Image: RichardBakerUSA/Alamy
Image: RichardBakerUSA/Alamy

With its rows of aircraft resting together, the storage facility at Davis-Monthan airbase looks like a massive graveyard.

The boneyard – as the Americans prefer to call it – here at Davis-Monthan was established in 1946 to store WWII bombers and transports.

Situated just outside Tucson, Arizona, the site was home to around 6,000 aircraft during the Vietnam War. Today, roughly 4,000 aircraft remain.

The site’s climate is perfect for such a facility. The low humidity and high altitude reduce rust and corrosion, while the hard, alkaline soil allows aircraft to move around without having to use paved runways.

After the START treaty was signed between the United States and the USSR in 1991, the base at Davis-Monthan played an important role in fulfilling the treaty’s directive to reduce America’s nuclear capabilities.

Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses, pictured here, were stripped and ultimately sliced into several parts with a large guillotine.

Introduced in 1952, the B-52s were an integral component of American airborne defence during the iciest days of the Cold War and were used with devastating effect in the bombings of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Even by the time of the 1991 Gulf War, 40 years after they were first introduced, the aircraft remained a hallmark of American military might.

Their decommissioning was therefore an important symbolic moment in the de-escalation of hostilities following the Cold War.

In a sign of the good grace that characterised that era, the United States permitted a Russian satellite to inspect the base in the mid-1990s in order to confirm they had made good on their side of the bargain.

But this is not Death Valley, and nor is it the end of the road – or the runway – for the aircraft stored here. Rather than a graveyard, it would be better to think of Davis-Monthan as a large parts facility.

On a regular basis, the working elements of aircraft are removed for reuse. Over 5,000 different parts from the facility were harvested last year alone, saving American taxpayers millions of dollars in repairs.

A few B-52s have even been painstakingly restored to active duty in order to replace those lost in accidents.

Restoration is often a long process – returning the B-52s to airworthiness took four months, and they are no longer involved in the front-line defence of the United States.

But it does provide proof that there is life after the boneyard for its many inhabitants.

Abandoned Cold War Places by Robert Grenville is published by Amber Books (£19.99)

This article was published in the March 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.




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