Cold War

Silent Witness of Air History – Aircraft Graveyards

Aircraft graveyards, also known as airplane boneyards, are storage and disposal facilities for aircraft that are no longer in active service.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the skies, once filled with the drone of aircraft engines, fell silent. This silence was mirrored on the ground, where vast expanses of land became the final resting places for thousands of aircraft that had dominated the skies during the war.

These post-war aircraft graveyards, scattered across various countries, are not just repositories of metal and machinery; they are poignant reminders of a turbulent period in history and a testament to the rapid technological advancements in aviation.

The end of World War II brought with it a surplus of military aircraft.

With peace declared, the need for these machines plummeted, leaving governments and militaries with the challenge of disposing of their massive fleets.


The United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and other major powers found themselves with an abundance of planes that had no place in a peacetime world.

Thus began the era of the aircraft scrapyard.

P-38 Lightnings scrapped in the Philippines after the war. There were many graveyards like this.
P-38 Lightnings scrapped in the Philippines after the war.

Kingman Airport

The Kingman Airport was a breathtaking sight, both in scale and historical significance. It housed approximately 5,500 military aircraft, making it one of the largest such graveyards in the world.

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The planes ranged from bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator to fighters such as the P-38 Lightning and P-51 Mustang. These aircraft, which had played crucial roles in the aerial combat of WWII, were now grounded in neat rows, stretching as far as the eye could see.

The Kingman Airfield Boneyard - one of the largest graveyards at the time.
Aircraft Graveyards: The Kingman Airfield Boneyard – a sea of aircraft waiting to be dismantled.

The primary fate of these aircraft was dismantling and scrapping. The process involved draining hazardous fluids, removing useful parts, and eventually cutting up the airframes for scrap metal.

This metal was then melted down and repurposed, feeding into the burgeoning post-war economy.

The scrapping process at Kingman was not just an economic activity; it was symbolic of the shift from a wartime to a peacetime economy, a tangible representation of turning instruments of war into resources for rebuilding.

Aircraft were broken down into smaller parts at some graveyards.
Aircraft were broken down into smaller parts.

Aircraft Graveyards – the ‘Boneyard’

In the United States, places like the famous “Boneyard” at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona became iconic. Nestled in the heart of the Arizona desert lies the largest aircraft graveyard in America and one of the largest graveyards in the world.

Officially known as the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG), but more commonly referred to as “The Boneyard”, this facility is a sprawling testament to the history of aviation and the cyclical nature of human conflict and innovation.

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Established shortly after the Second World War as the world transitioned from a period of intense global conflict to a more peaceful time, the United States faced the question of what to do with the thousands of aeroplanes that had been the backbone of its aerial might.

An aerial view of Davis Monthan AFB.
Aircraft Graveyards: An aerial view of Davis Monthan AFB.

The choice of location was far from random. Arizona’s dry climate and alkaline soil make it an ideal environment for storing aircraft. The low humidity slows corrosion, and the hard ground does not need to be paved to support the weight of the planes.

Aircraft Graveyards full of Historic Warbirds

These conditions help preserve the aircraft in a state that makes them potentially viable for future use.As you walk or drive through the Boneyard, it feels like stepping into different eras of aviation history.

The facility is home to more than 4,000 aircraft, including historic warbirds like the B-52 Stratofortress, fighters like the F-14 Tomcat, and even more modern aircraft that have recently been decommissioned.

A SH-60 Seahawk sat waiting for the day it'll take to the skies again.  Photo credit - CC BY-SA 3.0.
A SH-60 Seahawk sat waiting for the day it’ll take to the skies again. Photo credit – CC BY-SA 3.0.

Each plane, whether it dates back to the Cold War or the conflicts in the Middle East, tells a story of technological advancement, geopolitical shifts, and the changing nature of warfare.

The Boneyard serves multiple purposes beyond being a storage site for old aircraft. It is a source for parts that are hard to find or no longer in production, supporting active aircraft fleets and saving the government considerable sums of money.

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It’s also a site for cutting-edge aerospace research and a training ground for military and law enforcement personnel. What makes the Boneyard particularly poignant is its dual symbolism.

On one hand, it is a stark reminder of the vast resources and efforts invested in warfare. Rows upon rows of silent, grounded aircraft evoke thoughts of the conflicts they were part of and the human cost of war.

A C-5 Galaxy being 'reclaimed' at the graveyards at Davis Monthan.
A C-5 Galaxy being ‘reclaimed’.

