Of Bombers and Boneyards
Aircraft Graveyards through the Ages
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)