Support our mission
Coyotes gather near a group of T-2 Buckeye training aircraft at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group facility near Tucson, Ariz., in October, 2015.

Coyotes gather near a group of T-2 Buckeye training aircraft at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group facility near Tucson, Ariz., in October, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

TUCSON, Ariz. — Thousands of aircraft are lined up efficiently in the desert. Seen from above, their bright surfaces gleam like the skeletons of U.S. Air Power Past.

They call it The Boneyard, but people at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group have mixed feelings about the name and its connotation as a wasteland where tumbleweeds pinball between rotting aircraft.

To them, it’s more reservoir than desert.

“Think of it like water,” said Timothy S. Gray, the group’s executive director. “When there’s an excess amount of it, I don’t want to just get rid of it, I want to hold that until I have a future need. ... And just like a reservoir, at some point if I keep storing and storing, I’m going to overflow the reservoir. I have to have some relief valve to let some of that stuff out.”

Some of the planes end up at museums or are scrapped to make room at the 2,600-acre facility at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

But as U.S. forces continue to battle the Islamic State group, AMARG has been providing much-needed parts for key planes being used in the Middle East -- notably the C-130 transport and the A-10 “Warthog.”

Some of the 700 DOD civilians and contractors here — many of them veterans — are working to prepare old F-16 fighters for use as drones, enabling pilots to practice dogfight tactics against live targets. Others convert surplus Air Force C-23s for use by the U.S. Forest Service. Some take apart C-135s to be shipped to another base for structural testing, while others remove parts needed to keep older planes in the air.

And here and there, crews apply and remove the coating that protects stored aircraft from the desert sun and the native wildlife.

“There are a lot of moving parts here,” said Tony Draper, squadron director of the 578th Storage and Disposal Squadron. “There’s a lot more that happens at the old Boneyard, as some people refer to the place — I don’t necessarily care for that name — but it is a vibrant military complex that does a lot of work.

“It’s actually a lot more than where airplanes just come to die,” Draper said.

Beyond storage, the unit’s work breaks down into two areas: reclamation and regeneration.

“Reclamation is basically pulling parts from the desert, from aircraft storage,” said Shirley Mercier, director of the 577th Commodities and Reclamation Squadron. “The regeneration piece is pulling entire aircraft out of storage for making them flightworthy.”

Here’s a closer look at some of what happens here.

Preservation When individual commands, as the owners of the planes, decide to preserve one, a long process begins. Draper says it can involve about 250 man-hours to preserve an F-16 or about 600 for a C-5.

After removing explosives, items subject to theft and anything with a short shelf life, the crew looks for corrosion and repairs that. The fuel is drained and replaced by a lightweight machine oil that, after it is also drained, preserves the fuel system and engines.

Then comes the coating.

It keeps dust and vermin out, and reflects the desert sunlight so the interior of the plane is only about 10 degrees hotter than its surroundings.

The canopy glass is covered with a waxy coating and engine openings are covered with “barrier paper.”

“The cognizant engineer from the program management office develops a sealing diagram that tells us where they think water might intrude,” Draper said. “We use a heavy 3M tape to seal the production breaks. ... It does not leave a residue when you peel it off. If you used, say, duct tape, it would leave a heavy residue and you’d never get it off after four years.”

Next, two coats of black, rubberized, strippable latex are applied.

“It maintains kind of a rubbery consistency even after it’s applied and dried on the aircraft,” he said. After that comes two coats of white reflective coating. Many of these planes are listed as being in the 1000 series, which means they are in “inviolate” storage.

“Basically it means we can’t take anything off the aircraft. The assumption is the aircraft at some point will be returned to service,” Draper said.

Every four years, those planes are stripped of sealant and coating -- then represerved and restored to go back into desert storage.

Parts No parts can be removed from 1000-level aircraft without permission from high-level Air Force or Navy officials.

The other levels are 2000, for long-term storage for reclamation efforts; 3000, for short-term storage; and 4000, which Draper described as “bring them in, pull the parts and get them ready for disposal.”

