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Uncle Sam's salvage yard
A Cold War icon heads for the scrap heap
By Andy Walton
TUCSON, Arizona -- It's a junkyard, really, a place where vehicles are stored until they are restored, stripped for parts or melted down as scrap metal. But there's not an old Ford Falcon or Chevy Nova to be found on the 27,000 acres of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), a most uncommon salvage yard.
"A lot of people think of this as a boneyard," says Air Force Col. Gregory O. Stanley, AMARC's commander. "The airplane lands, we hook a tug to it, we tow it out in the desert, and it's forgotten about. That's not the case. There are quite a few airplanes that have been designated to go back into the inventory."
Though it appears remote, AMARC is in the heart of the city of Tucson, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Under several different names, AMARC has performed its mission since it housed B-29s and C-47s returning from World War II. These older planes are gone now, sold as surplus or stripped and scrapped.
"If you want to see old airplanes," Stanley says, "you need to go to the Air Force museum."
Most of the planes here are from the Vietnam era or later. They are divided into four categories, depending on their future prospects: Category 1000 planes are preserved with an eye toward flying them again. Category 2000 planes are maintained as a source of parts. Category 3000 planes are kept ready to fly, awaiting a new deployment. And Category 4000 planes are at the end of the line, soon to become museum displays or scrap metal.
The planes that are to be preserved go through a meticulous process to prepare them for life in the desert. On arrival, the planes are inspected, and the fuel in their tanks is replaced with oil, which provides a protective coating for engine parts. The canopies, engine intakes and any other openings are sealed with layers of "Spraylat," a latex-based substance that remains flexible and is easy to remove later.
The top layer, which is white, reflects enough sunlight to keep the interior of the plane nearly the same temperature as outside. The coatings protect the planes' most vulnerable parts against sun, wind, dust and nesting animals. There are few other threats here; the low rainfall and alkaline soil make the site ideal for storage, and the hard soil eliminates the requirement to pour concrete pads.
"If we got into a war, there's no doubt in my mind that we would be regenerating those airplanes to go back out and fly one more mission," Stanley says.
Every four years, these planes are brought into an open hangar for a checkup.
"We'll crank the engines up, we'll check all the systems, then we'll re-preserve them and put them back in the desert," Stanley says. One such plane, the McDonnell Douglas YC-15, was put back into service as a test plane after 15 years in the desert.
Category 2000 planes are stripped for parts to sell to U.S. and allied forces. Some of the parts are recycled to save money; some, from older aircraft, are available nowhere else.
"If you look at the amount of airplanes that we've put back into service, if you look at the about 27,000 parts that we put back into service, and then you look at the cost of operating this facility, the net cost avoidance turns out to be for every dollar spent here, we return $21," Stanley says.
Category 3000 planes are kept in near ready-to-fly condition, awaiting duty. And then there's Category 4000: A few of these planes are destined for "static display" in museums, town squares or Air Force base entrances -- but most will become razor blades, soft drink cans or car fenders.
Sunset for the Stratofortress
Among the most notable Category 4000 planes is the Cold War's most enduring icon, the venerable B-52 Stratofortress heavy bomber, here to be painstakingly destroyed. Most of the B-52s in the U.S. fleet are headed for the scrap heap under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
After arriving at AMARC, the BUFFs ("Big Ugly Fat Fellows," the G-rated version of its affectionate nickname) are stripped of engines and other parts that might be needed for the active fleet. Then they are towed to the desert to wait for the executioner's ax -- a 13,500-pound steel blade, hoisted 60 feet into the air on a crane and then dropped.
The blade "goes through this airplane like butter," says Joe McKinney, AMARC's chief of treaty compliance.
"When the tail is first chopped off, it is legally destroyed," McKinney says. "However, we must cut the airplane into five separate pieces: cut the tail off, the wings, each one, and then we cut the fuselage between the wing attach points.
"The aircraft must remain on the ground for 90 days after it's reported destroyed, to give the former Soviet Union time to verify by ... satellites," McKinney says. "The exception to the rule is if [Russian inspectors] come in and release the aircraft by [on-site] inspection, which they did [for] this one."
McKinney is standing in front of a B-52 whose nose art identifies it as "Lucky 13." Lucky 13's luck ran out in March 1998, when it was visited by the crane. The fuselage now leans to the right, the wings and tail pitched at odd angles, waiting for civilian contractors to harvest its 150,000 pounds of aluminum and other metals.
As of August 1998, 252 B-52s had been destroyed, and 113 were at AMARC awaiting destruction -- compared to the 94 the Air Force has in its current inventory.
The planes that remain intact in the desert are a mix of Strategic Air Command gray and Desert Storm camouflage. Even with large parts missing and rough shards of metal hanging where the engines were, the planes convey a sort of faded dignity. A few planes sport nose art identifying them as, for example, "Yankee Doodle II" or "Tantalizing Takeoff."
The "Memphis Belle III" claims as its ancestor the most famous bomber of World War II, but it, too, is in line for demolition. When the last of the B-52s at AMARC is scrapped, scheduled for late 2001, the planes will disappear from their neat rows in the boneyard as completely as the World War II-vintage aircraft that went before. The desert has no memory.