Everything You Need to Know About the Military Boneyards Where U.S. Aircraft Await Their Next Act

SEP 15, 2023

Warplanes can last for decades, and then remain structurally viable for several decades more—meaning military boneyards are like a purgatory for fighters, bombers, and transports.

-The concept of a warplane “boneyard,” where old planes go when they retire, is actually pretty rare.

-While the Pentagon maintains the world’s largest boneyard, the concept is relatively unknown to other countries.

-Most countries fly planes until they are no longer useful, but America’s four air forces retire planes that are still useful all the time.

The “boneyard” is a macabre term that has come to stand for places—that are usually dry and dusty—where airplanes are sent to wait. Sometimes, the planes are waiting to fly again; sometimes the planes are waiting to go to the scrapyard. But by and large, the military aircraft boneyard is an American phenomenon, in which a combination of geography and the world’s largest air force creates a stable supply of planes that the U.S. government isn’t quite sure what to do with. Here’s everything you need to know about them.

End of Life

us aviation boneyard

Most aircraft at Davis Monthan, including these A-10 Warthogs, are shrink-wrapped to keep the elements out. Getty Images

Military aircraft have varying lifespans. In wartime, the life of a fighter, bomber, or transport plane could be measured in minutes, as attrition grinds down a fighting air force. Warplanes have always been semi-disposable assets in wartime; until as recently as Vietnam, air armies have fully expected to lose planes in combat.

Peacetime is a different story. The use of steel and aluminum over wood and fabric dramatically increased the service life of warplanes, to the point that almost all eventually become technologically obsolete long before they become worn out by the stresses of flight operations. The average U.S. Air Force aircraft is about 30 years old, and the service must contend with eight fleets over the age of 50.

All of this means that warplanes can last for decades, and then remain structurally viable for several decades more. Entire fleets of airplanes have received mid-life updates designed to increase their service lives: the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is receiving the vital Block III upgrade, the A-10 Warthog fleet received new wings, and the F-16 Fighting Falcon is in the process of getting a radar makeover. The potential for upgrades, combined with plane fleets that keep flying for decades or more, make it worthwhile to keep old planes around …for a little while, anyway.

Rich Country Problems

the second b 52 stratofortress to re enter service

The B-52 Stratofortress bomber, “Wise Guy,” tail number 60-034, as it appeared before a 2019–2021 refurbishment that returned it to active flying duty. U.S. Air Force

The U.S. military, including the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army, currently operates about 13,000 aircraft of all types. This runs a broad gamut from fighter jets like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II to planes like the C-17 transport and Guardrail intelligence-gathering aircraft. The worldwide fleet is adding and subtracting planes every day. Some aircraft are cut because they are worn out, others succumb to budget cuts. All are still useful as scrap, but many are a little more useful than that, ranging from still being flyable to having useful parts, such as ejection seats, that can still be harvested from an unflyable plane.

Since World War II, the U.S. military has used the southwestern desert to keep planes in a post-retirement holding pattern. At Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, thousands of aircraft sit awaiting their eventual fate. The lack of rainfall and humidity slows their deterioration in the outdoors, making recovering parts and equipment decades after retirement a viable proposition. Some planes eventually re-enter service: in 2021 the B-52H bomber “Wise Guy” rejoined America’s bomber fleet after a lengthy refurbishment, though it may have had a scorpion or two hiding in the wheel wells.

The bottom line is, the United States is a rich enough country to avoid cutting up planes for scrap value as soon as they leave service, wisely keeping them around just in case.

The Rest of the World

military hardware on display in the outdoor potion of the central museum of armed forces, moscow, russia, april 2011

A collection of military hardware at Moscow’s Central Aviation Museum, including a Mi-24 Hind-A attack helicopter, S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile and launcher, and Sukhoi Su-7 fighter. Getty Images

Other countries, even NATO allies, have relatively few aircraft and retire planes in much smaller numbers. The United Kingdom, for example, has only 142 fighter jets, while France has 266, and Germany has 209. These fleets are relatively small, grow slowly, and planes are retired infrequently. These countries also lack the arid conditions to store jets in good condition. In Europe, the closest thing to a boneyard is the private fighter jet collection of vintner Michel Pont.

Russia has the capacity to store warbirds, but most of the fleet was likely cut up for scrap during the 1990s and 2000s. One location with military aircraft is the Central Aviation Museum outside of Moscow. Aside from the usual Mikoyan-Gurevich and Sukhoi jets, the museum hosts a Tu-22 “Backfire” bomber, Mi-26 “Halo” heavy lift helicopters, a Mil V-12 twin-rotor superheavy helicopterYak-28 “Brewer” attack jets, and at least one intact Yak-38 “Forger” vertical takeoff and landing fighter. Zhukovsky International Airport is another location with a mix of well-known and not-so-well-known aircraft, including the experimental Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut (“Golden Eagle”) swept-wing fighter and the MiG 1.44 prototype fighter.

China’s air forces, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force, have undergone rapid expansion over the past two decades. China is known to have held onto large numbers of J-6 fighters, and there are suggestions the planes are being modified to act as unmanned aerial vehicles. There is the China Aviation Museum north of Beijing with a modest collection of 20th-century Chinese warplanes. China does not appear to have an official boneyard of Chinese air power, but if it exists it is probably in the hot, dry, Xinjiang province.



  1. Unfortunately, this article doesn’t mention the numbers of aircraft that we have in storage, but it’s safe to say that they are more numerous than what our next five largest allies have on active duty. How easy it would have been to take just a fraction of them to send to Ukraine.
    But, where there is no will (and no courage) there is no way.

