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Where Do Planes Go When They Die? It Depends on How They Lived

Where Do Planes Go When They Die? It Depends on How They Lived
Brenda Bertram

The term ‘airplane graveyard’ has a mildly sinister connotation to it. Sure, planes are machines. They don’t have feelings. Yet, people seem to see planes as living things. Plane-spotters and aviation enthusiasts aren’t averse to referring to planes as beautiful birds, and airplanes are generally referred to as female – ‘she’ – in a nod to old Maritime lore (at least in the English language). This makes it rather sad when we see rotting ‘corpses’ of once magnificent airliners lying akimbo in the desert.

When purchasing aircraft, airlines work based on expected operating periods for their aircraft, over which period they’ll depreciate the asset and start determining future airframe requirements. Once an airplane starts to edge towards its inevitable end of days, there is a whole series of actions that kick into place – and a decision made on what exactly to do with the potential dead asset.

Off to the Chop Shop – Who Chooses?

When an airplane is taken off the line, its eventual fate depends on a few different factors – including the earning potential of the plane or its parts, its age, and the airline that has used it. Those that have been utilized by large, well known-airlines, for example, with strong engineering records, are far more likely to fetch a reasonable price.

Mark Gregory, a director of a British aircraft salvaging company, states that a decision on scrapping a plane often depends on whether the components within the plane are more valuable than the aircraft as an operational flying machine. There is a bustling market for airline parts operating worldwide, with engines being the most sought after component. Even airplane seatbelts can fetch a small amount of money from aviation enthusiasts.

Scarcity Is Key to Profitability

What happens if the reliable workhorse of an airplane your airline flies is taken off the production line, or the company producing them goes bust? You opt for second hand. Alliance Airlines, based in Australia, continue to snaffle up Fokker’s when they hit the market. Delta Airlines currently operates around 60% of the world’s 717 fleet, with Qantas and Hawaiian Airlines making up a significant portion of the remainder.

American Airlines keeps stock of its old, retired 757s in the desert, in case it needs parts for its airplanes still in operation. The 757 hasn’t been produced for years, meaning parts can be difficult to track down in a hurry.

Newer aircraft, in theory, come with greater technological advancements, including those in safety. However, the introduction of the 737MAX has reminded us that this isn’t a given. Incidentally, some 737MAX are being transferred to graveyards to await a decision on operations. Generally, planes are traded, or sold, or put out to pasture simply because they are no longer cost-effective to fly – rather than being a safety hazard.

In other situations, airplanes that are reliable old workhorses can be converted to freight operations. Although freighter aircraft tend to have a longer shelf life than their passenger counterparts, some existing aircraft being retired from passenger service can be easily converted to freighters. In 2017, the last of Air New Zealand’s 767 fleet were converted to freighters, ready for a new lease on life.

Some Other Creative Uses of Old Airliners

The Runway 34 restaurant hosts an IL-14 parked up in Zurich. In New Zealand, an old South Pacific Airlines DC-3 is attached to a McDonald’s family restaurant in Taupo. Though not a restaurant, there is a DC-3 on the side of the road in the buzzing metropolis of Mangaweka – a blink and you’ll miss it kind of town. There is a Soviet freighter abandoned in Umm Al Quwain, in the United Arab Emirates, brashly advertising a crummy local three-star resort. In 2016, a 767 was barged to Ireland to take on a new lease of life at an amusement park.

Live in Georgia? You can send your kids to Kindergarten in an old Yak. The airplane suite in Teuge, Netherlands, offers you a chance to have a whole IL-18 aircraft to yourself. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option, you could always stay in the Jumbo Hotel Hostel in Sweden, located in an old 747. If you want to experience the weirdest car on the road, rent the Limo Jet. And, if you’re wanting a weird experience, you can hitch a ride on the ‘Cosmic Muffin’ – a boat made from an old Boeing 307 Stratoliner.

And Those With No Use? To the Boneyard

Or graveyard. For those aircraft that won’t see a second lease of life, the desert provides a sandy resting place. Large areas are set up in mainly dry climates to prevent the aircraft corroding. Aircraft graveyards are located in Gloucestershire, Pinal Airpark, Roswell International Air Center, and Alice Springs, and there is a list of some of the best known at Atlas Obscura. These graveyards are well utilized, too. Roswell International Air Center is the preferred ‘retirement’ location of choice for American Airlines, and in 2016, it was retiring one of its MD-80 aircraft every few weeks.

It is at these graveyards that the aircraft is carefully disassembled, removing all possible components that will draw a profit. As noted earlier, the engines are usually first to go. The process of dismantling an aircraft can be slow, given its methodical nature. Some components, such as the landing gear, overhead lockers, and windshields, can be refitted onto other planes after being inspected and cleaned, and sometimes repaired. Those that have met the eventual end, though, turn into scrap the moment they are parked up and deregistered, so have to comply with environmental regulations.

It can take up eight weeks for a jet like a Boeing 737 to be pulled to pieces, and bigger aircraft can take 10 to 15 weeks. Sometimes, aircraft mechanics will “pickle” the airplanes, which effectively means filling their engines with enough oil to keep them lubricated until parts can be salvaged. Before anything major is removed, though, the aircraft is “bled” of all fluids, ready to be stripped and its parts recycled. With 12,000 aircraft scheduled to become unusable in the new 20 years, recycling will become even more important. Planes used to be around 50% recyclable, and this has now increased to around 85% of the total weight of an aircraft being recyclable. As new mixed composite aircraft roll into retirement, new challenges are likely to emerge in the graveyards.

It’s Not All Bad News, Though

Some ‘graveyards’ are also not quite as sinister as they seem at first glance. Teruel Airport in Spain, for example, is a kind of holding pen – aircraft that are waiting to be transferred to new owners or to receive appropriate operating certificates. Maintenance services are offered to keep the planes in tip-top condition, and the vast majority of airplanes that fly into Teruel do make it out alive.

For those that don’t make it out, though, things are a little less interesting. The eventual fate of most of the components of those beautiful birds that once took to the sky? They’re turned into cans, or recycled into computer boards or TV and electrical equipment.

It’s the circle of life.


[Image: Shutterstock]

View Comments (5)


  1. edgewood49

    September 17, 2019 at 6:34 am

    So the news is? I highly doubt that there are many FF that do not know that retired aircraft for the most are sent to a desert location

  2. FlyingHighlander

    September 18, 2019 at 5:09 am

    I’m a FF and I wasnt aware of the vast majority of this.

  3. pmiranda

    September 18, 2019 at 6:37 am

    Neat article with a few bits of trivia I didn’t know.
    Freight operations are the best place to see older aircraft still in operation in the US. Always something neat to see.

  4. jjonathan

    September 19, 2019 at 12:42 am

    Very much enjoyed this article. Nice change from concerns and complaints
    Thank you

  5. CaliforniaSteve

    September 20, 2019 at 5:43 pm

    If I drive to Las Vegas from home, we go by the storage area near Tehachipi in Southern California. It’s about the only interesting part of the drive since the ride takes us down I5, over the Tehachipi’s and onto I15, none of which are known for their sterling views.

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