South-west USA is known for its hot, dry desert climate – the ideal conditions to store, maintain and dismantle airplanes. Pinal Airpark north of Tucson, Arizona is among the largest of these aircraft storage and parts reclamation facilities, often called aircraft boneyards.
At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, with aviation in deep crisis, no fewer than 400 airliners found safe haven at Pinal. Many have still not yet gone back into service and perhaps they never will. They may either be stored long term or ultimately scrapped, as Recycling International learned during a recent visit.
From Tucson, it’s a 45-minute drive north to Marana, a town stretched out along interstate highway 10 and home to one of the largest aircraft ‘boneyards’ in the US. A former US Airforce base, Pinal Air Park is now home to a handful of aircraft maintenance and recycling companies, one of which is Ascent Aviation Services.
I’m welcomed at the security gate by the company’s marketing manager Annette Feasel who takes me for a drive in her pick-up truck around the airpark ‘just to get an idea of the scale of this place and to see the parked planes from close-up’. Pinal Airpark covers an area of almost 10 km2. The views in this open desert land are fascinating and surreal at the same time. Aircraft everywhere you look: small and big, parked in long rows and some with their engines covered in plastic to protect them against the dust.
An estimated 80% of all the stored aircraft worldwide are being kept in the US south-west. There’s plenty of space and there are plenty of airfields. Moreover, the states of Arizona and New Mexico have a dry, aircraftfriendly climate. Pinal Air Park, too, is a safe haven for airlines from around the globe. We pass not only several Delta and United jetliners but also Canada’s Air Transat, KLM as well as the less known Air Serbia, Zambezi Airlines and a retired Boeing 747 from Surinam Airlines, to name a few.
‘That one over there is a VIP aircraft owned by a sheik from the Middle East,’ says Feasel pointing at a white private style jet. She stops the truck just before crossing the runway. ‘Safety rules: this may seem an aircraft boneyard but we have planes arriving and departing just like at any other airport,’ she explains.
Sector hit hard
A little later, RI meets up with Ascent’s director of sales Mike Scott at a huge maintenance hangar where an Airbus A-330 is rolled in. ‘This bird gets a new nose landing gear before going back into service,’ says Scott, who clearly loves the aviation industry. ‘It is very exciting being around these aircraft every day and doing business with people and airline companies from all over the world.’
Before the pandemic, Ascent’s main business was providing maintenance, repair, and overhaul services for airlines, with 70% its turnover coming from that division. But with aircraft usage dropping and demand for storage rising due to Covid, a big chunk of the turnover during the pandemic came from storage fees.
From March 2020, most airlines had stopped flying and more aircraft were sent to Arizona for storage. Scott: ‘Covid has had a tremendous impact on our business. In less than 12 months we went from 100 aircraft to more than 400. On some days we welcomed one plane every hour.’
Recover, dismantle, scrap!
Two years later, a major part of that Covid fleet is still onsite. Although the aviation industry picked up relatively quickly after the pandemic – with many planes going back in the air – many aircraft still stranded on the ground. ‘We still have 200 planes onsite as we speak,’ says Scott. ‘Some are stored for longer, some will be dismantled for parts and ultimately scrapped.’ Ascent alone scraps around 45 aircraft per year.
‘Currently we have five projects going on but we can scale up to 25 projects at a time if we have enough manpower to do the job.’ Scott adds it takes around 30 days to strip down a narrow-bodied plane, including the shearing work, removal of the doors and all of the aircraft interior.
TRACES OF WW II
Pinal Air Park has been developed on a former US Airforce base established during the Second World War. With the onset of conflict, the US War Department had to quickly mobilise and train its air forces. Prime areas selected for new training airfields were the deserts of the south-west of the country which offered wide, open spaces and good year-round flying conditions.
Nearly 200 airfields and air strips were built in the region from west Texas to southern California. More than 60 airfields and strips were built in Arizona alone between 1942 and 1944, the majority in central and southern Arizona. One of these was at Marana and you can still spot clear traces of that time. One is a hangar built during the war that is still intact and in use today.
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