The Aircraft Boneyards of America
TUCSON’S BONEYARD IS the largest collection of aircraft on the planet. Though it has been known for some time that this was a place to see, many who live in Tucson never get around to it. So when Matthew Coolidge, director of the CLUI, was visiting the University of Arizona, he took a class of art students there. Sometimes it takes an out-of-town visitor to help people appreciate what is in their own backyard.
And what a backyard it is. This is where all the surplus military aircraft in the USA goes to be stored or dismantled. There are around 4,500 airplanes here at any given time, covering nearly five square miles. It’s a fleet second only to the 5,500 active manned aircraft in the U.S. Air Force, and those, of course, are spread out all over the world, and still fly.
The site, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, was selected as one of a number aircraft storage sites for the more than 100,000 surplus aircraft that returned to the USA after World War II. It evolved into the primary location for all the armed services, when other sites were slowly emptied, shut down, and converted to civilian use. Southern Arizona is well known as having some of the best weather for flying in the country, a fact attested to by the high number of airports in the region (as reported in the CLUI newsletter in 2007). Also, low humidity and alkali soil helps to limit corrosion, and the hard desert ground makes it possible to move heavy equipment around without pavement.
Technically, of course, it’s not simply a boneyard. It’s the operating location for the Air Force Materiel Command’s 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, known as AMARG. 550 mostly civilian employees work there to store the planes in various states of limbo and demise. Some are expected to be here for short periods, months or years, and are kept flyable–a status known as flying-hold. Others are expected to fly again, someday, so are kept in flyable condition, but stored with more levels of preservation and more of the sensitive parts removed. Other planes are designated officially as excess, and are for sale, usually bought, through politically charged negotiations, by friendly foreign militaries. Planes considered surplus that are not sold are broken up for parts, which are used domestically and sold internationally, and, eventually, the remains are scrapped.
The range of aircraft at the boneyard is, of course, vast. Fighter jets, helicopters, surveillance aircraft, transport, tankers, and bombers. Even ICBMs have been handled here. Famously, 365 B-52s were eliminated here in the 1990s, as part of the START I treaty, their wings chopped off with a 13,000 pound guillotine, and later with saws. Many of the visibly disabled aircraft left exposed to Russian satellites for verification, remain so, mostly in Area 26.
The boneyard at Davis-Monthan, by far the largest in the country, is also the most accessible. Public tours of the facility are managed by the Pima Air Museum, located next door, and they often sell out. Visitors are confined to the buses, but get a good general view of the site on the tour.
There are several non-military boneyards around the country, where airliners and jets are stored and scrapped, though none of them offer regular tours. These airports are usually considered aircraft storage sites, where airplanes sit idle, sometimes for years, and by the hundreds, while waiting out some fluctuation in the aircraft industry, usually as a response to economic conditions, or consolidation, downsizing, or bankruptcy, or when an aircraft type is being phased out of service. These planes are often sold to other carriers in South America or Africa. Airports that serve as transitional parking fields for grounded planes, though, usually also have boneyards too, where stored planes that pass through purgatory, for whatever reason, may be used for parts for awhile, then scrapped. At some of these airports, once a plane is parked there, there is less than a 20% chance that it will fly out.
The number of grounded commercial airliners in the country is a direct reflection of the overall economic condition of the country. At the moment there are more than 1,000. Most of these can be found at six airports in the southwestern USA, three of which are in southern Arizona.
Kingman Airport, AZ
This airport, in northwestern Arizona, was one of the largest WWII aircraft storage and redistribution sites in the country, with more than 10,000 planes sold and scrapped here. Today Kingman Airport has little traffic, and stores more than 100 commercial airliners, some of which are destined for the airport’s teardown companies, like Kingman Aviation Parts, Inc.
Phoenix Goodyear Airport, AZ
West of Phoenix is Phoenix Goodyear Airport, formerly the largest aircraft storage site for the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. It was closed in 1968, with the remaining aircraft moved to Davis-Monthan. Now it is a reliever airport for Phoenix’s main airport, Sky Harbor, and a major European pilot training center. It is also an aircraft parking lot, though typically with less than 50 aircraft stored there, some being parted out by the Aeroturbine Company.
Pinal Airpark, AZ
The largest civilian boneyard in Arizona, and the second largest of the six or so nationwide, is Pinal Airpark, north of Tucson. There are currently around 200 commercial airliners on site, many from Northwest Airlines, which ceased to exist in 2010. The airport is also a major aircraft maintenance center with an interesting history. It was constructed as Marana Army Airfield during World War II, as a training field with five outlying airfields. During the Vietnam War, the airfield was dominated by the CIA, and used as one of the Agency’s primary facilities for global covert air operations. CIA false front aviation companies operated here, including Intermountain Airlines. The CIA presence continued through the Cold War, and possibly continues in some form. Most of the business here is conducted by the Evergreen Maintenance Center.
Roswell International Air Center, NM
This city airport, a former Strategic Air Command bomber base in southeastern New Mexico, often has the largest inventory of grounded civilian airliners in the country (currently over 200) including a number of American Airlines airbuses. Parts salvaging and dismantling is conducted by Stewart Industries and others.
Southern California Logistics Airport, CA
Much of the aircraft storage business at Mojave has shifted to Southern California Logistics Airport, near Victorville, a former fighter base that was closed in the 1990s. This airport now has a capacity for 300 planes and currently has more than 100 pickled transitional aircraft, as well as a scrapping operation at the site.
Mojave Aiport, CA
Located less than two hours north of Los Angeles, the Mojave Airport boneyard has been appreciated by tourists and the film industry for many years, and until recently the airport management could be persuaded to take visitors on boneyard tours. Things have changed at the airport a bit since Scaled Composites launched a plane into space from the airport, and then was sold to Northrop Grumman. The large aircraft storage area on the northwest end of the airport currently has less than 30 planes, and much of it has been taken over by wind energy companies, whose wind arrays nearby are expanding quickly. But the boneyards on the northeast side of the runway remain robust, possibly the scrappiest of the aircraft scrapyards, with about 100 airplanes there, all of which are doomed. ♦