Ask the pilot

What a waste to relegate our beautiful 747s to the scrapyard. Why not make art out of them. Or, better yet, make them into houses.


Patrick Smith
September 1, 2006 2:00PM (UTC)

Right, where were we? Seems like ages ago that I was kicking around the Mojave Desert, waxing poetic about the history of derelict planes, before TSA went crazy and Comair went crashing.

That poke around Mojave's airliner boneyard got me thinking: Aren't there better uses for a retired plane than abandonment or consignment to the crusher? And why is there not more interest in preserving some of history's milestone commercial aircraft? Admittedly I'm biased in a way that most folks don't have the patience for, but does one need to be an aviation addict to find it wasteful, and maybe a bit heartbreaking, when a plane is destroyed or left to rot?

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Part of the problem, maybe, is that in most people's minds, commercial aircraft are yet to make the leap from purely technological marvels to objects of historic or aesthetic consequence. When the average person looks at a Boeing 747, he or she sees an oversize means to an end -- a bus, essentially, stuffed with 500 very uncomfortable seats. When I look at a 747, I see those same things -- but, call me crazy, I also see a piece of industrial art equal in elegance to our most celebrated bridge or skyscraper, all the while able to span thousands of miles at nearly the speed of sound. The 747 changed the world to a more important degree than any architect ever did, with magnificent looks to boot, yet it's the plane that still waits for the kind of crossover cred that might endear it to a design critic at the New Yorker, get itself a Ken Burns documentary, and raise the ire of preservationists once the bulldozers start moving in. Imagine the outcry if they wanted to knock down the Chrysler Building and recycle its spire into hubcaps.

Yes, there's only one Chrysler Building and more than a thousand 747s, with plenty more to come, but for many planes it is already too late. Any number of models now exist in memory only -- or as corroded hulks in a scrapyard. It's tragic, if you ask me, that at least one intact, if not flyable example of every civil airliner, past or present, doesn't exist somewhere. The reasons they don't are varied, if obvious: funding, space, general interest.

Certain models have more cachet than others, and thus a propensity to be kept around, often in, or as, museums. It's unfair that Howard Hughes' oddball Spruce Goose is still with us, but not a single Boeing 314 -- the flying boat clipper immortalized by Pan Am -- survives. On the other hand, the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Air Museum in Virginia has, among several types, the prototype 707, and the only surviving Boeing 307 -- the first commercial plane with a pressurized cabin. The facility's most popular attraction, though, is probably its Air France Concorde.

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Everybody loves Concorde, but even better, drop by the Auto & Technikmuseum, south of Frankfurt, for your only chance to see both of the world's supersonic airliners together on permanent display. The other one is the Soviet Union's Tupolev Tu-144, a similar, slightly larger craft that actually made its debut ahead of the more famous Concorde. You'll also find a Concorde on proud and permanent display along Manhattan's Hudson River, adjacent to the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, with its deck full of warplanes. There's that problem again -- the airliner marginalized as a fetish object for gearheads and aerospace junkies.

Perhaps not surprisingly, military buffs have done a better job than civilians at keeping their beloved flying machines not only around, but flyable. One popular curator of historic military aircraft is the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation, best known for its vintage World War II craft, including a B-17 and the only airworthy example of a B-24 Liberator. Collings also owns a restored, supersonic F-4 Phantom, which I was lucky enough, if that's the right word, to go for a ride in recently. But it's considerably cheaper to operate and maintain a fighter or antique bomber than a large airliner. And because warplanes make for exciting spectacles at a Fourth of July air show, it's easier to recoup costs through demonstration fees. Organizations like Collings further bring in money by selling participation rides at obscenely expensive sums (don't get the wrong idea; mine was a gratis promotional stint in conjunction with another magazine).

Similar efforts in the civilian world are few and far between, despite there being a devoted, albeit niched community of hobbyists eager to participate. A small number of Lockheed Constellations, for example, are kept aloft through donations and the hard work of volunteers. Or consider the unusual work of Air Events, a German travel agency that specializes in flights aboard rare or otherwise interesting airliners that are, in something of a twist, still in commercial service. Two years ago, together with Iran Air, Air Events brought a 747SP -- that's the seldom seen, short-bodied "Special Performance" variant -- to Germany, where enthusiasts paid hundreds of dollars apiece to go for a brief spin. Every one of the plane's 305 seats was taken for the 45-minute ride over Cologne. Airplane lovers are weird like that. Political tensions permitting, two more Iran-themed tours are planned for this year, including a ride aboard one of the last passenger-carrying Boeing 707s.

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The 747SP is a good example of a model that, without a preservationist savior, is soon to disappear entirely. A handful fly today as VIP transports, based mostly in the Middle East, but as a passenger-carrying airliner the model is nearing extinction -- Iran Air and one or two others notwithstanding. Boeing introduced the stubby SP in the early 1970s as an ultra-long-haul version of the mainline 747, but for various reasons only 43 were made before constructed was halted. Pan Am was the launch customer, inaugurating the plane on nonstops between New York and Tokyo. A number of Pan Am's ships were eventually passed to United upon that carrier's purchase of Pan Am's Pacific network in 1986. Already obsolete, they were retired by the mid-1990s. Where did these magnificent machines wind up? Behold the ruins at Marana, Arizona.

