Delta 747s’ final destination? An airplane boneyard in Arizona


Seen from the sky above Marana, Ariz., an unlikely sight appears amid the arid desert landscape dotted with cactus.

There in the gravelly sand sit roughly a hundred airplanes parked in rows — some in a state of disrepair with parts missing, others fully intact and painted in the colors of Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and other major carriers.

This is the airplane boneyard at Pinal Airpark, just off Interstate 10 leaving Tucson.

About 38 Delta aircraft are parked there, including most of Delta’s fleet of retired Boeing 747s. Delta’s final 747 touched down Wednesday for its Arizona retirement, the last remaining 747 operated by a U.S. passenger airline.

Marana is one of several desert locales that airplanes decamp to after a lifetime in the skies. The low humidity and rainfall prevents corrosion of aluminum hulls.

“It’s an excellent place to store aircraft,” said Jack Keating, chief commercial officer for Ascent Aviation Services, merger partner of Marana Aerospace Solutions, which maintains aircraft at the boneyard with about 250 employees.

Some of the planes may be resold, but other planes are gradually disassembled for parts and prepared to die.

Death for an airplane at Marana comes in the form of a cruncher, the term used there for a Caterpillar excavator outfitted with vicious-looking claws that can tear into aircraft fuselage and rip off a plane’s wings.

A small 737 can be crunched up in just a day. “If they start at 8 o’clock in the morning, they can get done by 5 o’clock in the afternoon with just a pile of rubble,” Keating said. The cords from the plane’s innards are used to sweep up the remains, and most of the metal is recycled for a new life, perhaps as a cellphone.

But the sight of the cruncher at work is particularly jarring for pilots and ground workers who spent decades honing a razor-sharp focus on keeping the airplane in pristine condition for safe flying.

Watching a plane being totally scrapped was “the hardest thing,” said Delta pilot Paul Gallaher, a 747 pilot who retired Wednesday after flying Delta’s last 747 to Marana.

“I teared up,” Gallaher said. He decided to never watch another airplane being crunched into oblivion.

“I guess you just have an attachment to something,” he said. “You know it’s a machine, but it’s a really special machine.”

For travelers who trust their lives to the physical integrity of an airplane and the care of it, watching the demolition of an airplane can invoke a sense of awe, slight terror and a newfound appreciation for the arc of life of an airplane.

“It takes so long to build an airplane, and it only takes eight or nine hours to break it down,” Keating said. “The first time you see it [crunched], it’s sad.”

In the boneyard, some of the planes’ origins are obscured by a ghostly shade of white paint over the entire aircraft, as a requirement when returned at the end of a lease.

Most of the 747s Delta has retired to the desert are in storage, where they are checked on every seven days and can be prepared in three weeks to fly again — if sold and brought back into service. Their windows are covered to keep sunlight from damaging the interior.

Delta retired a fleet of Boeing 757s to the desert in the past, and brought them back to operate NBA charter flights.

But for U.S. passenger airlines, 747s are a relic of a past era, when jumbo jets carried as many as 400 people between international hubs before passengers connected onto smaller cities.

Cargo carriers and foreign carriers still fly the 747. But today, U.S. airlines lean more towards operating direct flights to a greater variety of international cities, depending less on connecting through a hub in Tokyo, for example, and more on nonstops to multiple cities in China with slightly smaller and significantly more fuel-efficient planes.

Another major driver for retiring the 747s is that a heavy maintenance check required every several years can cost $10 million to $20 million, further pushing up the cost of continuing operations.

“It’s at its limits now,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian.

So Delta’s retirement of the 747 was celebrated as a final goodbye, with fewer than 50 people on board the last flight to Marana, including two pilots in the cockpit and nine flight attendants.

The desert send-off came after the 747’s final commercial flights and farewell tour in late December.

“It’s an airplane that changed everything,” said Hank Allen, a Delta pilot who lives in Johns Creek and flew one of the final 747 flights. After the jumbo jet debuted in the late 1960s, “it changed the way people travel.”

On board the final flight, passengers applauded on take off — then the mood turned more quiet and somber for a brief period as the jumbo jet ascended for its final time.

But the mood turned more celebratory for one of the festivities on the trip to Marana: An in-flight wedding. Pilot Gene Peterson and flight attendant Holly Rick, who met on the 747, said their vows in the economy comfort section of the plane decorated for the occasion.

Flight attendants served a hot breakfast in business class on disposable plates that could be carried out of the cabin — along with the remaining beverages on board — to leave the plane cleared out.

Delta has allowed passengers on the 747’s final charter flights to sign the plane, including the Georgia Bulldogs and Clemson Tigers on their recent bowl game flights. Those on Wednesday’s flight added their signatures, and cheered during a low fly-by before the plane circled around and landed at the boneyard.

Pinal Airpark, a former Army airfield, used to be more secretive, when it was controlled by a Marana Aerospace predecessor company called Evergreen. But the private control prevented the 1,400-acre airport from qualifying for Federal Aviation Administration grants, so now the airport is open to the public, including visitors to the airport’s restaurant and private pilots landing planes on the single runway.

Marana Aerospace is now one of several tenants at Pinal County’s airport, including a smaller maintenance company called Jet Yard, a logistics company that parks its aircraft there and Flightline Grill, the restaurant.

The Marana boneyard has capacity for about 400 airplanes but is only about a quarter full. Engine parts lie on the ground beside some of the hulls.

Airlines like to keep their planes in the air and making money when the economy is good. It’s during bad times that airlines are more likely to cut flights and retire aircraft, filling up the desert spots.

“Right after 9-11, a lot of aircraft were parked and put into storage,” said Dave Querio, president of Marana Aerospace Solutions. “It’s a cyclical industry.”

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AJC Business reporter Kelly Yamanouchi keeps you updated on the latest news about Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Delta Air Lines and the airline industry in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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