What Happens to Airplanes No Longer Fit to Fly?

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As a kid, I remember seeing striking pictures of massive jets, tiny turbo props and other aircraft seemingly abandoned in the arid desert.

Across the southwestern United States, there are seven major airplane boneyards filled with planes. I always wondered if this was, in fact, where airplanes went to die. It seemed an odd thing to leave such expensive pieces of machinery out in the desert to simply fall apart.

After doing some investigating, however, I learned that these boneyards are not an airplane’s final resting place. In fact, in many cases these airplanes are simply being stored for a time until they return to service. The desert, it turns out, is the best available place to leave these planes while an airline doesn’t need them.

Properly sealed, these planes can sit in these boneyards for a number of years and still be easily returned to service. However, not all airplanes in these boneyards are going to return to flight. Some are kept around for parts in order to repair other planes. But what does happen to an airplane when it’s no longer fit to fly?

Can Airplanes Be Recycled?

As airplanes have become more and more complex, the recycling process has grown more difficult. Over the course of WWII, the United States manufactured approximately 294,000 airplanes. Once peace was achieved, it was determined that about 117,000 airplanes would be declared surplus. While some of these were sold, most were sent to various boneyards where they were cut up and smelted. Airplanes at that time were relatively simple machines compared to the incredibly complex airliners we fly in today. This made the recycling process quite easy.

Today, airplanes are filled with many different materials, along with a variety of hazardous waste that must be disposed of correctly. A commercial jet has an average lifespan of about 25 years. The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association estimates that over the next two decades, 12,000 airplanes will reach retirement and need to be recycled. Other organizations estimate this number could actually reach as high as 17,000. Whatever the number, it’s important that an effective program is in place to recycle these airplanes.

Fortunately, in recent years, a number of companies have launched with the purpose of recycling planes. At the same time, airplane manufacturers are working hard to make a 100 percent recyclable airplane. As of right now, recyclers are able to recycle approximately 80 to 85 percent of an airplane, depending on the type of aircraft.

Challenges to Airplane Recycling

Perhaps the greatest challenge to airplane recycling is simply the number of materials found on an airplane. Airplanes are made from aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, stainless steel, glass, plastics and a variety of other materials. Each of these must be removed from the airplane and recycled in its own way.

Another struggle with airplane recycling is the number of facilities capable of, and licensed for, disassembling and recycling airplanes. Since the process requires a great deal of technical knowledge, only a few facilities are truly equipped for the task. If an airplane is still airworthy, it can make its final flight to one of these facilities, where it will be stored until it’s time to tear it apart. Unfortunately, not all airplanes are able to make this final journey, and may stop functioning far away from one of these facilities. When this happens, the airplane is essentially stuck where it is.

The cost to break apart an airplane and fly it in pieces to a disposal facility far outweighs the value of the airplane in most cases. As a result, the airplane may be parked at an airport and left to rust away. If hazardous fluids aren’t removed from the airplane, they’ll eventually leak out into the environment. Unfortunately, this is one issue that doesn’t have a solution yet. But when an airplane does make it to the recycling facility, how exactly does it get disassembled?

How Are Airplanes Recycled?

Once an airplane is ready for retirement, it heads to one of the various boneyards around the world. Most of these facilities are located at commercial airfields or former military bases in the United States and across Europe. When an aircraft arrives, it will be inspected and inevitably end up sitting around for a while until the owner of the plane decides what to do with it.

Once an aircraft is slated for disposal, the first step is to remove all hazardous fluids and materials. Specific rules dictate how these materials must be removed and disposed of. Once these materials have been removed, the team is able to move more swiftly through the next phase of disassembly.

The engines are the next step in the disposal process. These are actually the most valuable part of the airplane. If they are still in good working order, they may be sold for a few million dollars. In other cases, they may be rented out on a month-to-month basis until they are ready for recycling. Many times, engines may actually end up on several different airplanes during their life cycle. Engines are also upgraded throughout their lives to make them more efficient, so an engine may outlive the fuselage.

Next up are all the electronics on the airplane. Many of these components can also be sold for reuse or recycling. The interior of the airplane is also gutted and, when possible, the seats and other components are sold. If you really love aviation, you can buy old seats, seat belts and even serving carts.

Once the interior of the plane has been stripped and the engines removed, the plane is almost ready for the shredder. Before that step, however, the landing gear of the plane is removed. The landing gear is actually the second most valuable part of the plane, after the engines. The landing gear is worth millions of dollars and can be sold once removed. Once all of these valuable components are off the plane, the airplane is ready to be shredded. Machinery will rip it apart, and all the metals will be melted and separated.

The airplane recycling process is actually quite incredible. While not all components can be recycled at the moment, significant progress is being made — in the near future, we hope to see a 100 percent recyclable airplane.

Feature image courtesy of Adobe Stock

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Brian Brassaw

Brian Brassaw

Brian formerly managed the Earth911 Recycling Search and shared green living tips and tricks on Earth911’s Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter accounts. Brian also shares DIY projects on Little Pilots Lounge.
Brian Brassaw