The “Boneyard” aka the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) Facility on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Where US military planes go to die….and also be resurrected.

With the US Marine Corps (USMC) in dire straits for more Hornets to fill the gap because of a delay in the F-35B Lightning II, resurrecting planes from the dead has been a hot topic lately. FighterSweep thought it would be cool to take an inside look at the “Boneyard”.

Located in the desert of Tucson, Arizona, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309 AMARG) has more than 4,400 aircraft and 13 aerospace vehicles from the Air Force, Navy-Marine Corps, Army, Coast Guard, and several federal agencies including NASA.  It is the largest aircraft and preservation facility in the world.

Aircraft entering the boneyard don’t necessarily go to die there. About a third of the aircraft that are stored as regeneration candidates do fly back out. The AMARG also retains replacement parts for military aircraft still flying.

Probably one of the coolest roles of AMARG is to support the program that converts old fighter jets, such as the F-16, into aerial target drones.  The drones (redesignated QF-16) are then used as remotely controlled aerial targets for missile shoots.  The end result:  a highly maneuverable 9G capable target that provides a realistic presentation.

B-52 bomber being decommissioned per US disarmament agreement with the Soviets. (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty 1991). Photo Credit: Klein Photography
B-52 bomber being decommissioned per US disarmament agreement with the Soviets. (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty 1991). Photo Credit: Klein Photography

Great Climate For Storage

The Sonoran Desert has low humidity in the 10%-20% range and very meager rainfall of 11″ annually. The base is covered in caliche, which is a hard alkaline soil, making paving the surface of the facility unnecessary. Davis-Monthan also has a relatively high altitude of 2,550 feet. This great environment allows aircraft to be naturally preserved for cannibalization or possible reuse, like the USMC announced back in June. Due to the great climate, there is little to no rust to knock off when you have to pull them back out.

How Do You Store Military Aircraft?

AMARG starts by removing all of the guns, ejection seat charges and classified hardware. The fuel tanks are protected with a lightweight oil by filling them up and then letting them drain to leave a fine protective coat.  Then a full sealing process begins to keep the dust and sunlight out. In a sense, the planes are put into “shrink wrap” and taken to a pre-determined spot on the compound.

If you are a famous jet, you might even get placed on “Celebrity Row” for touring groups to view.

A VF-213 F-14 Tomcat. Photo credit:
A VF-213 F-14 Tomcat. Photo credit:

What’s There (and not there)?

Upon first sight, a visitor sees hundreds of aircraft neatly lining multiple rows. Their white shrink wrapped faces look like lonely ghosts on the Sonoran desert plain. Former pilots and maintainers of the stored aircraft have a personal connection to the planes.  Those memories of flying and working on some of the greatest inventions know to man are brought back once one steps on the boneyard.   It is an impressive sight, even to someone who may not be an aviation enthusiast.

The oldest aircraft is a 1952 B-57. The newest are recently shrink wrapped F-16’s.  There are many “one of a kind” aircraft that have a story to tell. You can see F-4’s from the USS Kitty Hawk that shot down Mig-21’s during Vietnam. Another is the B-52A Stratofortress (serial #3) which was the principal carrier for the X-15 program that qualified fighter pilots to be astronauts. Each of the 4,400 aircraft has a unique history–part of what makes this a special place.

Beyond Just Storage

Maybe the most important role of the boneyard is its ability to store aircraft and parts in an effort to prevent them from being sold on the black market. The area is highly controlled and well guarded but sometimes even that doesn’t work.  Many of the F-14 Tomcats brought to Davis-Monthan in the mid 2000’s were destroyed in an effort to prevent parts from entering into the wrong hands.

“There were things getting to the bad guys, so to speak,” said Tim Shocklee, founder and executive vice president of TRI-Rinse Inc. interviewing with FoxNews back in 2007. “And one of the ways to make sure that no one will ever use an F-14 again is to cut them into little 2-by-2-foot bits.”


Disposal of F-14 Tomcat, photo credit:
Disposal of F-14 Tomcat, photo credit:

Sadly, a large mechanical pincher machine from TRI-Rinse turned the F-14 “Turkey’s” into Thanksgiving dinner. Editor’s note: A few F-14’s did remain after the destroying program.

If You Go Visit

The Pima Air & Space Museum is the exclusive operator of the “Boneyard” Tour.  Visitors catch a bus from the museum and travel with a guided tour through the compound.  If you are in Tucson, it is worth a stop at the museum. The total amount of aircraft on display is pretty impressive.  Aviation enthusiasts could get excited and spend more time than they originally planned.

Let’s hope you don’t stay as long as some of the aircraft!

Top Image: Stacks of Republic F-84F and F-84G Thunderstreaks at Davis-Monthan AFB awaiting scrapping in November, 1958.  Photo credit

For a fun look into the boneyard, check out this interesting website