The Boneyard's airplane-loving workers are in their element
By JOE GROMELSKI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 22, 2016
TUCSON, Ariz. — Imagine being a serious aircraft buff, surrounded in your workplace by thousands of planes ranging from the biggest and baddest bombers to experimental models that never made it to full production.
That’s the case with many of about 700 workers who report to the the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group's facility — also known as The Boneyard — to restore planes, remove parts and work demolition.
“It’s just a very proud place to work, and there’s a lot of heritage here,” said Shirley Mercier, director of the 577th Commodities and Reclamation Squadron. “Most of the people out there now have been here for a long time,” primarily retired military or veterans and mechanics who have worked the aircraft. “The guys out here love airplanes, they always have, that’s what they know,” Mercier said.
“We’ve got some old stuff here, we’ve got some new stuff,” said Jeff Clement, chief of the 578th Storage and Disposal Squadron's storage flight. “It makes you wonder what mission did this bomber go on, what did it perform, where did these cargo planes perform humanitarian missions, maybe drop groceries to starving people or (do) hurricane evacs. It’s just that historical value of each and every plane out here. Something played a mission in somebody’s life or somebody’s career, and how can you not just get goosebumps talking about that?”
Rudy Perez, chief of the 578th's disposal flight, spent his Air Force career around cargo aircraft. “I worked C-5s, 141s and C-130s,” he said. “For me it’s the cargo aircraft that mean a lot. ... Yes, I do come across tail numbers that I’ve worked on or flown on in the past.”
And when those planes are scrapped?
“After a while, you have to see it strictly as a job,” Perez said. “Even for a lot of us around here who have seen and worked on some of these airplanes, there’s still that feeling that you’re almost like losing a friend, in a sense. ... In the end we know it needs to be done, but there is still that sentimental feeling.”
Back in April, two C-130s arrived for storage. “Son of a gun if they weren’t aircraft that I worked 35 years ago up in Alaska in a rescue unit,” Clement said. “I’m coming to the end of my career now, I see aircraft coming into storage. So a little bit of me is sad seeing that, but the happy part is knowing the other side of what AMARG does is regenerate aircraft, so who knows? One day those aircraft might fly out of here again.”
People who work at The Boneyard have a certain standing in the Tucson area.
“You walk into anybody downtown and they find out where you work, they’ve got a million questions for you, and they want tours,” said Tony Draper, squadron director of the 578th. “It’s a neat place. It’s a very good conversation starter.”
Workers at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group facility near Tucson, Ariz., remove the forward section from a KC-135E Stratotanker in October, 2015. The aircraft was taken overland to a research and development firm in Wichita, Kan., in June, 2016., to be used for structural testing.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES