Mon. Jan 30th, 2023

When your car coughs up its last mile, it is either sold away or it ends up in a scrapyard. But have you ever wondered what happens to an aircraft after it has delivered its last passenger? Around the globe, at any given moment, thousands of airplanes are either soaring in the skies or sitting quietly as wind flows over their wings while passengers board them. Some planes will spend just a short time basking in the sun before heading back into service for another airline, while others may have reached the point where required extensive and expensive maintenance doesn’t make financial sense for their owners. As every living thing has an ending, so do machines. Machines themselves cannot run a lifetime, their efficiency is gradually reduced and they can be deemed obsolete as technology advances. Airliners typically operate for 20 to 30 years till they are declared ‘retired’ and move on to the next stage in their life. Retirement means that the aircraft won’t leave the ground again, will be stripped of valuable parts, and will ultimately be broken up for scrap.

Photo credits: Cameron Potratz

The Graveyard

In most cases, planes get flown to aircraft “boneyards” or “graveyards” around the world, located mostly in deserts since the dry conditions reduce corrosion, and the hard ground does not need to be paved. Deserts also provide a vast area to store and the idea of running out of space is not a concern. Despite being called a graveyard, they are not just places for aircraft to be forgotten about. When they are no longer wanted, aircraft will usually be taken apart and scrapped. Many aircraft will end up rusting and decaying in graveyards, but many graveyards also hold aircraft only temporarily until they are needed back in service, or perhaps sold. These aircraft will be maintained and kept ready. In addition, many aircraft will never return to service but will be retained for supplying parts. The Davis-Monthan Air Force Boneyard in Tucson, which has been in service since World War 1 is the largest aircraft storage and preservation facility in the world holding about 5,000 aircraft.

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Photo credit: Shannon R. Smith

The process

Upon arrival, aircraft are washed to remove corroding salt, drained of fuel, and lubricated with light viscous oil. Explosive devices from the evacuation slides are removed, air ducts are sealed, and an easily removable protective coat of paint may be applied.
Some airliners are kept in working order as reserves, while a few are involved in fire-fighting, aerospace training schemes, and safety tests, some are transformed into hotels or restaurants, or taken to museums. However, most are being used as a source of spare parts and scrapped. The scrapping process takes six weeks, starting with the removal of the explosive escape equipment and toxic de-icing fluid. Some components are unbolted and salvaged, including the engines and instruments.

Photo credit:

“From an owner’s standpoint, the storage of aircraft is the last thing they want to do.”

David Querio

Seeing airplanes retired and being parked is certainly a sad sight for any aviation enthusiast. Aviation analysts estimate that there are roughly 2,500 airliners at boneyards today. And more than 12,000 airliners will end up at these facilities over the next 20 years, according to the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association.



Cover photo: pixabay/skeeze

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