Beyond the Fences

Ever wondered what goes on at the 'Boneyard'? Here's the story--but stop calling it the 'Boneyard'

To the untrained eye, what lurks behind the fences of a 2,600-acre area near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is nothing more than a pile of junk airplanes from days gone by.

Many of Tucson's denizens refer to this seemingly secret area as "The Boneyard," although it is much more than that. The official name of the facility is a government acronym, AMARC, which is short for the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center.

When first established in 1946, the area was known as the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC). In 1985, the name was changed to its present moniker.

While not directly affiliated with operations at Davis-Monthan, AMARC leases space from the base. AMARC spokesman Rob Raine says the storage facility, at any given time, has more than 4,300 aircraft on site, along with retired missiles and support equipment. He says the items have a combined worth of $33 billion. (That figure is a bit skewed, though, since the worth is tabulated at the time the equipment was originally purchased.) Historical significance does not play a part in the worth.

"Our mission, basically, is to store and return to service aircraft for all parts of the Department of Defense, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force," says Raine.

The boneyard portion of the facility comes into play only at the end. "When there's no further use for the aircraft, (we) turn them over to Defense Reutilization and Marketing, and they will dispose of it as scrap."

The facility also charges fees to foreign aircraft owners who simply want a place to park or repair their planes. Raine says Tucson's caliche-filled soil makes it easy to park and tow planes without harming the ground or building special storage areas. The dry air also affords for less-corrosive conditions.

Fuel is removed from the planes as soon as they arrive, to protect the soil and minimize fire hazards on the ground.

The oldest plane on the lot is a 1952 Air Force T-33 Trainer. The newest planes, including B-1s, date back to the mid-1980s.

AMARC is a government-financed project that receives about $97 million a year in funding and has roughly 500 employees. Raine says the investment is a benefit to taxpayers. "We returned $1.2 billion in terms of parts and aircraft that were regenerated," says Raine. "So it works out to about $12 for every dollar spent here at AMARC."

Any aircraft that is in long-term storage at AMARC undergoes a sealing process called Spraylat, a brand name from the Pelham, N.Y.-based Spraylat Corporation. The spray-on liquid coating seals the planes from the outside elements. After the application of the first coat of black sealant, a white coating is sprayed on top to reflect the heat. Think of it as a process similar to rubberizing your roof to cool it off during the hot summer months.

Raine says the process is great for keeping the inside of the aircraft cool, and rain and desert critters out. It can also be removed quickly if the aircraft needs to be returned to service. He says about 21 percent of all aircraft at AMARC see air duty again.

The facility also has the A-10 Wing Shop, which refurbishes and repairs wings, effectively giving the "Warthogs" another 25 years of service. "Basically, they'll go through the whole wing," says Raine. "They can replace the wing spar. They can go inside and replace those interior ribs without taking the skin off the wing. They'll go through and test all the piping and hydraulic lines to make sure they're intact and don't need to be changed out. If they need to be changed out, they'll change them."

The Pima Air and Space Museum runs public tours of AMARC, but those tours only give a glimpse of what happens. The tour bus doesn't pass the Wing Shop or the area where old F-4s are being turned into drones to be shot down in military exercises, or becoming artificial reefs to benefit sea life. You also won't see the retired Titan missiles. However, the tours do pass an area referred to as "Celebrity Row," which consists of a fine collection of A-10s, F-4s, C-5s, C-141s, B-1s, B-52s, F-4s and many other aircraft and spare parts.

You may even catch a glimpse of some celebrity aircraft that have been used in movies. The tour guides love to talk about those.

Tour guide Larry Turner has been conducting tours since they began in 1999. "We're running four tours a day," Turner says. "As our attendance drops down and it gets warmer ... we'll drop those down to two or three tours a day."

Larry Hoffman of Phoenix took the tour and marveled at the A-10 Thunderbolt II. "I think if you have never been here, you should definitely come and take a look at it."

For the latest tour times of AMARC's aviation history, call the Pima Air and Space Museum at 618-4800, or visit the museum's Web site, Reservations are recommended, and photo identification is required to board the bus. Visitors are urged to arrive a half-hour before tour time to get a good seat.

There is nothing on the tour that is top-secret, so pictures through the tinted windows on the bus are fine. Bring lots of film or empty memory cards.

Oh yeah, and don't call AMARC a boneyard, or you might just get a lecture about why you're wrong.

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