Desert Armada

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The desert outside Tucson, Ariz., is a quiet place - until someone revs the engine of an F-4 fighter jet with a conversation-stopping roar. After years of sitting idle in the sun, it's time for this plane to take flight again.

Welcome to AMARC - the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center. All you can see are rows upon rows of planes and helicopters - and off in the distance some cactus-studded hills. The sky here is sunny and blue about 355 days a year. The dryness is exactly why this spot (now a part of the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base) was chosen for aircraft storage just after World War II.

When an aircraft gets too old or the military hasn't decided if it will be needed in the future, it comes to rest here. Since there's hardly any rain, the metal parts won't rust. And the dirt is so hard-packed that the planes can park on the ground, with just a small square of metal under each wheel. There's no need to create a giant concrete parking lot. (Commercial airliners are "mothballed" in the dry desert, too. You can see them at the Mojave Airport near Los Angeles and in Kingman, Ariz.)

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To prepare an aircraft for storage, workers run oil through its fuel system to protect it. Any parts sensitive to dust are sealed up with black tape. Then they cover that with black "Spraylat." This sprayed-on vinyl compound can be peeled off later, almost as easily as a rubber mask. A second coat of white Spraylat is applied. Black would absorb too much heat, which would damage the control panels inside.

The plane is then towed to its spot. A few wire cables tether it to the ground. After four years or so, any plane being held in "regeneratable" storage is brought to a shed where the maintenance crew peels off the Spraylat, checks to make sure everything is OK, fixes whatever needs fixing, and then reseals it.

Eventually, the aircraft are either reused or recycled. State or local police sometimes get helicopters that no longer have a military purpose. Small Cessna O-2A Super Skymaster planes have been sent to Botswana, in Africa, to help pursue elephant and rhinoceros poachers.

Today, four Vietnam War-era F-4s are in various states of regeneration in the hangar, where a giant American flag hangs overhead. Steve Herman, one of several mechanics in grease-smeared white jumpsuits, points to a chart that tracks what's being done to the planes. One plane is up on jacks so its landing gear can be tested. Another has its nose cone open so wiring can be checked. A third just got a new rib in its wing to replace a cracked one.

These planes have been sitting out in the desert for a decade or longer. But once the workers get through with them, they'll be ready to go out on the tarmac and have their engines tested. Pilots will fly the F-4s to a company in Mojave, Calif. There, remote-control systems will be installed. The radio-controlled fighters will be shot down when they are used as target drones for military training.

Aircraft that won't be reused end up in an area nicknamed "the boneyard." Usable parts are taken out and shipped to military bases or war zones all over the world. But eventually, these planes and helicopters are sold to scrap-metal dealers. Think of it: That aluminum can of soda you just drank might have started out as a B-52.

The most noticeable planes in the boneyard are the giant cargo carriers. Six stories high, they are so huge that a line of Bradley Fighting Vehicles can be driven into them. Climbing up a few ladders into the hot cockpit of a C5 Galaxy last used by the New York Air National Guard, we spot a message scrawled by its former pilot: "boneyard bound."

Some of the planes in the boneyard have been cut into two or three pieces. Tail wings tilt toward the ground. Scraggly wires hang out where the body has been severed.

A 13,000-pound metal guillotine blade dropped from about 80 feet "chops a plane like a knife through butter," says Robert Raine, the public affairs officer who gave a tour to this reporter and a photographer. The guillotine was used to cut up hundreds of B-52 bombers. The planes were destroyed as part of a disarmament treaty with the former Soviet Union. The planes were chopped up and the pieces piled in place so Soviet spy satellites could verify their destruction.

These days, a rescue saw is more commonly used, because it can cut up planes for scrap while still preserving certain parts for reuse.

"Working here is as cool as it gets," says Mr. Raine, a retired Navy officer who grew up nearby and used to stare at the planes through the chain-link fence. He doesn't have a "favorite" plane here: "I love all airplanes," he says.

That's evident as he rattles off facts about the planes faster than a jack rabbit can dart from the shade of one fighter to the next. The oldest planes here are T-33s - jet trainers, some from the 1950s. The newest, an F-14, just came in a few days ago. Sometimes the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington stores an acquisition here until an exhibit space is set up.

A plane with a skull and crossbones on its tail was used in the 1996 action movie "Executive Decision." But no, Raine has to tell many inquirers, there are no planes here from the 1986 Tom Cruise movie "Top Gun."

A few facts about AMARC

• Some 4,400 military aircraft - 70-plus types - are stored on the hard-packed desert near Tucson, Ariz.

• About 700 people work here, mostly civilians and former military personnel.

• Two to five aircraft arrive each week.

• In 2004, 105 aircraft were transferred out of AMARC; 33 of those were regenerated to fly again. The facility also shipped 22,500 spare parts. Savings to the United States government: $1.2 billion.

• For more information, see the AMARC website at: www.dm.af.mil/AMARC/index.html. You can also contact the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson: (520) 574-0462. It offers one-hour bus tours of AMARC. Advance reservations are suggested.

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