What Happens to Aircraft When They Get Too Old to Fly or Aren’t Needed Any Longer?
Both commercial airplanes and various military aircraft tend to have long life cycles, but they don’t last forever. When it’s time to retire them, they usually end up at one of several facilities known as aircraft graveyards or boneyards.
An aircraft boneyard, or aircraft graveyard in British English, is a storage area for aircraft that are retired from service. Most aircraft at boneyards are either kept for storage or have their parts removed for reuse or resale and are then scrapped.
Deserts, such as those in the Southwestern United States, are good locations for boneyards since the dry conditions reduce corrosion and the hard ground does not need to be paved. The largest facility of its kind, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, is colloquially known as “The Boneyard”. It is the world’s largest aircraft boneyard. The 309th AMARG, located at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, is a boneyard facility for military and government aircraft.
Airplanes, jets, and helicopters from the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard — and even space shuttles from NASA — make up the nearly 4,400 aircraft on site. Some of the aircraft are stored for potential future use. Others are scrapped for usable parts and recyclable materials. Some fighter jets are even converted into aerial target drones.
When aircraft arrive on site, they are stripped of weapons, advanced electronics, and classified hardware. They are then washed thoroughly and sealed to protect them from the elements. Most aircraft boneyards are located in dry desert areas, because their arid climate and low humidity make them ideal places to preserve these large metal machines.
When aircraft reach the end of their usefulness for flying, the workers at aircraft boneyards will tackle the sometimes-daunting task of dismantling and recycling the aircraft. Have you ever thought about how complex airplanes are? A Boeing 747 contains over six million parts, 170 miles of wiring, and nearly 150,000 pounds of aluminum.
Workers must first dispose of any toxic, radioactive, or otherwise hazardous materials according to strict environmental regulations. Then valuable parts that can be refurbished for use in other airplanes are removed. Such parts might include flight controls, engines, doors, landing gear, recorders, etc.
Finally, the remaining valuable materials, such as aluminum, copper, steel, magnesium, and titanium, are removed for recycling. Experts estimate that about 85% or more of a typical airplane can be recycled successfully.