Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Bone Yard


By Mark W. Danielson

Why are all these airliners in the desert? In a word, they’re being preserved. Aircraft bone yards are a testament to the WWII B-24 bomber, Lady Be Good. You see, on April 4, 1943, the Lady Be Good and 24 other airplanes took off from Soluch Airstrip in Libya to bomb the port at Naples, Italy, but things didn’t go as planned. Strong winds and poor visibility forced the bombers to take off in small groups, and Lady was one of the last to depart. Fatefully, engine problems forced the other two bombers to turn back leaving Lady alone and well behind. Lady attempted to join the bomber group prior to the target, but poor communication and crew inexperience made this impossible. Arriving too late, Lady dumped her bombs into the ocean and attempted to return to base, but somehow during this journey, managed to vanish without a trace.


Fifteen years later, a British oil exploration team spotted aircraft wreckage in the desert and decided to investigate. The markings on the nose revealed it was Lady Be Good. Other than her fuselage breaking apart just behind the wings, the B-24 was in remarkable condition. Her guns fired, her engine oil was good; even her tires had pressure. This revelation prompted the US government to “mothball” its aging aircraft at Davis Monthan Air Force base near Tucson. Since then, aircraft stored at the so-called “Bone Yard” have been used for spare parts, put back into service as drones, and sometimes put back into service as line aircraft.

Many years later, a surplus of commercial airliners led to civilian Bone Yards at Marana Airpark near Phoenix, Mojave, and the former George Air Force Base near Victorville, which is shown in the above photo. Sharp eyes will spot aircraft from a variety of airlines, including FedEx. FedEx has since returned several of these airplanes to service while storing others that are awaiting modification.

Mothballed aircraft have served other purposes as well, such as law enforcement hijacking/hostage training, movie sets, and music video backdrops. If these planes could speak, they would all have tremendous stories. Sadly, most of the bone yard aircraft await their fate of becoming recycled scrap metal.

For mystery writers, what better setting is there to hide a hostage or dump a body than a yard full of ghost planes? A setting like this offers endless opportunities. A visit to your local aviation museum may be enough to inspire a future story.



14 comments:

Jean Henry Mead said...

Enjoyed your aricle Mark. Speaking of bodies, did they find any trace of the Lady Be Good's crew?

Mark W. Danielson said...

Five of the crew members walked for miles -- unfortunately in the wrong direction. One kept a log of their trek and is documented in the book Lady Be Good. It's a sad tale of bad luck and fate. Still, their legacy lives on at the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson AFB, and in the bone yards.

Pat Browning said...

Wasn't this episode made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart?

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

Pat, I believe you're thinking of Flight of the Phoenix, which did star Jimmy Stewart. The single-engine plane they made from a twin actually flew with dummy people mounted on the wing. Paul Mantz was the pilot and died in the crash shortly after it took off. Paul and Frank Tallman were legends in filming aviation scenes. Of course, today's special effects have replaced all that . . .

Pat Browning said...

Mark,
You're right. It was Flight of the Phoenix.
Pat Browning

Beth Terrell said...

Oooh. Ghost Planes. Sounds like a good title.

Leonard said...

One thing overlooked is that airplanes are easy to inventory from space via satellite if they are out in the open. Like in a desert.

theboywhoroared said...

But *why* the desert as opposed to anywhere else? What causes them not deteriorate in the desert?

Mark W. Danielson said...

Leonard, aircraft in the boneyard have been accounted for for many years. You're right, there is no hiding from space.

Two things preserve aircraft. Dry air, and no air. No humidity means no rust, which is why desert sites are selected for storage. It also helps that most desert locations have less land value, thus aircraft storage provides welcome income.

Hundreds of Navy aircraft sunk in Lake Michigan in World War II training accidents, and many of those have been recovered. The cold fresh water and lack of air prevented rust and preserved then fuel, oil, even their paper checklists. While most of these recovered aircraft are museum pieces, some have been returned to flying status.

Ben Small said...

They're stored in the desert because of the lack of humidity. I live nearby and can see them warehoused from a friend's house on a mountain. There's a surprising bit of activity in the storage depot.
Airlines go through these planes and cannibalise them for spare parts. So there's more activity out there than one might think.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Right you are, Ben. FedEx has stored numerous airplanes in Victorville and then put them back in service to fill the need. In this regard, boneyards are not always graveyards.

Ben Small said...

There's at least two of them, one military, one commercial, and then Davis Monthan stores more, usually those first on line or so. When I was in the business, we hated having these aircraft parked, because it was like a junkyard, and components for our electrical and flap-systems -actuators, pumps, generators, CSDs and the like - would be traded among airlines and cost us the sale of used parts. As you know, Mark, the price of spare parts in aerospace, is at least three times the cost, as a hole, of the whole system, component for component. But the program, essentially, an inventory charging system works well for airlines short on parts stock and needing quick and cheap solutions.

And the military, of course, is the cheapest of all, and since there's no liability exposure, they view safety issues less cautiously. We got sued in one case, a helicopter accident at Camp Pendleton where seven soldiers died, and discovered the Navy had held together our fuel pump with duct tape. I kid you not. Needless to say, we won the suit. The military junkyard is enormous.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I flew an A-4 to Davis Monthan in 1994. There is a gate you pass through as if to tell the A-4 there is no mind-changing. At the time, the military was taking in 8-10 aircraft a day because we weren't at war.

It's hard to believe the Navy would use duct tape like that. It was actually called duck tape and developed for the Army.) We picked up a squadron of A-4s from the Marine Corps. Some were delivered without a working generator. One had a frozen ejection seat. My personal favorite was the A-4 delivered with the coaxial cable routed outside the aircraft and into the cockpit and secured with duct tape.

C. Jensen said...

The movie is "Sole Survivor"