Of Bombers and Boneyards

Air­craft Grave­yards through the Ages

Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Fred­er­ick A. Johnsen

The pri­mor­dial air­craft bone­yard

is easy to con­jure. Imag­ine a Wright em­ployee or a Ble­riot or Cur­tiss worker push­ing an early air­frame to the back of the shed to make room for an im­proved ver­sion. But that early con­trap­tion still had value—those turn­buck­les could be sal­vaged, that strut was the same di­men­sions as on the new machine—and so was born the air­craft bone­yard. Avi­a­tion en­thu­si­asts have had a love/hate re­la­tion­ship with air­craft boneyards for decades. Emo­tion­ally, some want to save all the air­craft from scrap­ping, like the de­sire to save all the kit­ties and pup­pies that just need good homes. Yet there is also a com­pet­ing and un­de­ni­able fas­ci­na­tion with the end times for air­craft, es­pe­cially mam­moth mil­i­tary ma­chines.

The Birth of Mil­lion-Dollar Bon­fires

The first time an air­craft bone­yard caught the pub­lic eye was af­ter World War I, when Brig. Gen. Ma­son Pa­trick was charged with dis­pos­ing of Amer­i­can air as­sets still in France. Even af­ter the U.S. Army Air Ser­vice shipped home 2,000 air­planes of all types, the War Depart­ment or­dered the sale or de­struc­tion of about

2,300 re­main­ing air­craft deemed un­wor­thy of re­turn­ing to the United States.

The same ma­chines that had no use in the United States found no mar­ket in Eu­rope, so the task of dis­pos­ing of them fell to Pa­trick. He had

the sur­plus air­craft sur­veyed sev­eral times so that us­able parts, like en­gines, guns, pro­pel­lers, bomb racks, and in­stru­ments, could be re­moved and put to new use. What re­mained were only ef­fi­gies of air­planes, in­com­plete shapes of wood and fab­ric.

The com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the First Air De­pot in France, Col. O. C. Aleshire, advised his supe- ri­ors and ad­min­is­tered the de­struc­tion of those air­craft deemed un­suit­able af­ter scav­eng­ing use­ful com­po­nents. Aleshire es­ti­mated that the to­tal cost of crat­ing and ship­ping a plane from France to the United States would run about $1,000. Af­ter the best ma­chines had been skimmed for ship­ment home, the dregs were not worth it.

But Pa­trick rightly pre­dicted that the burn­ing

Brig. Gen. Ma­son Pa­trick had the sur­plus air­craft sur­veyed sev­eral times so that us­able parts, like en­gines, guns, pro­pel­lers, bomb racks, and in­stru­ments, could be re­moved and put to new use.

of the hulks, piled high, would ig­nite con­tro­versy back home. The spec­ta­cle, viewed in pho­tos of the burn­ing air­frames, came to be known as the “mil­lion-dollar bon­fire.”

The Air Ser­vice, and later U.S. Army Air Corps, did not have huge fleets of thou­sands of sur­plus air­craft be­tween the wars. The spec­ta­cle of the mil­lion-dollar bon­fire would not be re­peated, as ob­so­lete mil­i­tary air­craft were qui­etly scrapped in smaller quan­ti­ties. Pho­tos and de­bris found on the old Muroc desert ranges show how some vin­tage Key­stone bi­plane bombers were used as tar­gets in bomb­ing ex­per­i­ments in the 1930s. Other Key­stones, as cap­tured in a snap­shot, rode a barge out to sea from Hawaii, where they were un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dumped over­board.

Mon­u­ments to Massive Pro­duc­tion: Smelters Rather than Grave­stones

Not un­til the un­prece­dented mil­i­tary buildup of World War II did the spec­ta­cle of air­craft sal­vage be­come com­mon­place and even leg­endary. Front-line fight­ers and bombers evolved rapidly. Older, some­times war-weary, air­craft filled both static and fly­ing-train­ing needs state­side. But when their util­ity was through, the peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for them had rea­sons to get rid of them. Any­one who has ever been held re­spon­si­ble for an in­ven­tory record does not want the bur­den of car­ing for some­thing no longer use­ful; even derelict air­craft re­quired some ac­count­abil­ity, so scrap­ping them re­moved that problem. Ad­di­tion­ally, the wartime ethos cham­pi­oned the re­use of valu­able strate­gic metals, like alu­minum; it just made sense to get rid of the old. Archival pho­tos from Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, show­ing freight cars piled with

Archival pho­tos from Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, show­ing freight cars piled with rec­og­niz­able parts of B-24 Lib­er­a­tors and other war­planes des­tined for the fur­nace, while heart­break­ing by to­day’s stan­dards, are com­pletely normal for the war years.

rec­og­niz­able parts of B-24 Lib­er­a­tors and other war­planes des­tined for the fur­nace, while heart­break­ing by to­day’s stan­dards, are com­pletely normal for the war years.

