Bomber Boneyards – An Early Visit to AMARC
When I visited Tucson’s Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC) in early 1993, it was filled to the brim. Hundreds of Boeing B-52 Stratofortress heavy bombers, some intact, others looking like the skeletons of deceased animals in the desert, sat in storage at the sprawling site awaiting their disposition. The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) had been signed a year and a half earlier by the United States and the Soviet Union; it specified a limited amount of nuclear weapons and delivery systems each country could retain from earlier quantities. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) was required to decommission most of its early Stratofortresses, along with their current “-G” models to comply with the treaty. Verification would take place through direct observation by people on the ground, as well as from space. Satellite photography would confirm that B-52s were carved up so that their structures couldn’t be repaired, and the aircraft could never fly again.
A total of 744 of the big Boeings were produced. The early B-52A/B/C/and E models were used predominantly for nuclear deterrent by the USAF’s Strategic Air Command. The B-52F, and especially the B-52D versions were key conventional bombers during the Viet Nam war. All but the latest B-52G and -H versions had been long retired by the time START had been signed, and were parked in the Arizona desert. Although many elderly bombers had already been broken up, 365 of the remaining bombers, including the B-52G fleet, would have to be scrapped, leaving barely 100 operational B-52Hs.
Another forty two surviving bombers would be housed in museums or serve as maintenance trainers. As I toured AMARC on that cool February morning in 1993, I spied the orange and gray NB-52E used in the Control Configured Vehicles (CCV) program that used canards to reduce structural stress from turbulence, lying in pieces. Early the previous year, a manager in charge of the AMARC storage yard told me he was trying to save that one-of-a-kind aircraft from being scrapped due to the START agreement, which gave just a few months to designate any B-52 as a museum piece. Unfortunately, nobody took him up on his offer… and the bomber became one of hundreds destined to be destroyed.
A crane fitted with an 80-foot boom, with a 13,500 pound steel blade attached to its’ cable, would make a series of 4 cuts to a B-52 to decommission it. The wings, tail, and nose would be sliced off the fuselage and arranged in a predetermined pattern for Soviet satellites to view and photograph. The bombers were required to remain in place for 90 days after decommissioning, per treaty compliance and observation rules, before being hauled away for reclamation by nearby scrap dealers. The going price of aluminum at that time was about $20,000 per B-52; some say the Air Force got a monetary return from its investment!
Although it took a few years to fully decommission the stored B-52 fleet, seeing just a handful of the huge aircraft lying in pieces on the desert ground was awe inspiring at the least. On one hand, viewing such powerful aircraft in their states of destruction dismayed me, but the fact that the countries that signed the SALT and START treaties hadn’t gone to war, partly due to the B-52s deterrence, evened the score a bit. They had done their part well, and now it was time for their bones to be reclaimed and used in some other way.
Ken Kula (photos by me too)