Airplanes, like people, have a life expectancy.
And when their time is up, most aircraft go to what’s known in aviation circles as “boneyards.”
From small, regional jets to Boeing 747 jumbo jets, many of the boneyards are on former military bases and logistics airports – non-commercial facilities suited for freight use.
Areas with desert climates are a popular location for airport boneyards, which contributes to the spooky nature of the surroundings. One such location, known more for its extraterrestrial reputation, is Roswell, New Mexico. American Airlines uses the Roswell International Air Center to store its retired MD-80s, 757s and 767s.
Andy Luten, a Dallas-based travel blogger, was one of the passengers on American’s final MD-80 passenger flight into Roswell. For Luten, visiting the Roswell International Air Center was an experience in itself.
“The landing was as smooth as ever, but outside the window the view changed from desert to rows and rows of retired aircraft in various stages of disassembly in the boneyard,” he said.
“Walking among the jets in the boneyard was fascinating. We’d look at a plane and, understandably, the first thing we’d notice was what the jet was missing, an engine here or tailfin there.”
The warm, dry climate helps to better preserve aircraft, said Mark Bleth, manager and deputy director of Roswell Air Center
“It’s humid on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and those are not the best environments to store aircraft,” Bleth said. “We have roughly 300 days a year without any rain, so it’s pretty dry.”
Low humidity levels can prevent corrosion of metal and other elements of the aircraft, and the open space of New Mexico makes Roswell a site capable of handling even the largest planes flying today.
“We’re a former military base, so we have a runway that was originally 13,000 feet long and 300 feet wide with 1,000-foot overruns on each end,” Bleth said. “[Our runway] has a weight capacity that can handle anything, including the Airbus A380.”
Cycles and hours
Like any other machine, airplanes have a finite lifespan. How long an aircraft can fly is determined by the number of pressurization cycles – takeoffs and landings – and flight time hours certified by the manufacturer. Once planes reach their maximum limit, they are pulled from service and retired.
Regional carrier Piedmont Airlines, for example, operated a fleet of 109 Dash 8-100 and -300 turboprop aircraft for more than 33 years.
The Dash 8-100 model is certified by airplane manufacturer Bombardier for 80,000 takeoffs and landings. An aircraft’s lifespan can be expanded to handle more cycles with a thorough life extension program of inspection, modification and replacement of key structural components of the basic airframe.
But extension programs can be costly. When Piedmont’s fleet of Dash 8 aircraft neared the mark of cycles, the airline opted to retire the aircraft instead of undergoing a costly life extension program. Piedmont’s last remaining Dash 8 retired in July 2018, with a newer fleet of Embraer 145 regional jets taking its place.
Several retired American Airlines aircraft are parked on the airfield at Roswell International Air Center. (Photo courtesy of Andy Luten)
Sometimes airplanes will reach the end of their lives with little or no value left. These aircraft are salvaged for spare parts to keep the rest of an airline’s fleet flying. Once all valuable parts are removed and refurbished for future use, what is left of the airplane is crushed into small pieces and recycled.
Not all aircraft in the boneyard are actually retired. Some planes have a chance of returning to service.
In the United States, retired aircraft can be repurposed to be used for cargo service, sold for scrap parts, and sometimes are even sold to foreign carriers. Airplanes with a lower number of cycles have time left on the airframe and are more attractive to airline operators around the world looking to acquire used aircraft. Other factors airlines consider include fleet commonality and acquisition costs.
Once purchased by a new operator, an aircraft typically undergoes an extensive overhaul. Additionally, interior fittings such as seats and sidewall panels are replaced to match the new operator’s standard cabin design.
Recently, the Boeing 767-300ER has become a popular aircraft to be converted from passenger to cargo use. As global fleets of the 767 have started to arrive in storage, cargo operators have quickly purchased several of these planes to build out their fleets. Freighter aircraft tend to have lower utilization rates than passenger aircraft, which gives them a longer lifespan.
Boeing’s 737 MAX, on the other hand, has been grounded by the FAA until it is deemed ready to fly again. The MAX aircraft are being stored at facilities including Southern Logistics Airport in Victorville, California, and Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington.
To keep the planes operational, Southwest Airlines mechanics at Victorville perform engine runs and boot up flight computers on a weekly basis. Boarding doors are regularly opened to release heat from the cabin and exterior sensors are sealed with tape.
For U.S. military aircraft, Davis-Montham Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, is used to store aircraft from all branches of the service. Run by the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, the facility oversees storage, regeneration and part-out of planes ranging from fighters and bombers to airlifters. Approximately 3,200 aircraft are stored at Davis-Montham.
Along with the boneyards in Roswell, Victorville and Tucson, other locations include Pinal Air Park and Phoenix-Goodyear Airport in Arizona.
While most boneyards are not open to the public, the airports are surely a bucket list destination for aviation enthusiasts.
“There’s always a fascination and mystique about seeing all of those tails lined up,” said Bleth of the Roswell air center. “It’s pretty cool to be around all these planes. Everything is kind of pristine and wrapped up, and there’s lots of odds and ends hanging all over the place.”