On the other hand, the Boneyard is a symbol of peace and progress. The cessation of hostilities that led to its creation and the repurposing of its contents reflect humanity’s ability to move forward from conflict.

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In recent years, there has been an increased focus on preserving some of these historic aircraft. Museums and restoration groups often turn to the Boneyard for parts or entire planes that can be restored and displayed. These efforts ensure that the stories and lessons embedded in these metal giants are not lost to time.

B-36 Peacemakers awaiting their demise.
B-36 Peacemakers awaiting their demise.

Irradiated and Left to Rot

The aircraft graveyards in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine is a unique and haunting site, significantly different from typical aircraft boneyards like those found in the United States.

This graveyard, unlike others, is not a product of military surplus or a deliberate effort to store and preserve old aircraft. Instead, it is a direct consequence of one of the most catastrophic nuclear disasters in history – the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in 1986.

The explosion released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western USSR and Europe.

Even aircraft are not safe from radiation. Photo credit - Sergei Supinksy.
Even aircraft are not safe from radiation. Photo credit – Sergei Supinksy.

In the immediate aftermath, a vast area surrounding the plant was evacuated and later designated as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, an area covering approximately 2,600 square kilometres.

Within this Exclusion Zone lies the aircraft graveyard. It is home to a number of helicopters and other aircraft that were used in the immediate response to the disaster.

These helicopters, primarily Soviet-made models, were deployed for a variety of tasks, including dropping sand, lead, and other materials over the exposed reactor to smother the fire and limit the release of radioactive materials.

Soviet Fleet

The most recognisable among them are the Mi-6 and Mi-8 helicopters, which were workhorses of the Soviet fleet and crucial in the aerial operations over the reactor.

In addition to helicopters, the site contains a number of trucks and other ground vehicles. These vehicles were used for various purposes, including transportation of personnel, equipment, and contaminated material.

A Mil Mi-8 being used to spray anti-radiation chemicals.
A Mil Mi-8 being used to spray anti-radiation chemicals.

Due to their extensive use in highly radioactive areas, these aircraft became heavily contaminated with radioactive particles. After their role in the containment efforts, it became impossible to decontaminate them fully, rendering them unsafe for further use.

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As a result, they were abandoned in the Exclusion Zone, where they remain as eerie relics of the disaster. The aircraft in the graveyard is much more than a collection of decommissioned machines.

Each helicopter and aircraft stands as a poignant reminder of the heroism and sacrifice of the disaster responders who risked their lives. These machines are symbolic of the human cost and the devastating impact of nuclear accidents.

Access to the Exclusion Zone, including the aircraft graveyard, is highly controlled. The area remains hazardous due to lingering radioactive contamination.

Over the years, the aircraft has deteriorated, succumbing to the elements and the passage of time, further contributing to the sombre and abandoned atmosphere of the site.

Even to this day, these vehicles are highly contaminated.
Even to this day, these vehicles are highly contaminated.

Where Aircraft Go to Die

The process of dealing with these aircraft was not merely logistical but also emotional. Many of these machines had carried men and women into battle, been part of significant historical events, or represented cutting-edge technological achievements of their time.

As such, the scrapyards became more than just storage spaces; they were museums of history, albeit unintentional ones. Enthusiasts, veterans, and historians often visited these sites, seeking a connection with the past or salvaging parts for restoration projects.

Economically, these graveyards also played a significant role. The vast quantities of aluminium, steel, and other materials salvaged from these aircraft were repurposed and fed into the burgeoning post-war economies.

This recycling process was not only a matter of resource efficiency but also a symbol of transformation – from instruments of war to tools of rebuilding and growth.

A sad sight of F-84Fs dumped in a literal pile.
A sad sight of F-84Fs dumped in a literal pile.

Aircraft Graveyards

The scrapyards continue to be a reflection of the changing dynamics of military aviation, with Cold War-era jets and even more modern aircraft finding their way into these graveyards. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in preserving some of these historical aircraft. Museums and restoration groups often source parts or whole aircraft from these graveyards.

This effort to preserve is not just about maintaining a physical object; it’s about keeping alive the stories and lessons of a past era.

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The post-war aircraft scrapyards, in their quiet, sombre way, tell a story of human conflict, technological progress, and the passage of time. They remind us of the transient nature of war and the enduring spirit of innovation and resilience.

As silent sentinels of history, these scrapyards hold within them stories of courage, tragedy, and the relentless march of time, serving as powerful symbols of a world forever changed by the ravages of war and the unceasing quest for peace.