Military retirees in Tucson: 4,000 planes at the Air Force ‘Boneyard’

Retired planes rest in the "Aircraft Boneyard" on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Photo by Luke Soroko)
Retired planes in the  aircraft “Boneyard.” (Photo by Luke Soroko)

BY LUKE SOROKO

Arizona Sonora News

Every Fall, snowbirds join locals and other visitors to experience  Tucson’s hidden gem. The Air Force Boneyard has become a fascination for plane lovers throughout the country, and even for foreign tourists.

The Davis-Monthan 309 Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group started the beginning of what people now refer to as ‘The Boneyard’ when it welcomed in 400 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses and 300 Douglas C-47 Skytrains shortly after WWII.

There is one B-29 still on display nearby at the Pima Air and Space Museum.  The plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945, effectively ending the war in the Pacific, was a B-29.  In all, nearly 4,000 B-29s were produced by the United States in the final years of the war. Only a small number remain.

Today, the Boneyard has about 4,000 aircraft and other vehicles sprawled over 2,600 acres, making it the largest holding center for retired military vehicles and aircrafts in the world. The inventory planes changes month to month as new ones arrive and old ones leave.

Kyle Irwin, who served in the Air Force overseas,  made his final stop in Tucson to work at the Davis-Mothan Air Force Base. He had never heard of the Boneyard, and was mesmerized but the vast wasteland besieged by old aircrafts.

“At first it was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, but throughout my time there I started to appreciate the preservation of our military’s history,” he said.

Others value the conservation of history at the Boneyard as well.

The Pima Air and Space Museum conducts regular tours of the Boneyard throughout the week and according to officials, sell out quickly.

Locals and visitors from around the country are taken to the site on a bus to the dry conditions that made Tucson the most desirable place for aircrafts that are out of use.

Its low humidity, scarce rainfall, high altitude, and alkaline soil have made Tucson the ideal final resting place because it allows the military to move these retired planes without having to pave roads.

A quarter of the aircraft at The Boneyard are still technically in commission, and are often stored temporarily or repaired on site. 

Last year a 53-year-old B-52 bomber nicknamed ‘Ghostrider’ became the first bomber of its class at the Boneyard to be effectively revamped and returned to service. It arrived at AMARG in 2008 and had been out of commission for seven years until the 75-day campaign to bring it back to life commenced.

Retired planes rest in the "Aircraft Boneyard" on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Photo by Luke Soroko)
(Photo by Luke Soroko)

Aircrafts that do not get to see another flight are often stripped of their parts and are sent to other facilities throughout the country to build similar aircrafts.

“When these planes lose an engine or another part and the people in charge have expressed all other options for repair, this is the place they call,” said Tom Howard, who conducts tours of the grounds throughout the week.

Howard also mentioned that some planes are even remodeled into drones that help pilots train for air combat.

U.S. military equipment is not the exclusive occupier at the AMARG, as countries in the past have paid the base to store some of their aircraft.

But despite the continued restoration and recycling of these materials, federal-military budget realities are causing more planes than ever to come to the Boneyard.

Some came right from the manufacturer without ever seeing service. In 2013, $50,000,00 worth of cargo planes were sent straight from the factory line to the Boneyard. The Pentagon deemed that there was no use for the planes anymore and that they were, “simply a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

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Luke SorokoLuke Soroko is a senior journalism student at the University of Arizona, looking to explore a future career in sports marketing or sports journalism after college.  Luke is from Los Angeles and is a huge movie lover, watching as many movies as he can during his free time.

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