Famed as the 'boneyard', the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Centre seeks a more dynamic image

Richard Scott/TUCSON

Everybody in Tucson knows the "boneyard". Sprawling across 6,400ha (2,600 acres) of desert on a site adjacent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (AFB), it is host to almost 4,600 military aircraft held in open storage for the US Department of Defense (DoD) and other US Government agencies.

Visitors to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), the facility's correct name, are greeted with the awesome, if somewhat eerie, sight of row upon row of aircraft put out to grass under the baking Arizona sun. Think of an aircraft in the inventory of the US armed services over the last 30 years, and chances are it is here.

AMARC is also a place of pilgrimage for aviation enthusiasts from around the world. The Davis-Monthan AFB website even includes a listing of every aircraft by location, type and serial number so that former aircrew or avid airplane buffs alike can keep track of every airframe.


Probably the best-known residents of AMARC are the giant Boeing B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers. Once prolific, they are today an endangered species as AMARC works to progressively 'eliminate' 365 B-52s over three-and-a-half years to comply with the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

The cull is undertaken by means of a 5,900kg (13,000lb) guillotine blade, hoisted 25m (80ft) high by a linkbelt crane and then released by a slip clutch to sever flight control surfaces and the fuselage at predetermined points. Under START's terms, dismembered B-52s are left in situ for 90 days so that satellites or inspection teams from the former Soviet states can verify their destruction. Their remains are disposed of for scrap.

To date, 274 B-52s have been destroyed in accordance with START. Elimination of the rest is to be completed by early December 2001.

Inevitably, the fate befalling the mighty Stratofortress has only reinforced AMARC's indelible image as the world's largest aircraft cemetery. That perception does little to foster a wider appreciation of the role played by the facility within the Air Force Material Command (AFMC).

More than a graveyard

"The label 'boneyard' is one we're constantly trying to shake off," says Dick Fagan, a former US Air Force technician and now an AMARC workload division chief. "It doesn't do any justice to the range of services we offer, and the savings we achieve for the taxpayer.

"AMARC is so much more than just a graveyard for superannuated aircraft. Our reclamation and despatch activities are becoming more and more important to the DoD as the budget drawdown puts pressure on normal spares stockholdings. And people shouldn't forget that around a quarter of all the aircraft that come in here are eventually returned to flying status."

AMARC today prefers to market itself as the USAF's "Diamond in the Desert", a treasure trove for its many customers. Statistics show that during Fiscal Year 2000 AMARC received 185 aircraft valued at $813 million, while 190, worth $477 million in total, left. Out of these, 53 (valued at $192 million) were returned to service. Parts removed from storage and shipped numbered 18,657, collectively valued at $170 million. All this work is achieved by a workforce of 589 civilian employees, four active-duty military officers and 13 reservists, operating on an annual budget of $51 million.

So how did this unique facility come about? Davis-Monthan first began to receive aircraft for storage in 1946, when the 4105th Army Air Force Base Unit was established to store and manage the large numbers of Boeing B-29 bombers and C-47 transport aircraft left surplus at the end of the Second World War. The US Air Force was created in 1947 and the following year the storage activity was renamed the 3040th Aircraft Storage Depot.

As Fagan explains, Tucson was selected as a storage site for two reasons. "First, the area's minimal rainfall and low humidity make it possible to store aircraft in the open with a minimum of deterioration and corrosion. Second, the hard alkaline soil allows aircraft to be parked in the desert without the need to construct extensive concrete or steel parking ramps. That combination of a dry climate and ready made hardstandings is just ideal."

The value of storing aircraft for later operational needs became dramatically apparent during the Korean War. By the time the conflict ended in 1953, thousands of parts had been reclaimed to sustain the front-line war effort, and around 350 bombers returned to active service from Davis-Monthan.

In 1965 the USAF was designated as the DoD's single management authority for extended aircraft storage, and the closure of the US Navy's aircraft storage centre at Lichfield Park near Phoenix saw an influx of about 800 more aircraft to Davis-Monthan. Reflecting its new joint service role, the former 2704th Air Force Storage and Disposition Group was in February 1965 rechristened the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC).

Between 1965 and 1972, MASDC provided support for aviation assets deployed to Vietnam. But the greater challenge came as the conflict wound down: from 1970 to 1973 almost 5,700 aircraft were processed into storage, and by the end of 1973 MASDC's inventory was at an all-time high of 6,080 aircraft.

The facility's name was changed to AMARC in 1985 to more accurately reflect its two major roles. "Yes, we're still a storage centre," says Fagan, "but also an active service support function with a primary focus on regenerating aerospace assets for all DoD service branches."

As well as providing storage, regeneration, reclamation and disposal services to the air force, navy, army and coast guard, it also holds a small number of aircraft on behalf of other government departments, notably NASA, the US Customs Service and the State Department. Its activities increasingly support Foreign Military Sales (FMS) through both aircraft regeneration and parts supply. Furthermore, AMARC's acreage allows for other training and trials activities (such as destructive testing and battle damage repair) to be undertaken.

Major influx

The Cold War's end, and the deactivation of many front-line units, has seen a major influx of aircraft into AMARC over the last decade. Latest estimates put the total acquisition value of the 4,573 aircraft in storage at about $27 billion. "That's quite a responsibility," observes Fagan, "hence the care we take in preservation and storage methods. We've made a science of it, and our own lab is continuously looking at new applications or preservation techniques to make the process more cost effective."

