Ramblings & ephemera

The airplane graveyard

From Patrick Smith’s “Ask the pilot” (Salon: 4 August 2006):

The wing is shorn off. It lies upside down in the dirt amid a cluster of desert bushes. The flaps and slats are ripped away, and a nest of pipes sprouts from the engine attachment pylon like the flailing innards of some immense dead beast. Several yards to the west, the center fuselage has come to rest inverted, the cabin cracked open like an eggshell. Inside, shattered rows of overhead bins are visible through a savage tangle of cables, wires, ducts and insulation. Seats are flung everywhere, still attached to one another in smashed-up units of two and three. I come to a pair of first-class chairs, crushed beneath the remains of a thousand-pound bulkhead. In the distance, the plane’s tail sits upright in a gesture of mutilated repose, twisted sharply to one side. High on the fin, the blue and white logo remains visible, save for a large vacant portion where the rudder used to be. …

I’m taking in one of the aviation world’s most curious and fascinating places, the “boneyard” at Mojave Airport in California, 70 miles north of Los Angeles.

The Mojave Desert is a barren place, a region of forbidding rocky hills and centuries-old Joshua trees. But it’s also an area with a rich aerospace history. Edwards Air Force Base and the U.S. Navy’s China Lake weapons station are both here, as well as the airport in Palmdale, where the Lockheed L-1011 was built. The Mojave Airport, officially known as the Mojave Airport and Civilian Aerospace Test Center, is the first FAA-licensed “spaceport” in the United States, home to a burgeoning commercial spacecraft industry. It’s a spot for ingenuity and innovation, you could say. But for hundreds of commercial jetliners, it is also the end of the road.

Of several aircraft scrap yards and storage facilities, including others in Arizona, Oklahoma and elsewhere in California, Mojave is arguably the most famous. …

There are upward of 200 planes at Mojave, though the number rises and falls as hulls are destroyed — or returned to service. Not all of the inventory is permanently grounded or slated for destruction. Neither are the planes necessarily old. Aircraft are taken out of service for a host of reasons, and age, strictly speaking, isn’t always one of them. The west side of the airport is where most of the newer examples are parked. MD-80s, Fokker 100s and an assortment of later-model 737s line the sunbaked apron in a state of semiretirement, waiting for potential buyers. They wear the standard uniform of prolonged storage: liveries blotted out, intakes and sensor probes wrapped and covered to protect them from the ravages of climate — and from the thousands of desert jackrabbits that make their homes here. A few of the ships are literally brand new, flown straight to Mojave from the assembly line to await reassignment after a customer changed its plans. …

The scrap value of a carcass is anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000.

“New arrivals, as it were, tend to come in bunches,” explains Mike Potter, one of several Mojave proprietors. …

Before they’re broken up, jets are scavenged for any useful or valuable parts. Control surfaces — ailerons, rudders, slats and elevators — have been carefully removed. Radomes — the nose-cone assemblies that conceal a plane’s radar — are another item noticeable by their absence. And, almost without exception, engines have been carted away for use elsewhere, in whole or in part. Potter has a point about being careful out here, for the boneyard floor is an obstacle course of random, twisted, dangerously sharp detritus. Curiously, I notice hundreds of discarded oxygen masks, their plastic face cups bearing the gnaw marks of jackrabbits. Some of the jets are almost fully skeletonized, and much of what used to rest inside is now scattered across the ground. …

Near the eastern perimeter sits a mostly intact Continental Airlines 747. This is one of Potter’s birds, deposited here in 1999. A hundred-million-dollar plane, ultimately worth about 25 grand for the recyclers. …

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