    “The bottom line is, the United States is a rich enough country to avoid cutting up planes for scrap value as soon as they leave service, wisely keeping them around just in case.”

    We have just such a “just in case” scenario. One of our worst enemies is currently being decimated, but sans those aircraft. They just keep sitting in the hot desert sun, collecting more dust … and scorpions. Ukraine doesn’t need any, according to this disgraceful and lying administration.

    • According to various sources there are anywhere between 4000-4500 planes in US boneyards. I’m sure a fair percentage could be made operational in a short time.

      • Hundreds could’ve been refurbished already and be active in Ukraine if only we had a real president.

        • The A-10 is pretty much useless in Ukraine.
          They already have a very similar plane, the Su-25, which only saw action during the beginning of the war.

          The plane is too slow and is an easy target.

          The A-10 is useful to gun down some Taliban that can only shoot back with their rifles. It’s armor can withstand small arms fire and is useful for conducting CAS missions at a low altitude.

          But in Ukraine that is a suicide mission considering the number of anti-air missile systems and Russian fighter jets with long range missiles.

          Don’t get me wrong, it is probably the most awesome looking plane made in the entire history, but today it’s only useful if you have full air superiority.

          Ukraine just needs drones and fighter jets with long range missiles and anti-radiation missiles.

          • Bert, I’d wager that you’ve never seen an A-10 fly before. I think that they would do great things in Ukraine. They were made for this type of environment.

        • I was thinking the very same thing. It would be so great for them doing what they do best in Ukraine.

  2. Wow, thanks for bringing this out OFP. Didn’t realize those planes were kept preserved under wrap. So as our people die (speaking as a die hard Ukrainian diaspora) this administration, this country is just saying …fuck you. Is it me or is it the US that has gone off the rails? I have a conundrum. As a member of the baby boomer generation, that I believe has caused all this crap, me included, try to figure out how to fix it or just let it go for another smarter generation hoping they will fix our fuck ups. Baby Boomers have shown we can screw up a wet dream. It’s sad!

  3. I posted this previously:

    The famous “boneyard” in the Arizona desert has an unspecified number of old F-16s, but they’ve been sitting in the desert for decades and would require complete overhauls and updates. It took Boeing 12 years to refurbish 75 obsolete boneyard F-16s back to flying status. Those were made into unmanned target drones, which might even be easier to refurbish since they didn’t need modern systems installed.


    • Geez that interesting that it took 12 years. That’s what six F16s per year? I would have thought we were more efficient then that But what do I know🤔

      • Larry keeps forgetting that turning a regular plane into a drone is a much tougher job than just refurbishing a plane to what it was before.

    • Larry, making a plane into a drone that was previously controlled by a human being is much harder than just refurbishing a plane as it was before. You must put in all the mechanisms that controls the aircraft, which a human used to do. Besides that, we are in the 19th month of war. I’m certain that we could have dozens of them already in flying status, maybe even months ago already.

      • While that’s true in general, I don’t know how much that applies to the F-16, which is a fly-by-wire jet. Given the introduction of the DFLCC (Digital Flight Control Computer) in the 80’s, it seems to me that it’s not that big a deal to allow for radio controls to drive the input rather than the stick and rudder controls. But I make no claims to be an expert; you may know more about this than I do.

        “we are in the 19th month of war.”

        So, how long do you think it would take to give each F-16 a complete overhaul and update it to all modern systems, without any drone modifications? How much would it cost? And does it make sense to invest all that when we have partners with up-to-date planes that are ready to fight?

        (Biden withholding permission to give them to Ukraine is a different issue. I think he should have done so long ago. But that doesn’t change the logic of taking planes that are ready to fight over investing in a long overhaul of ancient equipment.)

        • Larry, of course, you’re right. Now is not the time to pull planes from storage and to refurbish them. The time is too late for this. It should’ve been done last year already.
          We know why Biden kept/keeps on refusing to send planes, ATACMS and other gear to Ukraine. His fear of “escalation” and of “provoking” mafia land. Biden sent the wrong signals to mafia land all along, even before this war started. Refusing to send certain arms to Ukraine over and over again was one of them.

          • “The time is too late for this. It should’ve been done last year already.”

            The point in my asking “how long do you think it would take” is, it seems to me that even starting a year ago wouldn’t make much difference. They should have started training pilots a year ago, but that’s a separate topic.

            • You must then assume that those planes are in pretty bad shape, Larry. They’re not. Every plane is carefully prepared before being mothballed to ease its reinstatement to service. As you see in the article, they are even covered in shrink wrap. A few months is plenty of time to get this accomplished.
              Of course, pilots should have started training as soon as the go ahead was given to give planes, and the maintenance technicians, too.

              • But everything in that carefully shrink-wrapped plane is decades out of date. You’re ignoring “a complete overhaul and update it to all modern systems”. And also, “How much would it cost?” – given a fixed amount authorized to support Ukraine, is it better spent on upgrading old hardware, or on giving Ukraine MLRS and ATACMS (for which I’m hoping that Zelensky will leave the White House with a commitment)?

                • Such things as ATACMS should’ve been in Ukraine a long time ago already, along with planes. Even our older F-16s are at least on par with the old, Soviet -era planes that Ukraine has.
                  As soon as it became apparent that Ukraine would not fall as quickly as predicted, that they are using what we have given to them very effectively, and showed great competence and determination in their fight against mafia land, the WH along with the Pentagon and Ukrainian general staff should’ve sat at the same table and discussed what is to be done, what is needed and so on. What we did was a deplorable trickle-down effort. A no here, a little there, and always too late is stupid and weak. Too much valuable time has gone by. Mafia land can’t be defeated by such stupid and weak methodologies.

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