Myth Merchant Films

Methods used to disassemble planes could be crude but effective. To meet U.S. obligations under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which called in part for the destruction of hundreds of heavy bombers, AMARC eliminated 314 B-52 aircraft. After removing parts for reuse in operational B-52H bombers, AMARC teams turned for most of these eliminations to a makeshift guillotine: a crane that dropped a 13,000-pound blade of steel from a height of 80 feet onto the aircraft. First the wings were sliced off, then the fuselage was cut into five pieces. The dismembered carcass was left where it lay for 90 days to enable the Commonwealth of Independent States—the other signatories of START—to verify the disassemblies by satellite.

AMARC today

The recycling of flyable aircraft is the facility's first priority. (AMARC's symbol is a phoenix rising from the ashes.) In fiscal year 2002, for instance, the organization regenerated 18 F-16A Fighting Falcons for return to active service. Many aircraft stored at Davis-Monthan today are given entirely new, non-military assignments, such as dropping water on forest fires in the American West, aiding drug interdiction in South America, or hunting big-game poachers in Africa.

All told, AMARC today hosts over 4,300 aircraft.

AMARC's return on investment is impressive. In FY02, the facility gave 99 aircraft valued at $520 million a new life, and it reclaimed $732.5 million worth of spare parts and placed them back into the active inventory. Thus, on an annual budget of $47 million, AMARC returned a total of $1.25 billion worth of equipment to the Department of Defense.

All told, AMARC today hosts over 4,300 aircraft. Roughly a quarter of them are in flyable storage, meaning they could be readied for takeoff in short order. Current residents include several top-of-the-line models. Some, such as F-4E Phantom fighters, the most abundant aircraft in the inventory at nearly 700 airframes, will serve as remotely piloted drones that fighter pilots will shoot out of the sky with air-to-air missiles during training exercises. Others, including F-14 and F-15 fighters and KC-135 Stratotanker refuelers, could see action again—just as their predecessors, the C-47 "Gooney Birds," did half a century ago in Korea.

*AMARC has since been renamed the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Battle of the X-Planes.

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA Online.

Further Reading

Inside AMARC: The Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, Tucson, Arizona
by Jerry Fugere and Bob Shane (photographer). Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Co., 2001.

Military Aircraft Boneyards
by Nicholas A. Veronico, A. Kevin Grantham, and Scott Thompson. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Co., 2000.

Fifty Years of the Desert Boneyard: Davis-Monthan A.F.B. Arizona
by Philip D. Chinnery. Shrewsbury, U.K.: Airlife Publishing, 1995.

MASDC II AMARC
by Martyn Swann and Barry Fryer. Surrey, U.K.: Aviation Press Ltd., 1998.

See also AMARC's website at www.dm.af.mil/units/amarc.asp

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