Dur­ing and im­me­di­ately af­ter the war, sur­plus bomber bones made it into the com­mu­ni­ties sur­round­ing air bases, par­tic­u­larly those with a de­pot mis­sion or large train­ing ac­tiv­ity. For decades, pieces from B-24 tur­rets could be found in work­shops and barns around Walla

The no­tion of air mu­se­ums pre­serv­ing se­lec­tions of full-size air­craft was not com­mon in the 1940s. The Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion and the USAAF made some pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts to pre­serve a copy of many war­planes, but in spite of the ef­forts of pro­po­nents, Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, could not see fit to pre­serve the fa­mous B-17 “5 Grand,” which went to the King­man smelter in­stead.

Walla, Wash­ing­ton; Spokane, Wash­ing­ton, fos­tered whole civil­ian scrap­yards based on the B-17s, B-24s, P-39s, and other air­craft sal­vaged there. Hill Field, near Og­den, Utah, had acreage devoted to fly­away stor­age of B-24s that might be needed again. Once the need passed with

V-J Day, those Lib­er­a­tors ei­ther mi­grated to the quin­tes­sen­tial bone­yard at King­man, Ari­zona, or be­came scrapped hulks in situ. Wal­nut Ridge, Arkansas, and Al­tus, Ok­la­homa, gained huge tem­po­rary fleets of sur­plus war­planes at the end of hos­til­i­ties. Kirt­land Field in Albuquerque,

New Mex­ico, hosted a field of sur­plus B-24s, B-17s, and the oc­ca­sional P-39.

Cor­re­spon­dence be­tween U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) lead­ers ac­knowl­edged the dele­te­ri­ous

ef­fect large num­bers of WW I air­craft and en­gines had on the growth and de­vel­op­ment of the Air Ser­vice well into the 1920s. Gen. “Hap” Arnold and his peers did not want to be sad­dled with thou­sands of the air­craft that won the last war if they had to fight the next one. With jet bombers on the way, it made sense for the USAAF to erase the fleets of B-17s and B-24s while hedg­ing a bit with B-29s, many of which were put into long-term stor­age in­stead of be­ing scrapped.

The no­tion of air mu­se­ums pre­serv­ing se­lec­tions of full-size air­craft was not com­mon in the 1940s. The Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion and the USAAF made some pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts to pre­serve a copy of many war­planes, but in spite of the ef­forts of pro­po­nents, Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, could not see fit to pre­serve the fa­mous B-17 “5 Grand,” which went to the King­man smelter in­stead. It has been said that a num­ber of re­turn­ing vet­er­ans who passed by King­man on their way east be­tween 1945 and

’48 saw the acres of air­craft, and some as­sumed the icons would be in the desert for­ever. Not so—the con­trac­tor charged with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of scrap­ping the King­man fleet re­duced more than 5,000 war­planes into alu­minum in­gots and small parts in less than three years.

The Birth of Aero Re­cy­cling

The Cold War saw evo­lu­tion in mil­i­tary-avi­a­tion boneyards. Some air­craft types proved use­ful for more years than many of their ear­lier com­pa­tri­ots. The Navy stored and reused air­craft at Litch­field Park Naval Air Sta­tion near Phoenix, Ari­zona. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) con­cen­trated such ef­forts at Davis-Mon­than Air Force Base far­ther south in Ari­zona, at Tuc­son. By 1965, all branches of the mil­i­tary con­sol­i­dated their air­craft stor­age and sal­vage op­er­a­tions in the desert at Davis-Mon­than.

The op­er­a­tion was called the “Mil­i­tary Air­craft Stor­age and Dis­po­si­tion Cen­ter” (MASDC) for two decades; in 1985, it be­came known as the “Aero­space Main­te­nance and Re­gen­er­a­tion Cen­ter” (AMARC), and since 2007, the “Aero­space Main­te­nance and Re­gen­er­a­tion Group” (AMARG). The last two ap­pel­la­tions have a more up­beat sound and speak to the ser­vices’ in­creased use of these stored air­craft to eco­nom­i­cally keep the

fleet air­wor­thy. But to many, it will al­ways be the “bone­yard.”

This is no short-term scrap­yard; the acreage at Davis-Mon­than has ac­com­mo­dated more than 4,000 air­craft, some for many years. The care­tak­ers have learned ways to min­i­mize the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of air­frames. It is not un­usual to see jet fight­ers phase out of ser­vice and into stor­age at Davis-Mon­than only to emerge later as drones for test­ing and tar­get­ing. If evolving weapons, tac­tics, and po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries make it fea­si­ble for the ser­vices to fly fewer air­craft in sup­port of na­tional se­cu­rity, that means the stored air­craft of the same types could be eco­nom­i­cal sources of parts for those still fly­ing.

