TUCSON, AZ — WARTHOGS and Cobras and Drones - oh, my! With fearful physiognomies more alien than any forest critter in "The Wizard of Oz," 4,000 of the nation's top military performers are mugging in the chrome, noon sun. Banished to the desert in rows, these fleets of Army, Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, and Marine aircraft are not just being put out to dry. This is a kind of savings account from which United States military bases around the world deposit and withdraw aircraft and parts.
They are stored here because of the meager Arizona rainfall, hard alkaline soil, and low humidity. Called the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARC), the site grew out of the Army's B-29 and C-47 aircraft storage facility after World War II. About half the aircraft here will go back to work. Others are eventually sold to foreign governments or donated to other federal agencies. Grumman OV-1 Mohawks are used for border patrol by the Customs Service; S-2 Trackers have been sent to California 's Division of Forestry for firefighting.
Since the end of the cold war, this site has been receiving about 10 aircraft a day. From its growing inventory, AMARC was able to ship more than 1,500 spare parts to support Operation Desert Storm. The facility says it saved the government $813.2 million in 1991 alone. Some planes - such as the B-52, last built in 1962 - have no alternative for replacement parts.
Before an aircraft is parked for storage, it goes through an elaborate preservation process. That includes cleaning and the removal of guns, ejection-seat charges, and classified equipment. Workers drain the fuel system and pump it full of lightweight oil that is drained again to leave a thin, protective coating.
All easily damaged surfaces are taped, then covered with two coats of a vinyl plastic compound known as Spraylat. One layer of black protects from dust, water, and the sandblasting effects from local winds. A white layer acts as temperature control. The covering is easily removed, but aircraft must be reprocessed every four years, when the covering starts to crack.
"I can do a plane in about 32 hours," says Edward Romero, standing on a ladder in an open-air, application hangar with a wing-shaped roof that draws outside air for quick drying. He's one of 24 full-time employees here.
"This is the best, cheapest way to keep them all intact," he says.