Giants lurk among the hedgerows and rolling lowlands of the Cotswolds. They appear from behind trees unexpectedly, looming beside the rural roads.
But these are not creatures of myth – or relics from some bygone age. Instead, they are the flotsam created by our appetite for foreign holidays and our desire to visit far-flung places. This field in Gloucestershire, surrounded by English countryside, is where aircraft go to die.
Five Jumbo Jets, two Boeing 777s, a handful of Airbus A320s and 20 other large passenger aircraft lie scattered across a former RAF airfield. Some are clustered in groups while others sit alone, propped up on railway sleepers.
This is no graveyard; these hulks are not going to be left to rust away. Instead, they are the life-blood for a salvage industry that cannibalises discarded airliners.
“The engines and parts are worth more if you take them off than if you try to sell the aircraft as a flying machine,” says Mark Gregory, the founder of Air Salvage International, which is responsible for dismantling this collection of unwanted passenger jets. “These are all aircraft people fly away on for their holidays or to take transatlantic trips.”
His company has been operating for the last 20 years out of Cotswolds Airport, a private airfield near Kemble which was owned by the Ministry of Defence until 1993. Between 50 and 60 passenger jets make their final flight here each year, their wingspans casting huge shadows over the surrounding chocolate-box villages as they rumble into land.
Once on the ground, Gregory and his team begin meticulously dismantling the aircraft. “About 80 to 90% of the value of an aircraft are in its engines,” says Gregory, a former Dan Air engineer who used his severance pay to set up the company. “Once we have removed them, we then set about salvaging the other valuable parts of the airframe.”
The process can take around eight weeks for a narrow-bodied passenger jet like a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320, while for giants like a Boeing 747 or 777 it can take 10 to 15 weeks.
Before anything can be removed from an aircraft, however, it first has to be bled. Fuel, harmful de-icing liquid and hydraulics fluid are drained out into large tanks on the airport’s tarmac. Then the engines are lifted free with the help of cranes before having a preservative fluid pumped into them.
“It is a bit like embalming them,” says Gregory. “We pump in preservative to blow out all the oil and fuel so they don’t corrode.” Each plane is then wrapped, mummy-like, in plastic while it waits to find a new home.
All this care is worth it. Each engine from a 20-year-old Boeing 777 can fetch around £2.35m ($3m), says Gregory. These engines are in high demand and are often reused on newer aircraft or used by an airline for spare parts: to buy a new engine for a 777 can cost £24m ($30m). They can outlast the aircraft they initially were fixed to many times over.
The other valuable parts of the airframe include the landing gear, the auxiliary power unit (which is a turbine at the back of the aircraft that powers the electrical systems), some of the avionics, the air conditioning system and the escape chutes.
“By the end we are really just left with the fuselage,” says Gregory. “We can sell parts of the flight deck to flight schools and colleges for training; there are even people who want the doors and seats.”
There is a flourishing market in used airliner seats that are snapped up to help train stewardesses, used in film sets and occasionally by the odd aviation enthusiast. They can sell from a couple of hundred pounds for an economy seat to thousands for first class.
Even a seatbelt can fetch up to £20 ($25) from those looking to have their own piece of aviation memorabilia.
The aviation industry is facing a significant challenge with how to deal with its aging aircraft. In the US, there are huge aeroplane graveyards in the middle of the Arizona desert where airframes have been left abandoned.
Changes to air safety and noise regulations, along with increased production from aircraft manufacturers, has seen turnover of planes soar in recent years, with many commercial jets being retired long before they need to be.
Currently between 400 and 600 commercial aircraft are disassembled around the world each year. This creates mountains of waste – around 30,000 tonnes of aluminium, 1,800 tonnes of alloys, 1,000 tonnes of carbon fibre and 600 tonnes of other parts are removed from old aircraft each year.
It is likely only to get worse. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), as many as 18,000 fleet aircraft are likely to be retired from operations over the next 13 years.
Last year the ICAO announced it would be working with the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, the industry body that oversees the dismantling of aircraft, to increase the volume that can be reused or recycled. The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association has said it hopes to be able to make use of up to 95% of retired aircraft.
“Sustainable consumption and production means not just reducing resource use, but also reducing waste throughout the entirety of an aircraft’s lifecycle,” says Fang Liu, Secretary General of ICAO.
Gregory, however, has found an unusual approach to making use of as much of the aircraft he deals with as possible.
“We have sold airframes to museums, theme parks, flight attendants schools and even film companies,” he says. “We supported Star Wars with a lot of bits and pieces from aircraft. They used some aircraft pylons to make speeders in the most recent film.”
Bits of aircraft from Gregory’s scrapyard have also found their way into films like World War Z and Batman and television series including Doctor Who and Red Dwarf. The fuselage and wings of an Boeing 737 were cut up to recreate a “crash scene” at the foot of The Swarm roller coaster ride at Thorpe Park in Surrey. Police units and fire brigades also come to Air Salvage International’s headquarters in the Cotswolds to conduct training on some of the old fuselages.
Walking between the fallow aircraft at the site can be saddening. Seeing these enormous feats of aeronautical engineering being ripped into their constituent parts, it gets harder and harder to understand how these lumps of metal, carbon fibre and plastic are able to defy gravity.
On the tarmac, with their undercarriages ripped out and engines removed, they look incapable of ever taking to the air again.
Around the site, engineers work to take them apart, piece by piece. Some use angle grinders to strip sections off the front a cockpit while others work inside to remove the fittings.
Two giant excavating machines with metal jaws deliver the final fate to what is left of the aircraft after this process, tearing chunks out of the remaining airframe so the material can be sorted and recycled.
Gregory and his staff will often discover discarded or long-lost items between the seats. On one occasion they found the wallet containing $600 wedged under the captain’s seat of a Air New Zealand aircraft. The pilot, who had lost it nearly a decade earlier, was thrilled when they returned it to him in Australia.
Loose change, mobile phones, pens and sticky sweets are other regular discoveries. Wallets and stray items from luggage turn up in the cargo hold. Six years ago, the team found something somewhat more valuable when removing the rear panels of a toilet on an old Jumbo Jet.
“There were these packets hidden behind the panel that looked like lots of cassette tapes wrapped in plastic,” says Gregory. It later turned out to be 3kg of cocaine – about £300,000 ($385,000) worth, according to police.
“We have no idea who put it there but it had been there for a while,” adds Gregory. “Whoever stashed it there had obviously not returned for it and the plane had been flying around with the drugs on board.”
For anyone who has lost something during a flight themselves, it may be comforting to know it may be found eventually, even if it is unlikely to find its way back to you.
Gregory himself remains surprisingly nostalgic about the aircraft he has made a business out of destroying. In one corner of the airfield sits an aging airliner, faded by the Sun.
“That one is mine,” he says. “I’m never going to pull that one apart.”
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