The massive tails of retired and stored military aircraft peeping over the top of Kolb Road’s steeped walls is a familiar sight for most people in Tucson. But most people don’t know about the many functions of the so-called Boneyard beyond that of a cemetery for airplanes that are no longer in use.
Formally known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, or AMARG, the Boneyard is a specialized facility within the Air Force whose official mission is to “provide aerospace maintenance and asset regeneration to our customer for the sustainment of the warfighter.” On the vast desert aprons of the Boneyard are more than 4,400 aircraft of all types once flown by the Air Force, the Navy and Marine Corps and the Army, as well as the Coast Guard.
“We don’t mind the term ‘Boneyard’, but it’s a misnomer,” said the commander of the 309th AMARG, Col. Robert Lepper. “We’re known around the world as the Boneyard. So we love the term. But it gives people an impression that this is where planes come to die.”
In fact, aircraft disposal is only one of five of AMARG’s missions, which means that 80 percent of the Boneyard’s functions do not include chopping up planes for scrap. The five main missions of AMARG are storage and preservation, reclamation, regeneration, depot-level overflow and finally, disposal.
The Boneyard just celebrated its 68th birthday, on April 1. Older than the United States Air Force itself, the Boneyard was originally a storage facility created in the wake of World War II, specifically for B-29 and C-47 aircraft, according to the Davis Monthan AFB website.
There are more than 4,000 planes at the Boneyard requiring a large area of land where aircraft can be preserved or stored: 2,600 acres to be exact. Tucson was specifically chosen for the location of the Boneyard for a few reasons: low humidity, low rainfall and very, very hard ground. The desert’s caliche is a thick layer of highly compacted, dry dirt that provides AMARG a place to park planes without having to pave a massive area of land, and without fears of the plane literally sinking into the ground.
When planes are sent to the Boneyard to be put in storage, they’re stripped of their engines and fluids, sealed with a multi-step latex spray covering and are destined to wait under the desert sun until they are needed again. Aircraft from the Air Force, Navy, NASA, and even foreign allied forces are kept in storage at AMARG.
“Every four years, those airplanes come back to life to keep the assets in good shape,” said Tye Lockard, deputy director at the 309th AMARG.
Last October, because of the congressional sequestration cuts in military funding, the Air Force decided not to put the brand new C-27J planes into use, according to Lepper. They were sent straight into storage.
“People think that everything that comes in here comes to be destroyed. That’s not true,” Lepper said. “There were a lot of people that were very unhappy because many of those planes came straight off the production floor and came straight here.”
The United States Special Operations Command is getting seven of the planes and the U.S. Coast Guard is getting 14 of them. But they still aren’t ready to accept them. The new homes for the Spartans don’t have the technicians, the pilots or the equipment for the planes. Within the next six months to a year, the C-27Js are expected to move from the Boneyard to their new locations.
“We knew they’d be used, and now we know who’s going to be getting them,” Lepper said.
AMARG returns a half a billion dollars worth of assets and parts back into service every year, according to Lepper.
“Each time we pull a part, it goes to support another aviation asset either for the United States or one of our allies for an aircraft that’s grounded,” he said. “Every day we keep airplanes flying for the United States and our allies around the world.”
Parts can be used by U.S. allies, government agencies and all of the military branches.
“Every part that we regenerate or reclaim is a saving for the taxpayers,” said Lockard.
Every year, the Boneyard regenerates 60 to 100 planes that have been in desert storage for different lengths of time and makes them flyable.
Last month, AMARG regenerated the last F-4 that had spent 24 years in desert storage.
“I bet your parents don’t own a car for 24 years, let alone own it, drive it it’s full service life, park it for 24 years, and then make it drive again. Most people can’t dream about that with a car, and we did it with an airplane,” Lepper said.
Taking a plane from storage and making it flyable again is a hugely complex process, but one that keeps military aircraft in the air for longer than their lifespans.
“Really the epitome of AMARG is the sign of the phoenix,” Lockard said. “It is really literally taking those aspects of ashes and regenerating them into flight again.”
In the F-16 Regeneration Hangar at the Boneyard, technicians are working to make the F-16s flyable again so they can be transferred to Tyndall AFB in Florida, where Boeing will install a package that will make the airplane unmanned. The planes will then be used as full-scale aerial targets for Air Force training purposes.
There are only three major depots in the Air Force. The depots are designed to take aircraft completely apart, look for cracks and faults, make sure everything is good, and put them back together. AMARG supports depot-level overflow work. Additionally, AMARG is the only location work on A-10 modifications on the Desert Speed Line, according to Lepper.
“We’re taking every A-10 in the United States A.F. inventory and installing two major modifications,” Lepper said, “further enhancing the A-10 which is a phenomenal airplane all-around.”
The Helmet Mounted Queuing System modifications for the A-10s will give pilots a sort of monocle that will allow them to turn his head while still being able to see valuable information. Another modification will help the A-10 more effectively locate and rescue downed pilots.
There is some truth to the Boneyard being an airplane cemetery. About 200 t0 300 planes every year are scrapped and disposed of by the Defensive Logistics Agency as part of a positive financial business.
“We don’t dispose of them until everyone in the federal government says they don’t need them,” said Lepper.
But is the Boneyard a junkyard? Pieces of the aircraft are boxed in custom wood containers, engines are preserved in metal barrels with nitrogen, and parts are negatively inventoried so that personnel can know exactly how many of one specific part are still on the planes at AMARG. Additionally, AMARG aims to keep the environmental impact of storing planes in the desert to a minimum.
“There’s always a Hazmat requirement for disposal to make sure that we don’t contaminate the environment,” said Lockard. “We purge the airplanes of all chemicals as much as is feasible minimizing environmental impact.”
Lockard added that there are some environmental risks associated with old airplanes, including asbestos, but each aircraft is subjected to E.P.A. environmental rules and regulations.
Visitors are welcome to tour the Boneyard in partnership with the Pima Air and Space Museum, which is the largest privately funded, non-governmental aerospace museum in the country.
“People don’t understand what’s in their own backyard. It’s amazing,” said Lepper. “It’s like if you lived up near the Grand Canyon and never visited, shame on you. Come visit us if you live in Tucson.”
The tour, given in an air-conditioned bus, allows patrons and tourists to escape the desert heat while being educated about the missions of AMARG and some of the types of planes stored in the Boneyard. The bus even takes a trip down “Celebrity Row,” a strip of dirt road lined on either side by a display of various types of planes, including a C-130 Hercules that is the only aircraft to have ever been awarded an honorary Purple Heart for its service in the Vietnam War.
“We are not a museum. However, there is a tremendous amount of history that has passed through or is currently here,” said Lepper.
What’s the future for the Boneyard?
In an interview with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, the Tucson mayor addressed questions about the future of Davis- Monthan Air Force Base. He acknowledged discussions of possible reductions or even a closing of the base at some point in the future, but said that he doubted it would close, specifically because of certain unique operations in Tucson, the Boneyard being a major factor. He also discussed the possibility of losing the A-10s and the need to evaluate diversification at Davis-Monthan, including into aerospace and other jobs-producing areas.
But what would a potential reduction of base operations caused by eliminating the A-10 mean for the Boneyard?
“If the Air Force draws down a lot, the question is if the Boneyard can handle a huge influx of planes if the government decides to get rid of the A-10s, and things like that,” said Lepper.