The Air Force’s Attic
When a B-52 reaches the end of its useful life, the Air Force can’t just dump it at the local junkyard. Instead it uses the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center in Arizona.
After every war in the industrial age there has been a scrap-metal boom, beginning at least with the Civil War. Soon after Appomattox, leftover iron from monitors, cannon, and the like flooded the market. In fact, the overcapacity of iron foundries at the end of the Civil War played a role in the birth of cast-iron architecture in New York City.
At the end of World War II, for the first time, there was a huge surplus of aircraft. In September 1945 the U.S. Army Air Force and the Navy had the largest fleet of warplanes the world had ever seen—and almost nothing to do with them all. Tens of thousands of planes, from war-weary B-17s on derelict bomber fields in England to brand-new F8F Bearcats on aircraft carriers off Okinawa, sat waiting for their next assignments.
But there would be no next assignments, and when the generals and admirals realized it, they faced a new problem. What would become of this vast armada, much of it obsolete and all of it obsolescent (for military purposes, anyway) in the face of the new jets that were about to enter service? Planes like the P-40, P-47, and P-51, the B-17 and B-24, and the C-47 had been built in numbers from eight thousand to more than twenty thousand. Some had been lost, but many more remained to be disposed of. Remembering that in 1920 a stingy Congress had ordered the armed services to use up their World War I surplus aircraft before ordering any new models, they began to have nightmares of flying propeller planes into the 1950s. The aircraft industry, with its order books already empty, shared their panic.
Fortunately the War Assets Administration and m i the Reconstruction Finance Corporation came for to the rescue. The government decided to scrap or sell almost $10 billion worth of fighters, bombers, and transport planes. By June 1946 about 34,000 planes had arrived back in the United States, and all but the few kept in active service were sitting idle at air bases such as Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, and Altus, Oklahoma. Many cargo planes were sold to private owners, along with a very few combat planes—a P-47 could be had for $3,500—but most of them were scrapped. Several bases, including Chico, California, and Kingman, Arizona, were quickly converted into junkyards. Planes had their engines and other steel parts removed, while the more valuable aluminum was melted for reuse.
But it soon became obvious that some intermediate solution was needed between keeping planes in the Air Force’s active inventory and scrapping them. Even though it was holding a fire sale, the Air Force was not going out of business, and the top command realized that many millions of dollars’ worth of its inventory should be saved, especially its B-29s, two of which had just ended the war by dropping atomic bombs on Japan. The Air Force designated several bases as storage centers, and these quickly began filling with rows of planes that would be needed if the nation ever went back to war. One such base was Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona.
Davis-Monthan had trained thousands of B-24 and B-29 bomber crews during the war. Afterward it remained an active Air Force base, but now the vast expanses of desert surrounding its runways, hangars, and other facilities were also to be the setting for its second career. Lt. Col. R. Frank Schirmer took command of the 4105th Army Air Force Base Unit (Aircraft Storage) on September 13, 1946, to find that he was in charge of 363 C-47s (the military version of the famous DC-3), 713 B-29s, and 18 museum aircraft, including a Junkers Ju-88 captured from the Luftwaffe. The B-29 was destined to remain the Air Force’s chief strategic bomber into the early 1950s (the B-47, the United States’s first jet bomber, did not come into service until 1951). The Navy, Coast Guard, and Army eventually stored planes at Davis-Monthan as well.
Colonel Schirmer’s resources were basic. He had 2,000 acres of mostly bare desert, a few hangars and maintenance stands, and a couple of trucks. When an aircraft arrived, it was inspected and towed out to a parking spot on the desert, where wooden blocks were set up underneath to take the load off its tires. The planes soon collected fauna that included birds, snakes, and even a bobcat living inside, under, and around them.
Davis-Monthan had been chosen in part for its soil and climate. The desert is so firm that even heavy planes could be parked on bare ground, with no need for an asphalt underpinning. It rains only about eleven inches a year in Tucson, and the soil, instead of being acid (which would cause the planes’ outer surfaces to deteriorate), is predominantly caliche, a limestone-like mineral. Temperatures on the Sonoran desert seldom drop below 40°F, although they do routinely climb over 100°F in the summer. Despite these advantages, within a few months it became obvious to the Air Force that storing airplanes would take more than simply parking them under the Tucson sun.
