damaged airplane

Abandoned airplanes

Some could have value, but many are just hunks of worthless aluminum.

I recently signed on to the “General Aviation Junkyard” Facebook page, and it’s been fun to follow—and interesting. People post pictures of abandoned aircraft from around the world. Many are rotting hulks alongside overgrown runways in jungles and deserts, but there are also plenty of images of not-so-derelict-looking airplanes, including business jets, tied down at airports, with messages like, “hasn’t moved in 11 years.” Sometimes these airplanes have flat tires and/or weeds growing up around them.

With almost every post, some­one will comment that it’s a tragedy that such a noble flying machine has been left so neglected. The comments also frequently include requests for the location of an airplane, and for information on how the reader can get in touch with the owner to try to “rescue” it.

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End of the Line: Bizjets to Beer Cans?

What happens when aircraft reach the end of their useful lives.

This is an extension of the “barn-found” syndrome—the undying op­­ti­mism of dreamers hoping to ­resurrect a precious classic for pennies on the dollar. The problem is that the aircraft’s real-world dollar value seldom comes close to the figure the dreamer has in mind.

Sometimes, you just have to let these aging aircraft go the way of, say, a 1972 Ford Pinto station wagon.

As the former editor of an antique-airplane magazine, I recognize that historic flying machines can be well worth the effort to restore them—over and over again. Like classic Packards and Rolls Royces, golden-age Wacos, Stinsons, and Beech Staggerwings—the business transports of their age—almost always have enough collector value to justify the loving care it takes to keep them running. The oft-repeated mantra of the antique-airplane aficionado is, “We serve only as temporary stewards of these timeless machines, which we’ll someday pass along to their next custodians.”

But the harsh reality is that simply being old does not guarantee an airplane’s value and desirability. Sometimes, you just have to let these aging aircraft go the way of, say, a 1972 Ford Pinto station wagon. That truth has become even more harsh in the past couple of decades.

During that time, airframers have worked to establish general aviation aircraft as a practical mode of transportation, rather than just a hobby for owner-pilot enthusiasts—or a luxury indulgence for business jet cabin dwellers. While that has served to legitimize private flying, it has also eroded much of the magic and panache.

On a more practical, dollars-and-cents level, the ­economic downturn of 2008 reversed a long-standing dynamic trend of business jets retaining much of their resale value for many years. Indeed, there was a time when a freshly delivered jet placed for immediate sale
was often worth more than a brand-new one ordered from the factory, because manufacturers’ delivery backlogs stretched out for many months, if not years.

But those days are long gone, perhaps never to return.

Also,  new-aircraft technology has accelerated—not just in aerodynamics and engines, but even more so in cockpit and cabin ­electronics. So upgrading what used to be a “middle-aged” aircraft to like-new utility has become much more expensive, if not physically impossible.

The result is that many older aircraft that would have been repainted and reupholstered in past years are now not worth the investment. They are being stripped of usable parts and components (the list of what is “usable” is also getting shorter), and the hulks are being abandoned in fields like so many dinosaur skeletons.

Ironically, aviation-grade aluminum is such a sophisticated blend that it cannot even be melted down to be recycled for beer cans, kitchenware, or other common uses. So the leftover airframe of a once-proud, globe-girdling private jet is often not even worth cutting up for scrap.    

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