Do you ever wonder what happens when an aircraft – a really big one like a 747 or an S76 reaches the end of its life? We all know that old aeroplanes go somewhere – but where? I was reminded of this question a few weeks ago when I was visiting an aircraft scrapyard.
Guy Gratton

It’s common that aeroplanes are not taken to the point of economic unviability – they are usually retired earlier than that. There are two main reasons for this apparently early decision – firstly that, particularly for companies with big fleets that fly a lot of hours per airframe, a newest technology airframe can often provide improved efficiency that’ll pay for itself relatively quickly; secondly that if you wait until there aren’t all that many of a type left flying around the world, there’s relatively little market for spare parts. So, aeroplanes tend to be retired relatively young, when there’s still a relatively good market for spare parts.

So when an operator has decided to retire an aeroplane – because it seems to be worth more as parts, and a newer jet will save enough money to justify buying it, what happens? Well there are various companies around the world who specialise in this sort of thing, and the aircraft, likely 20-30 years old, will probably make its last flight (or occasionally last journey in pieces by road) to an airport where there’s an aircraft recycler.

The first thing that the recycler needs to do is relatively mundane – they need to drain out all of the fluids. So that’s hydraulic fluids, remaining fuel, water, residual lubricants, toilet fluids, hydraulic fluids. All of that has to be drained out and sent off for either recycling or safe disposal: environmental regulations are understandably very strict about that, and quite rightly so.


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March 2020