AMARG (309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, Tucson, Arizona)
In March 2015 I was in Tucson once again and was able to spend a day in the area of the 309th AMARG. The third largest Air Force in the world sits here on 2,600 acres, or 10.4 sq. km, or 1,040 hectares.
The installation dates back to 1946, when the 4105th Army Air Base Unit was established to store and manage vast numbers of surplus World War II aircraft.
In 1964, the installation was used as the single repository for retired aircraft of the U. S. armed forces and was named Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC). When missiles were added to the Group and reprocessing of stored aircraft played an increasing role, the Air Force changed its name in Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) in 1985. On 2nd May 2007, the Center was renamed the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) through an organizational restructuring and now belongs to the Ogden Air Logistics Complex of the AFMC (Air Force Materiel Command) at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
After the arrival of an aircraft for storage, it will be put into one of four levels of storage. Type 1000 is a candidate for a possible return into active status, Type 2000 is used for the production of spare parts, Type 3000 is marked for immediate return and kept flyable and Type 4000 is determined to be excess with only engines and cockpit transparencies preserved.
Unfortunately a large part of these bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, interceptors and fighter-bombers are utilized for their parts and may never take off again, because it is the biggest airplane graveyard in the world. This is the area of the 309th AMARG (Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group); here is the place where the U.S. services place their flying assets they no longer need, to be held in reserve. As of 17th March 2015, there are 3849 military aircraft from all the military services of the Department of Defense and other government agencies. The commonly recognized name “boneyard” comes from the fact that there are very many reclaimed jets that appear to be robbed of parts and left open to the elements. The images of B-52G bombers, which are broken up with a guillotine, will bring any aviation enthusiast tears to his eyes. The B-52 had to be chopped into parts due to the disarmament negotiations Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the former USSR. They remain there, so that the Russians could verify on satellite, that the U.S. has destroyed the bombers in part.
In the last decade, 2,042 aircraft were scrapped, including about 247 F-4 Phantoms and 160 F-14s, and of 301 (259) F-111s only one is left and 115 C-141 Starlifter were removed from the inventory. If a certain aircraft type is no longer in use in the United States or its allies (e.g. the F-111), then all the stored aircraft will be scrapped to get space for newer aircraft. In the years to come, the remaining F-4, A-6, A-7, CH-46 and the A-4 airframes will be leaving the boneyard. The S-3 Viking will be kept for a few years, there is still hope to find a new user as the aircraft have still a lot of hours on their frame. Additionally, NASA and the Navy are still using a handful of aircraft for science purposes.
As an aviation enthusiast you will see everything in AMARG that your heart desires. Many of the aircraft that land at Davis-Monthan AFB have made their last flight and the last landing. If you look at the 309th AMARG area from the outside, it is separated by a highway; a large number of rows with only the F-4 Phantoms, A-10 Thunderbolts and C-130 Hercules fall upon your gaze. One cannot imagine that these million dollar aircraft won’t grace the skies again.
Even the Federal Republic of Germany had incorporated two Tornados to the Group, one aircraft each from the Air Force and the Navy. The two Tornados were placed there to find a suitable location for the redundant equipment of the Bundeswehr. The plans were dropped, one Tornado is still here, the other was given to the Pima Air & Space Museum.
Tucson, Arizona; the dry climate and over 300 sunny days a year are the right conditions for the parking of aircraft in the open air, without causing damage to the jets. Upon arrival, the machines are provided with consecutive numbers and are parked. Then the jets get prepared for the storage. Generally, this takes about four to six days. All liquids are drained, quality instruments removed and all openings sealed with a protective film. At some aircraft, such as the F-16 or OH-58D, almost the whole fuselage get coated with the white protective film to seal the aircraft of the rain, wind and dust. The US Navy and Marines have begun to wrap a portion of their F-18 Hornets completely in brown protection wrapping.
By the end of the Cold War and by the fact that the budget for the military was also reduced in the United States, the number of parked aircraft has increased considerably. Many of the jets still have enough remaining flight hours on their airframe or engine to attempt to offer these jets to friendly states for sale or lease. Australia got F-111G and wings from further aircraft, Italy leased F-16A/B to close the gap until the introduction of the Typhoon after the leased Tornado F.3 were given back to the RAF. For Portugal, F-16A/B were brought out of storage, like it was done for Jordan and Israel. Spain received, at the end of the 80s, some RF-4Cs, later in the 90s they got FA-18As. Turkey and Greece got F-4Es, which were taken from the Air National Guard, and for Singapore three KC-135s were reactivated.