The first effort at preservation was the “cocoon.” A B-29 was washed down and then had bags of desiccant placed inside the fuselage to absorb moisture. After the engines were covered with masking tape, the entire craft was sprayed with four layers of plastic and sealants, finishing with a coat of aluminum paint to reflect the heat. Without the shiny aluminum, personnel at Davis-Monthan found, temperatures inside the sealed planes would soar to 200°F in the summer, destroying instruments and rotting rubber parts.
The cocoon project lasted only from July 1947 to May 1948. It turned out that plastic preserved the bombers well, but when the Air Force decided to take eight B-29s out of storage during cold weather, the cocoons fragmented into tiny pieces that had to be scraped off the planes one by one, requiring up to six hundred man-hours of work per plane.
As the Air Force looked for more efficient preservation methods, the 4105th changed its name to the 3040th Aircraft Storage Depot (it would later undergo several further name changes) and added reclamation and salvage to its job description. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the number of planes at the storage center dropped as the Cold War heated up. When the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin in 1948, hundreds of C-47s were put back into service as transports, and many of the B-29s were absorbed into the new Strategic Air Command (SAC) in case the Berlin crisis escalated into a shooting war. After the Korean War started, in June 1950, there was a critical need for spare parts for the B-29s based in Japan that were bombing North Korean industry and supply lines. One B-29 reclaimed during this period yielded 1,750 parts, including the bombsight, engines, and propellers. The propellers alone would have cost $5,300 apiece if bought new. The whole salvaged plane, when broken down into spare parts, was worth $354,606.
The center’s work didn’t end with reclaiming spare parts. After a plane had been stripped, a crane dropped a cable over the fuselage just forward of the tail. The cable was looped around the plane and hitched to a truck. The truck then made a sudden start, causing the cable to crimp down and slice off the three-ton tail, which dropped onto a trailer parked beneath the plane and was towed away to be melted down into a lump of aluminum. The rest of the plane was eventually melted too.
No sooner had the center’s employees mastered preserving and reclaiming B-29s, however, than their mission changed once again. In April 1953, with the giant B-36 and the jet B-47 in service, the Pentagon declared the B-29 obsolete and told Davis-Monthan to get ready to chop up hundreds of the bombers. By 1954 the center was scrapping the planes as fast as it could.
This became a pattern for the storage center. First, planes still in active use would arrive for storage in case they might be sold—either as warplanes (to foreign countries such as Peru and Taiwan) or domestically for such uses as fire fighting—or put back into use in the Air Force. (There were some cases in which planes were suddenly in demand again after years of storage. When the Vietnam War came along, scores of B-26s and T-28s were put back into service, and some C-47s were converted into gunships.) In the later years of their life cycle, they would be cannibalized for parts to keep newer models of the same planes flying. Finally, when a plane was clearly obsolete, the center would sell it—either intact or stripped—for junk.
The B-36, with its six immense pusher-propeller engines, replaced the B-29 in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the job of hauling SAC’s A-bombs, and later H-bombs. By 1956 it too was going out of service as the Air Force took delivery of B-52s. I grew up less than two miles from Davis-Monthan’s main runway, and I can still remember the effect on our house every time another B-36 landed. The six engines, synchronized to produce a low-pitched drone that could be heard for miles, made the whole house vibrate. I did not understand at the time why I never saw any B-36s take off.
By the late 1950s the first jet fighters were arriving at Davis-Monthan. In June 1958 the center had 3,943 planes in its inventory, including 421 F-94s and 267 F-86s. So many F-84s were discarded at one point that they were stacked in piles three and four planes high waiting to be stripped and melted.