Those pulled parts can save a lot of money. According to AMARG, in fiscal year 2014, 9,930 parts with an original value of $523.2 million were taken out of planes at the facility.

Requests for used parts have different priorities. “If we know it’s a direct war-impact part requirement, that’ll be the highest priority,” Mercier said. A parts request for museum support aircraft would be a very low priority.

The wings of special ops The military’s fleet of C-130 aircraft is getting a tough workout from Air Force special operations forces in the Middle East.

“The C-130 became the primary aircraft to get our military forces deployed to these very small airfields,” Gray said. “We’re fighting in the desert, we’re not flying into some major airport to set up a base camp for the Marines or Army or Air Force people. We’re going into small places, and a lot of them. So you need an airplane that can haul some weight but is very tough and durable.”

Problem is, many of those C-130s were based in places where salt air was caused corrosion on the wings. The depots at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Hill Air Force Base in Utah were tasked with the restoration before they moved the work to AMARG. “Our goal is to get out ahead, overhaul the wings and ship the wings in time for when they’re needed to drop the old wings that were corroded,” Gray said. “They do some basic inspections, hang our wings, and they’re ready to keep going.”

AMARG’s recent contract was to restore seven sets of C-130 wings with a daily crew of six or eight people.

“It’s a small crew, but the mission impact is a lot greater than some of the other projects we’ve done. Even though it doesn’t require a slew of people, it’s still high-impact, supporting special operations,” Mercier said.

Making drones Off the coast of Florida, U.S. pilots practice shooting down U.S. F-16s that are drones pulled from AMARG inventory and fitted with electronics to enable operators to maneuver them from the ground.

“They’ve been doing this for over 20 years here,” Gray said. “They started with F-102s, then F-100s, F-106s, F-4s and now the most recent aircraft, the F-16s.”

Why not use the many F-4s in storage? “Because of the capabilities of the adversarial aircraft our pilots have to go up against,” Gray explained. “The F-4 is obviously not as maneuverable as an F-16.”

When planes come into AMARG, they aren’t in pristine condition. “We pull them out, and we have to take all the panels and a lot the wiring and everything out and inspect it, and we find a lot of cracks, a lot of dings and dents,” he said.

Coping with those, Gray said, “is what takes the most time.” Their goal is to produce an airplane in 84 days. By the end of this year, the drone program requirement will rise to 30 aircraft per year. “So we have seven or eight aircraft in work at any one time, and if you think of Julia Child, it’s kind of like that. One is in stage 1 of a process, one’s in stage 2, one’s in stage 3 ... we have 5 stages, they’re called gates.”

When the aircraft arrives in Florida, Boeing installs the electronics package that turns an F-16 fighter into a QF-16 drone. But the plan is for that plane to put in 300 more hours of flight, most of it with a pilot. Since the average flight lasts about an hour, a QF-16 from AMARG can make about 300 sorties.

“We’re actually going to let a pilot shoot a live missile, and he’s going to take out this drone. Makes it a real dogfight, the most realistic training an aviator can have.”

Gray said the older F-16s are ideal for dogfighting practice because the newer models are far more suitable for “dropping bombs, interdicting airspace, jamming and doing things like that,” but are less maneuverable. While the pilot of the pursuing F-16 tries to lock on and fire his missile, the operator on the ground is sitting in front of a curved screen, engaged in evasive tactics. “Through computer and GPS they know exactly what the airplane’s doing, how fast it’s going, what its airspeed is, angle of attack, stuff like that,” Gray said. It’s not a unmanned aerial vehicle, “where it takes off and just kind of goes out over an area. It’s highly maneuverable, like a fully functioning F-16. It is insane how realistic” it is, he said.

The ‘Warthogs’ It’s no secret that the A-10 Thunderbird is a favorite of ground forces. Its maneuverability and firepower in close air support have made it tough and controversial for the military to retire the “Warthog.” But the plane hasn’t been in full production since the 1980s.

To keep them flying, AMARG turns to its collection for parts.

And the military doesn’t always wait until a part fails to request its replacement.