Presently, further F-16s were taken out of storage for Indonesia. They were disassembled, packed onto pallets and driven to the Air Logistics Center at Hill AFB, Utah to get modernized before they will be delivered as nearly new aircraft to Indonesia.
In the beginning of the 90’s over 1000 Phantom were stored in AMARC. This number has been reduced considerably. The F-4C / D / N / S models were chopped from nearby scrap dealers and scrapped. Top quality materials are used or recycled. 196 F-4E/Gs and some RF-4Cs were rebuilt in the drone program by BAE to QF-4E/G or QRF-4C standards, then used for the air combat training at Holloman and Eglin and eventually shot down over the New Mexico desert or the Gulf of Mexico. A few “survived” with the Navy and were brought back to the desert.
The 309th AMARG is currently reactivating over 200 F-16 Fighting Falcons for the Air Force’s (Air Combat Command) and Navy’s full-scale aerial target or drone program. For that, F-16Cs of Blocks 25 & 30 are used (despite using different engines), even a few F-16As will find a new life (although rather short lived). The only point that counts towards finding and using an aircraft as a drone is the number of remaining hours on the airframe. During our visit, we found a lot of aircraft prepared for the program.
After the stored F-16 is towed from its place in the desert to a hangar, it takes roughly three month to check and maintain the aircraft properly. New tires will be added, wearing parts replaced and a few functional checkflights will be done before the aircraft will be transferred to the Boeing Company at Cecil Field in Florida to install the drone equipment and make a QF-16 out of it.
A portion of these stored aircraft are scheduled to go back to the US armed forces. Some jets are stored and activated when required to distribute the number of flight hours on all models of this type! So it happens, for example, with the A-10s and B-1Bs. In recent years, the USAF has sent 24 (20) of its B-1Bs to AMARG. Some were funneled to museums, some ran out of hours and should serve as spare parts sources. 10 should be returned in exchange for others to the USAF. By operating fewer bombers, there should be enough freed money to modernize the remaining B-1B Lancer fleet in order to keep it up to date. In recent months, the US Congress has returned some embedded B-1Bs back to the USAF because they realized that more of these Super Bombers were required in service. In recent years, the B-1B has been converted to a conventional bomber. Unfortunately, the Lancer has always been the problem child of the US Air Force. Only 50% of the performance potential of the B-1s were used, this had also led to a bad state of readiness of the fleet. Due to the current modernization program, the potential of the bomber should be fully utilized and the Lancer should be used for the next 25 years.
The US Department of Defense saves an average of $500 million (value of reclaimed parts) every year as it orders spare parts from the AMARG for active aircraft such as the B-1B, B-52, F-15, F-16, F-18, KC-130, KC-135. (Top ten, F-16, A-10, F-15, P-3, C-5, C-135, B-1, B-52, T-38, AV-8, etc.) They will be culled out of the jets for which the re-activation is out of the question, and the parts then supplied the troops. There is a special delivery service which sends the requested parts to the future user. Parts are used within the Forces of the United States as many of these systems are no longer in production, but some aircraft are expected to remain in operational until 2040 and beyond; a ready supply of parts is therefore constantly required. These reclaimed items represent a direct savings to the taxpayer through cost avoidance for procurement of new items.
Also, allies get their share (e.g. the Royal Australian Air Force got a lot of parts of the then stored F-111s) and it should be mentioned that a number of aviation museums get their displayed aircraft from here.
For those who are on vacation at Tucson Arizona, you should not be dissuaded from visiting the AMARG at once. There are official bus tours which start on weekdays twice daily at the Pima Air & Space Museum, where you can get a little insight into the work of the 309th AMARG.
We like to express our very big thanks to Teresa Pittman, the PAO of 309th AMARG and TSgt Courtney Richardson from the PAO of 355th FW at Davis-Monthan AFB. Without your outstanding support, this article wouldn’t be possible.