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Warplanes have a remarkable longevity, but what happens when they are retired from active service? Discover the secrets of American military aircraft cemeteries, their usefulness and their rarity in the rest of the world.
Warplanes are high-tech machines designed to last, but what happens to them once they’re retired from active service? In the USA, the concept of military aircraft cemeteries, nicknamed “boneyards”, is well known, but remains largely unknown in the rest of the world. This article explores the phenomenon of military aircraft cemeteries, their usefulness, and the rarity of this practice elsewhere in the world.
Where to find American aircraft cemeteries
American aircraft cemeteries, also known as “boneyards” or military aircraft cemeteries, are mainly located in arid, dry regions of the United States. The climatic conditions in these areas keep aircraft in good condition, reducing corrosion caused by humidity and rain. The best-known American aircraft cemeteries can be found in the following locations:
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona: This cemetery is one of the largest and most famous. Located near Tucson, Arizona, it is home to thousands of retired military aircraft from the US Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army. Arizona’s dry climate enables aircraft to be stored for long periods.
Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), Arizona: Also located in Tucson, AMARG is the world’s largest aircraft graveyard. It stores military aircraft retired from active service, but some can be reactivated if necessary.
309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), California: This facility is located on the US Marine Corps base at Miramar, California. It mainly stores retired Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.
Davis Field, Oklahoma: Davis Field, located in Oklahoma, is a site where the US Air Force stores retired aircraft. Although less well known than Davis-Monthan in Arizona, it also plays an important role in the preservation of military aircraft.
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio: This base is also home to a number of retired aircraft, including those of the US Air Force.
The longevity of warplanes
The lifespan of warplanes varies according to periods of war and peace. In wartime, the life of a fighter, bomber or transport aircraft may be reduced to a matter of minutes, due to attrition during combat. Until recently, air forces even expected to lose aircraft in combat.
In peacetime, the situation is different. The use of durable materials such as steel and aluminum has dramatically increased the lifespan of warplanes, to the point where most become technologically obsolete long before they are worn out by flight operations. On average, a US Air Force aircraft is around 30 years old, and eight aircraft fleets are over 50 years old.
This means that warplanes can last for decades, remaining structurally viable for many years. Some aircraft even undergo mid-life upgrades to extend their operational life. This longevity and the possibility of modernization justify the preservation of retired aircraft, at least for a while.
The luxury of rich countries
The United States currently has some 13,000 aircraft of all types, operated by its armed forces, including the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army. This fleet includes fighter aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, as well as transport aircraft like the C-17 and intelligence aircraft like the Guardrail. The world fleet is constantly seeing new aircraft coming in and going out. Some are retired because they are worn out, while others are withdrawn due to budget restrictions. All have value as scrap, but many still have a use, either because they are still airworthy or because they contain valuable parts, such as ejector seats, which can be salvaged.
Since the Second World War, the United States has used the desert southwest to store aircraft after their retirement. At Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, thousands of planes await their final fate. The lack of rain and humidity slows their deterioration in the open air, making it possible to recover parts and equipment decades after their retirement. Some aircraft are eventually returned to service, such as the B-52H “Wise Guy” bomber in 2021, after an extended refurbishment. The fact that the USA has the means to avoid immediately cutting up aircraft for scrap is part of its luxury.
The rest of the world
Other countries, even NATO allies, have far fewer aircraft and retire them in much smaller quantities. The UK, for example, has just 142 fighter jets, while France has 266 and Germany 209. These fleets are relatively small, evolve slowly, and aircraft are rarely retired. What’s more, these countries don’t have the arid conditions to store aircraft in good condition. In Europe, the closest thing to a military aircraft graveyard is Michel Pont’s private collection of fighter jets.
Russia has the capacity to store warplanes, but most of its fleet was probably cut up for scrap in the 1990s and 2000s. Military aircraft can be found at the Central Aviation Museum outside Moscow, but the situation is different from that in the USA. China, meanwhile, has seen its air force expand rapidly over the past two decades. China is known to have retained many J-6 fighters, and there are suggestions that these aircraft are being modified to become drones. Although China doesn’t appear to have an official cemetery for its warplanes, if such a place exists, it would probably be in the dry, hot province of Xinjiang.
Military aircraft cemeteries, while a common phenomenon in the USA, are rare in the rest of the world due to differences in fleet, budget and climate. For the USA, keeping retired aircraft in reserve is a sign of economic strength. This conserves valuable resources for future refurbishment or use. For other countries, the priority is often cost reduction and the rapid dismantling of retired aircraft. Ultimately, aircraft military graveyards are a testament to the differences in approaches to military resource management around the world.
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