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September 8, 2011: The U.S. Air Force is taking four fuselages of C-27A transports from the "bone yard" (a desert storage area where many American warplanes are stored when retired, just in case they are needed later) and converting them to training simulators for Afghan crews to show them how to load and secure cargo in the growing fleet of refurbished C-27As Afghanistan is receiving from Italy. Already, eleven of these have been delivered to Afghanistan. All this is possible because most nations do not immediately scrap planes they no longer need. Instead they go into storage. That’s because it’s long been known that many aircraft components may eventually prove more valuable than just scrap.

Moreover, since World War II, most military aircraft ended up being retired intact (and eventually scrapped), not shot down. Some nations, particularly the United States, have an intermediate status; storage. The main such site in the United States is AMARC (Aerospace Maintenance and Recovery Center). This is the “bone yard”.  Aircraft stored at AMARC would, if armed and operational, be the third largest air force in the world. This facility, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base out in the Arizona desert, stores nearly 5,000 military aircraft no longer needed for active service. Every year, some are recalled, refurbished and sent back to work. But most get "harvested" for spare parts (like the four C-27As for Afghanistan), until what's left is chopped up and sold for scrap.

AMARC isn't the only storage site, just the largest (in the world). Many other air bases in dry climates have room for some aircraft that might be needed again. The U.S. Marine Corps recently took an old AV-8 Harrier vertical takeoff fighter, which had been in storage for sixteen years at one of its air bases, and restored it to duty as a two seat trainer. The marines didn't think they would need that old AV-8. But the new F-35B, which is to replace the AV-8, is late in arriving, and operations in Afghanistan have worn down the existing AV-8s. So reinforcements have been called up from storage sites.

This spotlights one of the major problems with modern warplanes; that some models have remained in service far longer than anyone expected. This happened partly because modern aircraft are built to last, and used engineering advances that worked out better than expected. Engineers tend to overbuild when they can.

For example, commercial transports are very sturdy beasts, as they have to fly up to 12 hours a day for weeks at a time. Military aircraft fly less often, although their sturdiness is also meant to deal with the violent maneuvers of combat. But heavy bombers and transports can go on and on, as they don't fly as much as the civilian transports and the technology they are based on hasn’t changed much. The best example is the B-52 bomber, which entered service half a century ago and the ones still flying were built over forty years ago. There are also over a hundred, 70 year old, DC-3 civilian transports still in the air as well.

Most warplanes are in production for a decade or less. Once the manufacturing stops, it starts to become difficult to get spare parts. The tools and equipment used to make the aircraft components are usually scrapped. Making the parts from scratch is so expensive that it is often cheaper to scrap aircraft and buy a new design. But a new aircraft is often more than the budget can bear as well. The solution to this problem is cannibalization. That is, using some aircraft, either those wrecked in accidents or older models retired to the "bone yard", just for spare parts. This has been a practice in combat from the very beginning of military aviation. Especially during World War I, when more aircraft were lost to bad landings and takeoffs than to enemy action, the wrecks became a source of replacement parts for airframes and engines of aircraft still in service.

AMARC fills 500-2,000 spare parts orders each month. Not just for American military aircraft, but for those of allies as well. Australia kept its 1960s era F-111's flying for decades with spare parts from old U.S. F-111s stored at AMARC. The U.S. Air Force A-10, built in the 1970s, and not a popular air force candidate for a new model, is kept flying (because it's so damn useful) with parts from AMARC. Even when parts are still in production, a wartime surge, as was experienced during the Afghanistan campaign, will outstrip the manufacturer’s ability to produce them. In this case, AMARC delivered parts for the F-18.

AMARC was set up in 1985, consolidating bone yard operations already there and from other locations in the United States. In that first year, it delivered spare parts worth half a billion dollars. While the airframes, stripped of all their more valuable parts, are worth only about 25 cents a pound as scrap, some of the parts are worth their weight in gold. Engines, which often comprise a third (or more) of an aircraft's value, are the most valuable single items. And each engine consists of thousands parts, some of which are worth quite a bit, even if the engine is no longer in use by any aircraft. Other nations cannibalize their retired or obsolete warplanes, but few have organized the operation as efficiently as the United States.

 

 


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