Reusing has been es­pe­cially true with the grad­ual ag­ing of the fleet. The B-24 was a vi­able Air Force bomber for only about five years; the F-86 Sabre had an Amer­i­can op­er­a­tional life of 16 years, and the B-36 served barely a decade. Con­trast that with B-52s and KC-135s well past a half-cen­tury in ser­vice. It has been re­ported that, in 2017, the av­er­age age of USAF fight­ers was more than 23.5 years, com­pared to 8.5 years in 1967. When com­puter-con­trolled sys­tems, avion­ics, and weapons up­grades can keep the same fight­ers vi­able longer, the value of a stor­age fa­cil­ity for spares is im­mense.

Whether one en­coun­ters images of a bon­fire of WW I air­craft car­casses, freight cars filled with WW II pieces sliced and diced to fit, or to­day's on­go­ing stor­age and recla­ma­tion op­er­a­tions in Ari­zona, it’s still the bone­yard and it’s still com­pelling.

On a brood­ing desert day, there’s some­thing un­de­ni­ably com­pelling about fallen giants, like this C-141B Star­lifter at Aero­space Main­te­nance and Re­gen­er­a­tion Group (AMARG). It was knocked to the ground in Fe­bru­ary 2005, not far from where the C-124s that it re­placed were sliced for the smelter more than three decades be­fore. (Photo by Fred­er­ick A. Johnsen)

Wild­cats and bird­cage Cor­sairs jump off the page in this im­age of a Navy stor­age yard at

NAS Jacksonville. Af­ter be­ing picked clean and su­per­seded by newer types, air­craft like these could be more headache than his­tor­i­cal back in the day. (Photo courtesy of Jack Cook) Air­craft boneyards are not a mod­ern in­ven­tion. Ev­ery con­flict gen­er­ates its own aerial grave­yards. Min­utes af­ter this im­age was cap­tured, a match was ap­plied and the first “mil­lion-dollar bon­fire” con­sumed what would even­tu­ally be viewed as his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­facts. (Photo courtesy of Greg VanWyn­gar­den)

The tail code for Ed­wards AFB sug­gests this stored B-1B Lancer at Davis-Mon­than reached the end of its test life, and its stor­age could prove to be a life­saver for op­er­a­tional B-1s later. (Photo by Ted Carlson/fo­to­dy­nam­ics.net)

Rows of McDon­nell F-101 Voodoo jet fight­ers spelled an end to this su­per­sonic main­stay of the Air Na­tional Guard as seen in 1980. Ini­tially pre­served with Spray­lat patches, it was later de­ter­mined no fur­ther users would re­quire F-101s and they were scrapped, save for a few dis­play ex­am­ples. (Photo by Fred­er­ick A. Johnsen)

Above: Neat rows of jets, like these re­tired TA-4 Sky­hawks, are a hall­mark of Davis-Mon­than, where the vibe is more out­door ware­hous­ing than ramshackle dump­ing. (Photo by Ted Carlson/fo­to­dy­nam­ics.net)

Above: Meth­ods for dis­man­tling World War II bombers ranged from the ca­bles used at Spokane, Wash­ing­ton, to ex­plo­sives at some sur­plus fields as well as heavy steel guil­lo­tine blades, like the one about to drop on this B-17. (Photo by Wil­liam T. Larkins, courtesy of Stan Piet)

Top right: The Navy main­tained its own bone­yard of B-29s from the 1950s well into the 1970s at China Lake in Cal­i­for­nia’s Mo­jave Desert. The air­craft were flown on one-way sor­ties to China Lake, where they were ex­pected to be ex­pended as ground tar­gets in weapons tests. In Jan­uary 1978, a hand­ful of B-29s re­mained from as many as 200 de­liv­ered. Sev­eral mu­seum pieces came from the China Lake Su­per­fortresses, and two are now fly­ing; none re­main in the desert to­day. (Photo by Fred­er­ick A. Johnsen)

Bot­tom right: Al­though the post­war bone­yard at King­man, Ari­zona, is cel­e­brated for the fleets of B-17s and B-24s that dot­ted the desert, other rar­i­ties, like this dual-con­trol TP-40N, briefly pop­u­lated King­man af­ter the war. (Photo by Wil­liam T. Larkins, courtesy of Stan Piet)

State­side Army Air Bases ac­cu­mu­lated bone­yard air­planes for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Some were crashed car­casses; oth­ers were aged-out air­frames that had been train­ing de­vices at bases like Keesler Field, Mississippi. Dur­ing the last half of 1944, in­creased em­pha­sis was given to sal­vage at Keesler, with scrap of­ten sent by train to Birm­ing­ham, Alabama. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army)

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