It seems so inordinately wasteful to relegate so much history, to say nothing of so much material, to gruesome decay at some dusty airport in the middle of nowhere. Granted, however, if you're not going to fly it or display it, I suppose there's only so much you can do with a 400,000-pound vehicle that's nearly the length of a football field. So, sssuming you can't save it

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Why not sink it? With some prep, scuttled airframes are great attractions for fish, coral, and scuba divers. Earlier this year, a '60s-vintage Boeing 737 was dropped into the ocean off British Columbia to create an artificial reef. The plane had been donated to the nonprofit Artificial Reef Society by a Tennessee-based company, Qwest Airparts, which had planned to scrap it. In 1993, a retired Boeing 727 once flown by Northwest and Pan Am was intentionally sunk off Florida's Key Biscayne. The wreck remains in place despite being damaged by a hurricane 11 years ago. Part of the trouble here is that potentially hazardous materials must be carefully stripped away before a plane can be submerged. Then there's the money issue. A shelled-out 737 is worth about $5,000 as recyclable scrap. A 747 or DC-10 can be worth five or six times that much. Good luck finding owners willing to sacrifice that many dollars for the benefit of sea life. And the scuttling process itself costs thousands more. Turning planes into reefs is destined to remain an extremely occasional occurrence.

Meanwhile, you'll notice that the junk value of a plane is considerably less than the price of an average home. Even with cabin furnishings still in place, purchasing a retired airliner can be cheaper than buying a house. Why not remove the wings, and haul one of these planes to the neighborhood of your choice? Surely it's a scheme that inspires the imagination -- at least mine. More than once I've whiled away hours aloft by gazing around the cabin, drawing up the imaginary blueprints of my own aero-home. When you think about it, a 747 is essentially a three-story building. The upper deck would make a great master bedroom, lounge or penthouse apartment, while the 6,000-cubic-foot freight deck has ample room for a wine cellar, a workshop and plenty of storage. The main floor, at over 31,000 cubic feet, can be partitioned any number of ways. And what the heck, keep the wings and you've got 60,000 gallons of fuel capacity for use as a cistern or swimming pool, so long as you don't mind your water tinged with residual kerosene.

Unfortunately, the average neighbor isn't receptive to having a jumbo jet parked next door, and there aren't many contractors with expertise on how to power, plumb and otherwise outfit an airplane carcass. The plumbing, air conditioning and electricity that work at 37,000 feet, supplied by jet engines, aren't going to work off the grid. On the positive side, your aluminum siding needs are already taken care of.

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Not to say it hasn't been done -- many times. A company called Airplane Homes, headquartered in Smyrna, Tenn., will design and deliver a fully appointed 727 for $315,000. Plenty of do-it-yourselfers have refurbished their own for considerably less. Because of zoning restrictions -- together with the sort of eccentric predilections one might expect from those wishing to live on an airplane -- most of these residences are found in rural areas.

Back when I flew cargo planes for DHL, one of our regular routes took us to Brussels, Belgium. One of the landmarks on the Brussels apron was a derelict Airbus A310 that was once the property of Nigeria Airways. Each time I visited, more and more of the Airbus seemed to disappear -- cannibalized for use on other aircraft. Then one day, the entire plane was gone. Months later, perusing the archives at Airliners.net, I discovered what had happened to it. It had been towed away to the Belgian town of Charleroi, where it became the Airbus Cafi.

If you can't quite commit to a full-blown house or restaurant, you can always accessorize. Thinking back to all the airplane parts I saw scattered around Mojave, it strikes me that Mike Potter and the rest of the desert mafia are missing an opportunity. A lot of that detritus could be salable to enterprising vultures such as myself. I'm thinking seats, in particular. Every now and then airplane seats show up on eBay going for several hundred dollars. Yet thousands of similar chairs are heaped on the ground at Mojave and other boneyards, rapidly deteriorating.

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Or for something more abstract and upscale, there's the "747 Wing House" project in Malibu, Calif., conceived by the Syndesis design firm. The property consists of several different sites, including a central residence, a guesthouse and an artists' studio, incorporating various components of an ex-Tower Air Boeing 747, including an entire wing. "As we analyzed the cost," reads the Syndesis description page, "it seemed to make more sense to acquire an entire airplane and to use as many of the components as possible, like the Native American Indians used every part of the buffalo." Certainly the Wing House is a laudable example of sustainable reuse. Then again, designers have a peculiar way of taking a good and simple idea and turning it into something most of us could never, ever afford. Additionally, the words "747" and "curvilinear/feminine" should never appear together in the same sentence.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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