“We’re doing save lists on A-10s right now,” Mercier said. “We get lists from the system program offices that say, ‘OK, you have 100 aircraft, we want you to pull this list of 10 parts from every one of those aircraft.’ We’ll basically pillage the parts and send them back out through the supply system.”

“We have supported the A-10 fleet over the past 10 years,” Draper said. “Not only with parts, but we did a service life extension program on about 140 A-10 wings that we put back into service. That was a neat long-term program a lot of guys -- the heavy structures guys, myself -- were real proud of.”

Demolition detail During the Vietnam War, the F-4 fighter was a mainstay of the military. But with the arrival of faster aircraft like the F-15 and F-16, the F-4’s days were numbered. It last saw combat action for the U.S. in the Persian Gulf War. AMARG regenerated about 300 F-4s, but that program ended about three years ago. Now, the herd is being thinned by AMARG workers.

When the decision is made to demolish planes, it’s not just a matter of sending them into a crusher. There are thousands of parts to be dealt with, some containing radioactive isotopes, PCB chemicals or asbestos.

There’s not a lot of free space in a cockpit. Imagine having to get under the console to remove parts.

“Our average age in our workforce is about 52, and they do a lot of work like that. I’ve seen them pulling rudder pedals out of flight decks, so they have to crawl in between the seat and the console, crawl under the console, to remove the rudder pedals,” Mercier said. “I think those jobs where they have to crawl into tight spaces are difficult, particularly in the summer. Sometimes they have A/C units they can push up there, blow cool air through a tube, but it’s still not the most beautiful place to work.”

Surplus planes Large C-130 aircraft often drop chemicals on fires in the western U.S., but sometimes the Forest Service needs something more maneuverable. The Army had some C-23s in storage at AMARG that were used mainly to haul supplies and people between bases in Europe.

It was a match made at the Boneyard.

The C-23s “can get into these tight valleys like out in California when they’re trying to fight forest fires in the mountains,” Gray said. “It’s hard to get down in these valleys and drop the retardant right where they need it. The C-130, with its airspeed and the size of it, has a hard time getting into these smaller nooks and crannies.” AMARG’s role is to pull the C-23s out of the desert and get them ready to go. “We’re working a C-23 Sherpa program with the Forest Service for the hot-shot fire jumpers,” Draper said in May. “They’re pulling six of them out. We’ve got three of those in work right now.”

Since then, the last of the C-23s has been delivered to the firefighters.

“It makes an ideal jump plane. Guys will parachute out the back to work behind the fire lines. So that’s kind of a neat thing. We’re finding another use for these Sherpas, and it’s for guys that are putting their life on the line to go fight forest fires.”

Coast Guard C-27s A few years ago, in the wake of sequestration, the Air Force decided to pull the plug on its $500 million-plus C-27J Spartan cargo plane fleet and stick with the less costly C-130s.

Several of the C-27s, almost brand new with less than 1,000 flying hours, ended up at AMARG.

Now, the U.S. Coast Guard will reap the benefits of the Air Force’s controversial purchase as AMARG regenerates 11 of them as a cheaper alternative to C-130s.

From AMARG’s perspective, work on the C-27 is complicated by difficulties in finding parts for a small fleet amid procurement rules.

“With the government we have to go through acquisition rules and regulations. I’m not saying that’s bad ... It just takes time to do that so we can buy our own spares.”

Testing the effects of aging Although it costs money to maintain an older plane, it costs a lot more to buy a new one.

With that in mind, AMARG is often the starting point for testing the effects of aging.

“Because the airplanes are flying so much longer, they’re wanting to do structural testing to see how much more wing load the airplanes can take, and fuselage structures,” Gray said. At the request of the Air Force Research Laboratory, they cut up a C-135 transport and a B-52 to be shipped to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma for testing.

Then comes the complicated part: Getting the pieces to the lab.

"Several years ago we put almost an entire B-1 on a truck," Mercier said. "That was a special truck built for it. The wings and tail were removed, but the entire fuselage section from the nose to the tail was transported from here to Seattle.

“The B-52, we have the entire aft section that was cut off. They will either reassemble it when it gets to the lab, or they’ll leave it in sections and do structural tests on the sections they have.”

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up