Tucson is where Air Force planes go to die

C-130 HerculesIn one of his stories, Rudyard Kipling wrote about elephants going to a special place to die. He called that place The Boneyard. So it’s no surprise the U.S. Air Force gave its Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center the nickname — Boneyard. It’s a shorter name, and certainly it’s appropriate.

Part of Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center is where Air Force planes come to die. After all, as technology advances and the needs of national security change, airplanes become obsolete. What does an airbase do with planes it no longer needs or are no longer effective?

Davis-Monthan AFB was selected for the Boneyard because of Tucson’s low humidity and meager rainfall. More importantly is the area’s caliche soil, a calcium carbonate sediment that’s permeable to water. Airplanes parked on the rocky alkali soil won’t sink when the ground is wet during monsoon. There were other airplane storage areas in the U.S. but, in the 1960s, they were consolidated into this single facility, making it the largest aircraft boneyard in the world.

Following World War II, more than 600 B-29 Superfortresses and 200 C-47 Skytrains were moved here. Some were returned to action in the Korean War. The rest were scrapped.

In February 1956, the first B-36 Peacemaker bomber arrived at the boneyard for scrapping. Ultimately the entire fleet of 384 B-36 bombers would be dismantled — except for four survivors saved to air museums. The last of the B-47 bombers was retired in 1969 and, in the 1990s — following arms-reduction treaties with the Soviet Union — 365 B-52 bombers were dismantled.

(Top)C-130 Hercules cargo planes sit waiting for regeneration or scrapping. (Middle) Relics of the Cold War, these B-1 bombers, costing $317 million each, are being dismantled and sold for scrap. (Below) A KC-135 aerial tanker is cut up for scrap.
On the bus tour of the facility — the Boneyard is closed except for the tours — visitors get a look at the more than 4,000 aircraft parked here. Tour guide Jerry Stiles, a volunteer at Pima Air and Space Museum, says the number changes daily. Tours last about 90 minutes, the highlight of which is a slow drive down “Celebrity Row,” where one of each airplane handled by the facility is on display. Stiles flew F-105 Wild Weasels and C-130 Hercules during Vietnam. The Wild Weasel is a radar hunter-killer, meaning these planes seek out radar detection and destroy radar sites before the bombers arrive. The Hercules was converted from a cargo carrier to a gunship, equipped with a gatling gun that fired 3,000 rounds a minute. Stiles knows his airplanes and told stories about each one along the drive.

One story concerned a group of B-52 bombers parked here. They are under observation by passing Russian spy satellites, just as our spy-in-the-sky watches over the Russians. By treaty, we can’t build any more bombers, and the Russians are checking to make sure we comply. So these B-52s sit out in the open where they can be seen. Stiles adds, when a B-52 in Louisiana burned, the Russians were notified, and parts were salvaged from these bombers to regenerate the burned airplane. That way the total number in service didn’t change and the treaty wasn’t violated.

Stiles told another story about a C-130 equipped with skis. He explained a doctor over wintering in Antarctica diagnosed herself with breast cancer. She needed evacuation, something not necessarily possible during winter. The Air Force sent in the C-130 Stiles pointed out. It made three passes in snow blowing so thickly, the pilot couldn’t see the runway — nothing more than a smoothed strip of ice marked with colored paint. When he could land, he found it extremely hard to stop, sliding over the icy surface. In the end, the rescue was effected, and the doctor survived surgery back in Boston.

Another role of the Boneyard is to support the program that converts old fighter jets into aerial target drones. Nearly 100 F-16 fighters — used in the 1990s and each costing about $16 million — are awaiting modification so pilots in training have something realistic to shoot at.

It’s sad to see these noble beasts of the air sitting idle or, worse, being scrapped. Many of the planes are cannibalized for parts used to keep other planes in service. Most, however, are cut up and recycled. The Air Force returns more than $500 million annually to taxpayers from salvaged materials.

That’s not much when you consider each B-1 bomber being dismantled cost $317 million and the retired fleet of C-5A cargo planes each cost $152 million. Both were considered essential during the Cold War. The B-1 was a supersonic, ground-hugging bomber that could penetrate Soviet Union defenses. The C-5A was built to carry two Abrams battle tanks, weighing in at 220,000 pounds. They were needed if the Soviets invaded Europe.

A square mile of parked, “moth-balled” C-130 cargo planes sit waiting. Engines, hatches, and windows are covered with a vinyl coating to prevent dust from filling spaces. The C-130 has been in service for more than 50 years, and Lockheed Martin is still building the Model J Super Hercules. They’ve been used for airborne assault, search and rescue, medical evacuation, scientific research, weather reconnaissance, aerial refueling, and aerial fire fighting. They cost from $12 million to $30 million each. They await regeneration for service or for the scrap heap.

Over the years, people would stop and gape at the airplanes parked on the other side of the fence. Recognizing the public’s interest, the Air Force singled out one-of-a-kind airplanes and helped establish the Pima Air and Space Museum. Now you can see the nation’s third largest collection — behind the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and the Museum of the U.S. Air Force — up close and personal. No need to hang on the fence. It’s a lot safer, a lot more comfortable in air conditioned hangers, and the military police won’t give you a hard time for hanging around.