Where do airplanes go when they die? Just as elephants make one final journey to their graveyards, aircraft — at least, those owned by the United States government — have their own final resting place — and it is the largest of its kind in the world.
Tucson, Arizona is home to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG). More commonly known as “The Boneyard,” it is the sole parts reclamation facility for all excess military and government aircraft.
With more than 4,400 aircraft from the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, NASA and other government agencies, the fleet at AMARG, if operational, would constitute the second largest air force in the world.
The 550 people who work at the 2,600-acre facility receive, prepare, store, and retrieve obsolete and retired aircraft of all types. Included in the vast inventory are aircraft from World War II, all the way to modern aerial target drones.
The dry climate of Tucson is ideal for AMARG’s mission. The low humidity and minimal rainfall are ideal for reducing rust and corrosion. The hard calcium-rich soil makes the perfect surface for sustaining heavy aircraft. Tucson’s location is also comparatively free of extreme weather, tornados, or earthquakes.
When an aircraft first arrives AMARG, it goes through a process that includes a full review of all of its maintenance and service records. It is next stripped of all armaments and ejection seat charges and classified equipment.
The aircraft then undergoes a thorough cleaning, inside and out. The fuel is drained, filled with lightweight oil, then drained again. The lightweight oil coats the fuel system to protect it from wear and tear. Finally, the plane receives protection from the sunlight, wind, and dust. This protection might include a thin, plastic spray or a plastic drape. Once this is complete, the aircraft is towed to its resting place.
Aircraft in the Boneyard are occasionally recalled into active service, as was the B-25 bomber when the USA entered into the Korean War. Most of the fleet, however, will gradually give up its parts, one by one, to maintain the life and reduce the cost of flying the active US air fleet.
Since its creation in 1946, AMARG has been tasked with many responsibilities. In the 1980s, it was the site where ICBM’s were dismantled and the parts assigned for reuse. In the 1990s, in accordance with the START I treaty, the center was tasked with eliminating 365 B-52 bombers. The process was less than surgical; the B-52s were chopped into pieces with a 13,000 pound guillotine winched by a steel cable supported by a crane.
AMARG also serves as an auxiliary facility of the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Visitors are free to approach, touch, and climb into the wheel wells of the thousands of aircraft.
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