Prior to being placed in storage, aircraft arriving at AMARC go through "process in" - being stripped of guns, ejection sea charges and other hazardous materials, any classified equipment and those items regarded as pilferable. An examination and evaluation is then carried out to document the material condition of aircraft and identify missing parts.

Following a thorough wash-down, aircraft are taken to the "flush farm" where AMARC technicians drain the aircraft's fuel system and pump it full of 1010 lightweight oil. This is then also drained, leaving an oil film to protect the fuel system.

Packs of desiccant are placed in the air intakes to absorb any build up of moisture within the airframe. Next comes the job of applying paper and tape to cover all apertures in the upper part of the airframe, such as engine intakes, exhausts, panel seams, seals, and any other gaps or cracks. The underside is left unsealed, allowing the free circulation of air to prevent condensation.

Spray protection

Covered areas and other easily damaged surfaces - such as canopies and radomes - are then covered with two coats of a vinyl plastic compound known as Spraylat. A first coat of black is applied to keep out dust and water, to stop the occasional dust storm from scratching canopies and windows, and to prevent local wildlife from nesting.

But without further protection the internal temperature would soar to perhaps 110°C, damaging rubber and other components. This is why a second coat of white Spraylat is applied over the black, to reflect the intense Arizona sun and keep the internal temperature of the aircraft within 10-15° of that outside.

Spraylat is designed to peel off easily should the aircraft return to service. Not all aircraft receive this application, however: a number of US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4s and F/A-18s at AMARC are enveloped in vinyl bags as part of a project to examine other and potentially more cost-effective preservation techniques.

AMARC has four categories of storage. "Aircraft in Type 3000, or flyable hold, are brought in for short-term storage, normally up to 90 days," says Fagan, "Aircraft in this category are maintained in a near flight-ready status, and are typically awaiting reassignment to a new unit or FMS aircraft with transfer pending."

Most AMARC residents are held in Type 1000 long-term storage. "These aircraft are in deep preservation to maintain their functional and material integrity for an extended period," says Fagan. "The intention is that they remain in a condition enabling possible future flyaway. Aircraft will remain stored in this condition for four years at a time, after which we undertake de-preservation, conduct a thorough inspection, and then re-preserve."

"In the longer-term, those Type 1000 aircraft identified to have no future missions may be downgraded to Type 2000 status. This is storage for reclamation, with systems, parts and structures removed for re-use by the active fleet. We maintain the integrity of the components in these aircraft, but they are not re-preserved."

"Reclamation is vital because in many cases the parts are no longer available within the supply system or are out of production. We offer a priority reclamation service to meet urgent or unforeseen requirements which normal supply channels cannot satisfy. There is also a programmed reclamation programme to restock supply shelves and satisfy longer-term inventory needs."

When an aircraft is deemed to be beyond further use, it is relegated to Type 4000 status, given a final maintenance check and put up for disposal. A few may find their way into museums, but most will be transferred to the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS) to be advertised through its local sales office.

Combat-capable aircraft cannot be sold for further military use. Instead, they will be fully demilitarised and offered for scrap only by the DRMS. Those aircraft which are returned to flyable condition are regenerated through the "process out" division. Notwithstanding the diversity of aircraft types, AMARC has the expertise within its pool of certified technicians and mechanics to tackle whatever overhaul, modification, repair and time compliance technical order procedures are necessary to return aircraft to airworthiness.

Since the early 1970s, many have departed on a one-way ticket as sourcing for the Full Scale Aerial Target (FSAT) programme. FSAT continues with retired F-4s flown out for conversion to QF-4 remotely controlled target drones.

Other aircraft are restored to service before transfer for further service aboard. One result of the US defence drawdown has been increasing availability of surplus aircraft for transfer to allied governments. Ex-US Navy Lockheed P-3B Orions and early-model Lockheed-Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons are prime examples.

"We work closely with the Security Assistance Program offices of each service to provide support for FMS customers," says Fagan. "That includes reclamation and parts supply, particularly when spares are out of production and the US armed forces have removed the aircraft from their active inventory."

Foreign military support

The longevity of the French Navy's Vought F-8 Crusaders, eventually retired at the end of 1999, owed much to the scavenging of retired airframes at AMARC. Similarly, the Royal Australian Air Force has been a regular visitor to Davis-Monthan as it seeks to take the life of its General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark fleet well beyond 2010. Long-term users of the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom may rest assured that AMARC looks forward to doing good business with them in the years to come.

Apart from aircraft, AMARC provides storage for Titan II missiles, re-entry vehicles, special-mission vans, stores pylons and launchers. The facility is also used to store jigs and other production tooling for the Northrop Grumman A-10 Thunderbolt II, Rockwell B-1B Lancer, Northrop B-2 Spirit and Lockheed C-5 Galaxy.

"The DoD used to pay out millions of dollars to have these items placed in secure storage at a commercial site or with the contractor," says Fagan. "We now hold more than 267,000 line items of tooling in low-cost outdoor storage, coated to prevent corrosion and available for recall at any time if there is a requirement for a specific assembly or component."

With the stored aircraft inventory likely to remain at slightly less than 5,000 for the foreseeable future, AMARC's contribution to the AFMC shows no sign of diminishing. Indeed, cost constraints are putting ever greater demand on its logistic support and reclamation services. FMS withdrawal is expected to expand, as is the range of services for other defence department, governmental and commercial customers. "Boneyard" or not, AMARC will continue to bring in its desert harvest.

Source: Flight International