Text & photos courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star
Navy P-3s bask in Tucson's dry air at D-M's aircraft preservation facility. Both A and C models of the plane are ready to be called back into military service if duty calls.
Wings in waiting
Photo story by David Sanders
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Jackrabbits flee from coyotes, a dry wind blows and tumbleweeds roll across 2,600 acres where the U.S. military stores more than $4.3 billion dollars worth of its aging aircraft.
In southeast Tucson, lifeless airplanes, wearing white blinders across their cockpit windows, line up like thoroughbreds waiting for one last race.
These 4,400 aircraft - from the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy - make up the largest aircraft storage facility in the United States. The Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center, or AMARC, known as the "Boneyard" to many, is housed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Because of Tucson's low rainfall, low humidity and high-alkaline soil, corrosion and deterioration are kept to a minimum. The 25 members of the storage services branch of the center are responsible for keeping these planes in a preserved state, even though some haven't flown since World War II.
"It's a unique system being done here. It's the only place where working aircraft take a break," said Eddie Romero, a preservation servicer since 1985.
When an aircraft is to be stored by a branch of the U.S. military, it must go through a preservation process that includes removing its guns, ejection seat charges, classified equipment and pilferable items. Workers then drain the fuel system and pump in lightweight oil, which is drained again, leaving an oil coating that protects the fuel system.
The preservation services team then covers all the engine intakes, exhaust areas and any gaps or cracks throughout the top portion of the aircraft with tape and paper and plastic. This job can take about 150 hours per aircraft.
Larger openings such as bomb outlets and large vents are covered with a fiberglass mesh to keep out birds, particularly pigeons. "If you don't catch them in time, they can really do some damage," said Adam Torres, chief of storage services.
The aircraft have black electrical-like tape running along fuselages in odd directions. Those areas get two coats of a vinyl plastic-like spray-on covering, called Spraylat, that keeps temperatures inside the planes within 10 to 15 degrees of the outside temperature.
The fully preserved planes can be called back into military service, be used as firefighting planes, or even be sold to customers.
Said Sal West, sitting 20 feet above the ground taping the cockpit windows of a Navy P-3 Orion: "Although some of them look like they are sitting here dead, in a couple of days, they are ready to roll."
Using black plastic tape, Sal West seals the cockpit windows of a Navy P-3 in preparation for spraying with a protective coating. These planes may not look it, he says, but they can be made ready to take off in just a couple of days.
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