Plane boneyards: What happens when an aircraft gets scrapped

Fancy a Fender Stratocaster guitar made from Boeing 747 parts? Or maybe an aircraft window, buffed, polished and mounted on a base, so you can gaze through it at sky and clouds and reminisce about the flying experience? Or how about an ejector seat from an F4 Phantom fighter-bomber, used extensively by US forces in the Vietnam War. Just don't touch the red button. Head for Boeing Store and you can choose from a treasure trove of artefacts culled from aircraft that have passed their use-by date.

Aircraft pass into retirement for any number of reasons but generally, a commercial airliner will reach its end-of life at a maximum of about 25 years. The last time that aircraft takes to the air its final destination will probably be a decommissioning facility, an aircraft boneyard.

While its flying days might have come to an end, the aircraft still has value. In fact the sum of its parts is worth more than the whole. Engines, landing gear, avionics – these are all valuable components that find ready buyers on the second-hand market, and there are plenty of aviation enthusiasts looking to add some superannuated aircraft bling to the man cave, sourced from an aircraft recycling facility.

Most of the world's aircraft recycling happens in the USA, predominantly in the south-western states where the warm, dry climate and economical aircraft parking offer a low-corrosion environment and optimal working conditions for stripping down aircraft in the open air. It's a specialised industry, with a strong code of practice and a technical workforce.

Aircraft recyclers, and just about every major aircraft and engine manufacturer, belong to the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association (AFRA), a global trade group that promotes environmentally safe practices in the recycling and salvaging of aircraft parts and materials. Rather than a couple of whiskery blokes and a rottweiler with a studded collar that you might find at a car junkyard, the decommission of a commercial aircraft is more likely to be undertaken by certified engineers and technicians.

How to deconstruct an aircraft

At the decommissioning facility one of the first steps is bleeding the aircraft of its fluids, many of them toxic, and removing hazardous materials. The list might include asbestos, glycol-based de-icer, lithium batteries, rain-repellent fluid, mercury and depleted uranium which was used as ballast weights in aircraft manufactured until the early 1980s.

The protocols for handling these materials are complicated. Halon, for example, is a chemical compound used extensively in the fire extinguishers which are mandatory in all aircraft. The aviation industry is the largest consumer of Halon 1301 and although it's highly effective in its fire-fighting role, halon is an ozone-depleting compound and its production has been banned under the Montreal Protocol since 1994. Halon cylinders that are within test date can be returned to the supply chain, those that are not must be sent to a certified halon recycler.

Engines are among the first items removed from the aircraft since they're valuable and need to be protected. According to a chart from the International Air Transport Association showing the value of Boeing 737-800 over a 20-year period, while the value of the aircraft declines steadily over that time, the value of it's the CFM56-7B engines used for that aircraft type remains relatively constant. By the end of that 20-year period, those engines are worth around 75 per cent of the total value of that aircraft.

Other high value components include the landing gear, the auxiliary power unit, generators, flight controls and navigation systems. Even windscreens and escape slides can command a price of several thousand dollars on the second-hand market. There are also aviation industry recycling specialists such as VAS Aero Services that also come up with creative uses for aircraft parts, just in case you want a 737 cockpit for a film shoot or a couple of first-class airline seats for your games room.

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When all the high value components have been removed, what's left is an empty aluminium fuselage. By this stage there's not much value remaining. Typically that hull will be ripped apart in the jaws of excavators and sent down the chain to a scrap metal dealer for smelting and re-use, from where it might end up in the construction industry, in the case for an Apple laptop or as a drinks container. Next time you pop the lid on your favourite beverage, consider that what you hold in your hand might once have been whizzing around the globe, at 10 kilometres high and 750 kilometres per hour.

See also: Tears and tributes as the last Qantas 747 departs Australia for final time

See also: World's largest passenger plane stripped of seats to make way for cargo

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