What happens when an aircraft is no longer needed and its engines are turned off and allowed to cool down for the final time? What comes after that?
Airlines may put retired aircraft in open-air aviation museums, such as the renowned Concorde or the Tupolev Tu-144, but the majority of such aircraft end up in "boneyards" or "graveyards" after they retire. Thousands of aircraft, for example, are kept in vast boneyards, dotting the deserts of the southwest United States.
If you were to drive along South Kolb Road in Tucson, Arizona, you'd notice that the familiar houses soon give way to something much stranger: rows of aircraft, ranging in size from massive cargo lifters to heavy bombers, stretched out all motionless and quiet in the blazing desert sun.
This is the world's largest aircraft storage and preservation facility called the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309th AMARG), often known as the Boneyard, which resides within the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
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Arranged over approximately 2,600 acres (10.5 square kilometers), this place is home to almost 4,000 aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles from the United States Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy, Marine Corps, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), according to Airplane Boneyards.
Although it houses various types of planes, the bulk of the preserved aircraft in the Davis-Monthan belong to military aviation.
While some seem to be brand new, others are shrouded in protective covers to keep sand and dust away. Not all jets are fortunate enough to survive retirement in one piece, as within the hangars, some planes have been reduced to boxes of spare parts, ready to be sent out to different locations around the globe to give a hand to other aircraft take to the skies again.
Although Davis-Monthan is not the world's only aircraft boneyard, it is by far the largest, so you may be thinking why a storage facility of this magnitude is located in Tucson.
There are some reasons for that. First of all, the climatic conditions in Arizona, with its dry heat and low humidity, mean aircraft take longer to rust and degrade, making them less susceptible to corrosion and making it easier to keep them in proper working condition. Moreover, deserts offer a large amount of space for an affordable price, which means those interested in their service save a lot of money.
The geology of the desert with its alkaline soil is also hard enough to prevent aircraft from sinking into the ground. This way, planes can be parked in the desert without costly new parking ramps.
Although the desert is kind of like an aviation retirement home, some of the planes' flying days are still ahead of them. If a plane is due to fly again, it's looked after in storage by the facility technicians who make sure all entrances to the aircraft are sealed to keep out dirt, dust, and wildlife. They regularly operate motors and other equipment to ensure that everything is working smoothly.
More planes have been forced to land in graveyards as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic than any other occurrence in recent history. During one of the pandemic peaks in 2020, Victorville, California, which has one of the world's largest airplane parking lots, was filmed showing closely parked planes.
If you're interested in actually seeing the long rows of planes that sit in the Arizona heat with their tails stretching to the horizon in person, you're in luck, because the boneyard can be accessed via a bus tour.