How the world’s largest airplane boneyard stores and regenerates 3,100 retired aircraft

Following is a description of the video:

Narrator: The 309th AMARG stores the world’s largest collection of military aircraft here in the Arizona desert.

Col. Jennifer Barnard: I like to call this the ugliest plane out here, the YC-14. It was an aircraft that never went into production.

Narrator: Eight hundred mechanics work nonstop, reclaiming critical old parts and regenerating aircraft so they can go back into service.

Barnard: I can’t just pull over an airplane like you can a car. And we have to make sure that these aircraft are safe to fly. Our goal is not to be like a cemetery for the aircraft.

Narrator: That’s Col. Barnard. She’s served 25 years as a US Air Force Aircraft Maintenance Officer.

Barnard: As a commander here, I am in charge of the whole operation. The assets stored here are worth somewhere between $34 billion and $35 billion, if you were to try to replace them all. It’s a big number.

Narrator: She took us inside this massive facility to see how these military planes get a second chance at life. AMARG got its start back in 1946. After World War II, the Army needed a place to store old planes. They chose Davis-Monthan Air Force Base here in Tucson. With nearly 2,000 football fields worth of open desert, there was plenty of space.

Barnard: We’re known worldwide as the boneyard. Our guys take pride in being boneyard wranglers.

Narrator: Arizona has the perfect weather for storing these assets. It’s hot, there’s little rainfall, no humidity, and the soil?

Barnard: It’s as hard as concrete.

Narrator: So planes won’t sink.

Barnard: The dryness, as well as the lack of acidity in the soil, prevent corrosion on the assets.

Narrator: Aircraft come here from the Department of defense, military, other government agencies, and froeign allies.

Barnard: We have about 3,100 airplanes. The planes are mostly military. They come from the Air Force, the Navy, the Army, and the Marines. We have over 80 different types of airplanes here.

Narrator: Planes and helicopters arrive and are lined up in sections.

Barnard: So we’re driving down display row here, or celebrity row as some people call it. We do have a sense of humor here. That’s our stealth aircraft, which is actually just Wonder Woman’s jet. The LC-130s have skis along with their landing gear so they can land down in Antarctica and support the National Science Foundation all across that continent. We’re coming up on a NASA aircraft. It’s affectionately called the vomit comet.

Narrator: Some aircraft will be here for weeks before they’re called back into service. Other aircraft can be here for 50 years, similar to this A-4 Skyhawk. Each plane goes through a preservation process before it’s put in the desert. Those that may fly again are re-preserved every four years. They’re defueled, then oil is pumped through the engine to preserve it.

Barnard: The black material that we have on here is the base layer that seals up the aircraft. And then later, as you can see, the rest of the aircraft around here, the coats on top are white. And those white coats will reflect the heat so it better preserves the assets all on the inside of the aircraft.

Narrator: Like the inside of this C5-A Galaxy.

Barnard: The inside of the C5 is the largest cargo aircraft in the Air Force inventory. I have deployed on these.

Narrator: One of six deployments Col. Barnard’s had to Afghanistan, New Zealand, and Antarctica.

Barnard: And we can fit three HH-60 helicopters, and a lot of our equipment that we need, as well as all our maintainers. We have just over 60 of them here. And every one of them needs 72 tie-downs. Airplanes are designed to fly, and when it gets a little breezy out here we want to make sure they stay parked.

Narrator: But not every plane just sits around collecting dust. US military units around the world can request specific parts off these planes.

Barnard: An aircraft has so many thousands of parts. Just like a reservoir keeps things in case you need them. And then we release what’s out of the reservoir as needed.

Narrator: And some of the parts the military can only find here at AMARG.

Barnard: We are that assurance that there’s a part available when the supply system main sources don’t get it. We send anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 parts out every year to the tune of a few million dollars each week worth of supply parts.

Scott and James here are removing the engines from the back of this T-38 as a reclamation effort because these have been requested to go back into service. So once the crews reclaim the parts out in the desert and bring them into the end of this building, they get washed, they get non-destructive inspection, and they’re going to pack and ship these right out the door as fast as we can.

Narrator: But sometimes, instead of being used for parts, an entire plane will be regenerated, meaning they’ll pull it out of the desert and wash it down.

Mike Serrano: We have to remove all the coatings that are used to preserve the aircraft out in the desert.

Narrator: After getting a nice shower, it’s fixed up.

Barnard: What our team is working on here is a C-130 that’s being regenerated for foreign military sales. In this hangar, the current project that we’re working on is F-16s in post-block repair. It’s a package of structural improvements on the aircraft to extend their flyable life.

Narrator: The unit also handles aircraft modifications.

Barnard: These aircraft come from US units that are active right now. And then they get some work done on them, and they go back out to that same unit. So we’re able to upgrade those and modify them to keep them up with the current standards in the active fleet.

Narrator: Complicated individual pieces are sent to separate back shops for repair and overhaul.

Barnard: Here in the wing shop … We have all the center portions of the A-10 wings being rebuilt here. And the outer portions being rebuilt there. There’s actually hundreds of pieces inside of an aircraft wing. The complexity and the level of structure, it’s really eye-opening for many folks. Each set of wings can take up to 20,000 man hours to overhaul.

Narrator: Once parts are fixed, they go through a thorough inspection. We’re here in the non-destructive inspection area. Pete’s working on a fluorescent dye penetrant.

Pete Boveington: It’s basically a liquid that absorbs into cracks, and we can apply a black light to it. And you can see there’s a crack right here that shows up. This crack right here on this part in the landing gear could cause catastrophic failure on the landing gear.

Narrator: Not a single crack on an entire plane can get past this team.

Barnard: We have to make sure that these aircraft are safe to fly so that we protect that asset, and we protect the air crew that’s inside of that asset. So the stakes are pretty high.

Narrator: Once fixed, the planes go through a rigorous final flight test. Pilot Scott Thompson is testing these regenerated F-16s.

Lt. Col. Scott Thompson: I will take them out to the airspace just south of here. Close enough to where if I do have a problem I can get back onto the ground immediately and pretty much put them through the wringer. We test flight controls, and the handling, and the engine performance, and all the systems on the plane pretty extensively, at all altitudes.

Barnard: They go out to become full-scale aerial targets.

Narrator: That’s a happy ending for a plane pulled from the desert here at AMARG. But for other aircraft, this is the end of the line. The planes marked with a big D are destroyed by a third-party contractor.

Barnard: So these are our guys that work the demil, and they prepare aircraft for disposal. Well, and I will get out of the way of the crowbar.

Worker: I’m pretty good with this crowbar.

Barnard: I’m pretty good at destruction too, but you guys are being super careful about it, which you should be.

Narrator: The planes are demolished for good reason.

Barnard: We’ll make sure everything’s accounted for and that the materials and the technology don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Narrator: While some Americans may not have heard of AMARG, it actually saves taxpayers a lot of money.

Barnard: The assets stored here are worth somewhere between $34 billion and $35 billion. And so to make a new one may not be possible, versus to rejuvenate an old one might be the best-case scenario.

Narrator: But for the workers, it’s not just about saving the military some money. It’s also about giving these planes another life.

Thompson: A lot of these airplanes haven’t flown for a very long time. I flew a lot of them operationally back in the day. It’s great to get back in them and bring them back to life.

Barnard: These airplanes have a lot of stories to tell, and it’s wonderful to spend time with them and think about that. There are very few of us military that are lucky enough to be assigned here. It’s just a joy to be able to work with these people every day and be around these airplanes.

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The Air Force released more photos of the only 2 B-52s ever resurrected from its ‘boneyard’

Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber
B-52H bombers “Wise Guy,” left, and “Ghost Rider,” right, sit nose-to-nose with Tinker Air Force Base and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the background, February 26, 2021.

  • Take a look at these interesting images of two B-52 bombers undergoing maintenance at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
  • “Wise Guy” and “Ghost Rider,” as they’re called, are the only B-52s to be resurrected from the Air Force’s “boneyard.”
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

As reported in detail in the last few months, only two US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bombers have been restored out of the “Boneyard,” at the 309th AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group) at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, to be returned to front-line service: “Ghost Rider,” tail number 61-0007, and “Wise Guy,”┬átail number 60-0034.

Both aircraft had been retired and put on long term storage, where they were supposed to remain to be cannibalized for parts needed by other B-52Hs.

However, the plans changed and both BUFFs have been resurrected. After being mothballed for seven years in the desert “Ghost Rider” returned to service in 2015 with the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, North Dakota. The second, “Wise Guy,” spent 10 years in the desert before being resurrected late last year.

Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber
“Wise Guy,” left, and “Ghost Rider,” right, undergoing programmed depot maintenance at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex at Tinker Air Force Base, February 26, 2021.

The two “Lazarus” aircraft were regenerated at the Tinker Air Force Base’s Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, and it’s there that they are currently undergoing PDM (Programmed Depot Maintenance).

PDM is a complex process, that each Stratofortress bomber undergoes every four years. The airframe is stripped of its paint, so maintainers can assess if there are leaks or repairs are needed on the outer skin of the aircraft.

Then, the aircraft is almost completely disassembled and each part is inspected and all defects are fixed before they are rebuilt, repainted, carry out several Functional Check Flights before they are sent back to their home stations.

The aircraft return to active service as if they were almost brand new.

Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber
“Wise Guy,” left, and “Ghost Rider,” right, with Tinker Air Force Base and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the background, February 26, 2021.

While “Ghost Rider” is currently undergoing routine PDM, “Wise Guy” is undergoing the heavy maintenance as the final part of a three-phase process to resurrect the aircraft and return it to the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot AFB, so that the number of B-52 bombers mandated by Congress is brought back to full strength at 76 aircraft.

The two B-52H Stratofortress bombers were parked nose-to-nose at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, on February 26, 2021, and this provided the opportunity to shoot some interesting photos that you can find in this article.

Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber
“Wise Guy,” left, and “Ghost Rider,” right, nose-to-nose at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex, February 26, 2021.

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The Air Force just sent the first B-1B bomber to the ‘boneyard’

B-1B Lancer
A B-1B takes off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, October 11, 2017.

  • The Air Force has taken the first step in its plan to divest 17 B-1B bombers in the coming months, sending the first Lancer to the “boneyard.”
  • The divestments will reduce the active B-1 fleet to 45 aircraft, and the service plans to retire all of them by 2036.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The first B-1B Lancer bomber has headed to the Boneyard, Air Force Global Strike Command announced Wednesday.

It’s the first step in the Air Force’s plan to divest 17 of the bombers in coming months, reducing the active B-1 fleet to 45 aircraft.

“Beginning to retire legacy bombers, to make way for the B-21 Raider, is something we have been working toward for some time,” said Gen. Tim Ray, Air Force Global Strike Command commander, in a news release.

“Due to the wear and tear placed on the B-1 fleet over the past two decades, maintaining these bombers would cost tens of millions of dollars per aircraft to get back to status quo, and that’s just to fix the problems we know about. We’re just accelerating planned retirements,” Ray said in the release.

The service first retired 33 of the aircraft in 2003.

A single B-1 aircraft was spotted flying over Arizona earlier Wednesday; an Air Force spokesperson confirmed that aircraft was headed to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota. Davis-Monthan houses the “Boneyard,” where retired aircraft are kept for parts or future use. B-1s are also stationed at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

In the fiscal 2021 budget request, the Air Force proposed retiring 17 B-1B bombers from its 62-aircraft fleet in order to better sustain the most functional planes. Officials on Wednesday said a small number of the sweep-wing bombers are in a state that would require “approximately ten to 30 million dollars per aircraft to get back to a status quo,” according to the release.

The service plans to retire the entire fleet by 2036.

Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber
An airman salutes a B-1B Lancer that is being divested prior to its final launch from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, February 17, 2021.

Lawmakers allowed the service to go ahead with retirements, but said officials must provide a new bomber roadmap strategy detailing how its current “bomber aircraft force structure … enables the Air Force to meet the requirements of its long-range strike mission under the National Defense Strategy,” according to the FY 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. The strategy is due this month.

The law mandates that the bombers kept at the boneyard will be preserved well enough for their parts to be used for other bombers.

The Air Force spokesperson said that while final details are still being evaluated, 14 bombers will head to Davis-Monthan’s aircraft boneyard by the end of September.

Plans for the remaining three are still up in the air, but the bombers will likely be sent to Edwards Air Force Base, California for test purposes, or to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma for depot management and structural evaluation, the spokesperson said.

In 2012, the Air Force began the Integrated Battle Station, or IBS, modification for the B-1 – likely the largest and most complicated modification the bomber will see. The enhanced navigation and communication system upgrade – completed in September 2020 – cost the service roughly $1.1 billion, officials said.

Still, due to heavy use in the Middle East over a decade as the only US supersonic heavy-payload bomber, the Lancer fleet has seen repeated breakdowns and required extensive maintenance.

The repeated deployments caused the aircraft to deteriorate more quickly than expected, Ray said in 2019.

Ridding the fleet of these 17 bombers “will not affect the service’s lethality or any associated maintenance manpower,” officials said.

“Retiring aircraft with the least amount of usable life allows us to prioritize the health of the fleet and crew training,” Ray said, adding that fewer aircraft gives maintainers the ability to devote more time and attention to the remaining fleet.

The B-1 is capable of carrying both precision-guided and conventional bombs; plans are underway to make it more versatile for future operations.

In August 2019, the Air Force proved it could transform the Lancer to hold more ordnance, a first step toward carrying hypersonic weapons payloads.

B-1s have also been busy conducting flights around the world.

Over the last few months, the bombers have been spotted conducting multiple high-visibility patrols – known as a dynamic force employment – in the Indo-Pacific region, most notably across the East and South China Seas.

Last May, bombers from Ellsworth held their first-ever training mission over Sweden near the Arctic; B-1s will deploy to Norway in coming days for similar training, the Air Force said this month.

– Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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