Aboard the last flight to an airplane ‘boneyard’

Posted at 7:40 AM, Dec 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-20 07:40:20-05

Would you fly on a passenger plane that was going to be “retired” after your ride? And where DO they go when no longer needed?

So it was with a mixture of nostalgia, curiosity and a little uneasiness that we flew across the country on an American Airlines MD-80 series aircraft as it made its way to a final resting place in the desert in Roswell, New Mexico.

Our American Airlines plane was being taken out of service at age 29, young by human standards but old in an industry with technological improvements and a hunger to sell off valuable parts of an aging jetliner.

The flight was from Chicago to Roswell, and we were the only passengers on what American Airlines called a “ferry flight.” Yes, read that fantasy again. The only passengers with rows and rows of empty seats around us. Nobody was going to lean on your armrest or kick your seatback.

You could lean back your seat as far as it went and reflect on the life of the plane. Four and half million passengers had boarded. Potentially 50 million miles in the air. How many families headed West on this plane for a vacation? Perhaps a man flying to meet a new love at a faraway airport for the first time? How many anxiety tablets swallowed by nervous fliers in these very rows? Who stared out the window and vowed to change their life?

How odd that such a large, wonderful piece of machinery was not needed anymore. And to add insult to injury, the parts of the discarded plane and all the others like it are worth more than the aircraft kept whole.

Flying the last ferry of the MD-80 to the New Mexico boneyard was Capt. Kevin Dingman, a former F-16 pilot and Air Force veteran. His appearance on the flight did not just come up on a captain’s schedule.

“Its something I had to do,” Dingman told us as we sat across each other on the aisle. “I saw this (flight) was open and I couldn’t resist taking it.”

Recently, Dingman was told by an American Airlines computer that he was being “banished from the flock” (the MD-80s) to fly more modern Boeing 737s. Dingman and the other American Airlines pilots we chatted with raved about the MD-80. They called it a pilots plane. The jet requires more manual work by the pilots; less automation is packed into the cockpit controls. The nickname for the aircraft is Mad Dog.

You would normally get a little concerned if you saw your pilot before the flight and heard him say he was emotional before takeoff.

But it was very moving to see Dingman explain, “Its a very big deal. I’m very emotional. I loved this plane a lot.”

There’s man and his machine and then there’s a pilot and his plane.

We started descending. Dingman made the customary “we’re going to be landing soon” announcement. We were arriving to the place I heard so much about, the place where planes go to die, the boneyard.

Reluctantly I pulled up my seat from the recline position. The landing was perfect in the desert sun. I was surprised when American Airlines ground personnel rushed on before I could even unbuckle. They would now be in charge of the plane.

We descended by the back stairs. It was a big day for American Airlines. A record number of similar MD 80s, 20 in all, were coming here to Roswell, landing with precision. For the last time. From Pittsburgh to Tampa, precision timed landings only minutes apart.

The M-D 80 fleet was dwindling every day, as more energy efficient jets are produced loaded with modern amenities for passengers. American now has the youngest fleet in the skies.

Does a plane know its the end of the line? They all hit the tarmac, turned and were bunched together in a section of the sprawling boneyard. Roswell is a good place to park unwanted aircraft because of the dry climate, thus avoiding corrosion. People here don’t call it a boneyard, but prefer “aircraft storage facility” or “regeneration.”

There is also a mystery of Roswell looming with every step taken in the boneyard. If you believe the conspiracy theories, the wreckage of the famous Roswell incident, “1947 UFO” crash was brought to a hanger for examination at the same airport we flew into.

While our plane was taken away and parked to await its fate, we got an amazing ride by car with Martin Testorff, one of American’s storage managers here. We zoomed around, under and past hundreds of parked aircraft.

Many have their engines cut off, cockpits sliced open and windows missing. From American, Scoot Air to Saudi Arabia Airlines, the massive field was packed with veterans of the skies.

I love air travel and the jet age, so there was sadness seeing planes in various states of disrepair. Some looked as if they could fly again, others had their noses and tails chopped off. “Its like an airplane enthusiasts playground,” said Testorff as he drove us about the rows and rows of large powerless planes.

We were escorted into a former flying 777. As I boarded this plane I felt I could crash through the cabin floor at any time. The plane was in the process of being dismantled. Cables, wood and spare parts littered what had to be a plush first class cabin.

“I finally got my window seat!” I yelled as I grabbed a window and wall that were still connected. Martin laughed. It was no laughing matter when I learned the next stop for this plane was to be crushed and melted down.

Our next stop was a long stretch of airplane parts neatly organized. We walked through a maze of tires, engines, doors and wings that had been shrink-wrapped and set aside to sell. Martin called the process of dismantling a plane “parting out.”

These parts are valuable and have been taken apart with the precision of a surgeon. Another airline could pay up to $2,200 for a tire, or $167,000 for a flap of a wing.

Testorff says he used to think it was sad to see these aircraft torn up, but now that it’s been his livelihood for a decade, he likes to see the planes pass on. “This is the end for these aircraft,” he said. “Others are beginning their lives… its part of the cycle.”