The “Century” series of fighters—the F-IOO through F-105—had replaced these early jets, but soon they too made their way to the storage center. The F-100, the first combat plane in the Air Force to fly faster than the speed of sound in level flight, was also the first to take part in what has become an important mission at the center: the drone program. Fighters in storage are cleaned up, inspected, and made airworthy by the center’s mechanics, then flown to private companies in California and Illinois to be converted into radio-controlled drones. After having their noses and fins painted bright red as a warning to other planes to keep well away, they are returned to the Air Force and Navy for their final flights. Drones take off and maneuver at top speed under remote control while pilots attack them with air-to-air missiles. This procedure is used both to train pilots and to test missiles. Many F-100s were expended in this role in the 1970s, to be followed by F-102s and F-106s, delta-winged planes that had been built to intercept the Soviet bomber fleet.
Today the planes of the Vietnam era and the late Cold War are held in storage at what is now called, with typical military euphony, the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, or AMARC. Aircraft arrive under their own power (except for small helicopters, which are shipped in transport planes) and are immediately towed off to be demilitarized by enlisted Air Force mechanics. They remove the guns and anything classified, easily pilferable (such as knobs and buttons), or dangerous (such as the “egress explosive,” the charge that blasts an ejection seat out of the cockpit). Few planes arrive with ammunition or missiles on board.
The plane is then towed to AMARC’s open-air hangar, where the rest of the work will be done by civilian technicians. Oxygen tanks are depressurized, and fuel and hydraulic fluids are drained. These liquids are tested and, if uncontaminated, are collected and taken back for use on the base. Engines and fuel lines are filled with a special light-weight oil to coat every surface that might rust, and this oil is then drained. Finally, sensitive parts of each plane—air intakes, radomes, cockpit canopies, and so forth—are covered with paper, and the upper portion of the plane is coated with Spraylat, the tough plastic successor to the old cocoon. Finally, the planes are towed out to be parked in neat rows by type.
The center maintains a “save list” for each type of plane. Thousands of parts, from entire wings to single cockpit instruments, may be on any one model’s list. The Air Force, which boasts that each dollar it spends on AMARC returns more than twenty-two dollars to the government, has often saved huge sums by salvaging parts from just a few planes. When B-52s were still flying nuclear weapons on round-the-clock alert, inspections showed that the huge alligator clamps that tied the wings to the fuselage had cracked in many of the active-duty planes. Boeing had closed down B-52 production more than twenty years before, and the Air Force found that it would cost $100,000 per clamp and take eighteen months to have them custom-made. For $580 apiece the same clamps were removed from B-52s in storage, checked for cracks, and shipped to SAC bases within two weeks.
In some cases the Air Force even buys planes just to salvage them. Dozens of old Boeing 707 airliners, incongruous in their bright commercial liveries, cover one huge lot at the center. The military still uses the KC-135, a tanker similar to the 707, to refuel jets in flight. The engines on 707s are too noisy and use too much fuel to meet civilian standards now, but the Air Force removes them—and landing gear, cockpit seats, even galleys—to keep its aging tankers flying. The Pentagon pays airlines $1 million for each plane and says that the program has saved taxpayers $750 million.
The end of the Cold War has meant another boom for AMARC just as the defense budget in general is shrinking. In 1991 hundreds of RF-4 Phantom photoreconnaissance planes, the mainstay of most Western air forces from the 1960s through the 1980s, arrived at the center when bases in the Philippines were closed. Each additional base closing means more planes going into storage. AMARC is also the site for the destruction of many of the bombers and missiles that once carried nuclear weapons. Under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, hundreds of B-52s are being chopped up (by a guillotine made of a piece of armor plate dropped by a crane) and left in the open for the Russians to inspect by satellite. The center also has destroyed 445 cruise missiles.
Throughout the life of the center, Davis-Monthan has been an active air base as well. Most recently it trained pilots for the A-10 tank-busters that starred in the Gulf War. Now, the base public-affairs office admits, the Air Force no longer really needs it. It almost certainly would have been part of the wave of base closings announced in 1991 if not for AMARC. The “boneyard,” as most people have always called the center (though the Air Force hates the word), seems certain to keep Davis-Monthan open for years to come.