Should surplus, obsolete military aircraft be sold to civilians?

I’m watching the National Geographic channel, and there are some shots of Davis-Monthan AFB showing aircraft in storage. If you have the money, it’s pretty easy for someone to buy Soviet Bloc aircraft. Turbine military aircraft for sale. (Mig-21, anyone?) Compared to Soviet Bloc aircraft, U.S. military aircraft seem like sparse pickings. Some aircraft stored at D-M AFB are too new for civilian use, and might be pressed into service; e.g., F-16s. But there are older fighters and other aircraft from the '60s, as well as obsolete cargo planes and older C-130s that will never be used again.

The number of pilots in this country is declining. Of pilots, very few can afford to fly an ex-military aircraft even if it were given to them free. But I think there are still potential buyers out there; not just for Milquetoast fantasies, but for operators who can use the capabilities of some of the non-fighter planes. It seems a shame to chop them up. Now, I think the L-39 Albatros is a pretty airplane; but I wouldn’t mind seeing more American planes in the air.

What do you think? Should obsolete planes be consigned to the scrap heap? Or should they be made available to interested buyers?

Just how many interested buyers do you think there could possibly be? 1? 5? 20? Certainly not 100.

The training, maintenance, fuel costs, the costs to demilitarize them, and general unsuitability for civilian use pretty well rule 'em out too.

Dad was a private pilot, and I’ve got a good friend that owns an old twin. The average costs for an average civilian aircraft are pretty steep.

Let the scrap dealers and the private pilots and businesses that refurbish aircraft bid on the planes at auction, before they are stripped of anything other than weapons systems.

My guess is that the number of pilot side of the bidders would run out in fairly short order. OTOH, I really don’t know the market value of a plane’s worth of scrap metal, so maybe I’m wrong.

Are any of the planes at Davis-Monthan truly surplus? If they’re still potentially airworthy, then I would expect the Air Force to keep them mothballed in case they’re ever needed again. If some vital part, like the main wing spar, has reached the end of its service life, then they might keep the plane around to pick some usable spare parts from. Either way, the Air Force would want to keep it around; not to deny it to some private pilot, but because it suits their own needs.

I get the impression that Soviet planes ended up on the market for political reasons. The USSR collapsed, Russia needed money, and they had planes with some life left in them and no prospect that the military could afford to use them all.

I recall reading about a couple of pilots after the Great War going to an airfield in England. In the heat of the moment they bought a Camel for 5 pounds, then sadly begin to realise that they couldn’t afford to run it.

They returned it and got (I think ) 2 pounds back.

Some things never change.

Some years back, I got to tour the boneyard at D-M, and it was fascinating. I worked at a Navy depot where we overhauled aircraft, and sometimes the engineers would go there to get pieces that were no longer being manufactured. We also got several aircraft reactivated, overhauled, and sold to allied military organizations.

Considering how we picked over the carcasses, I’d have to wonder if there’d be enough good parts of any remaining old aircraft model to make even one viable version. The older the planes were, the more skeletal they were.

However, if there were planes that the military determined would never be of use again, I see no reason not to offer them for sale, as long as it’s made clear that it’s strictly “as is” with no promises. You buy it, you restore it, you get an airworthiness certificate, you’ve got a plane. I doubt there’s much of a market, though.

As I recall, there’s been a recent thing about a veterans’ group wanting to purchase or acquire an F-105 Thunderchief (AKA “The Thud”, for the sound they reportedly made whenever they landed. Very big heavy Vietnam era fighter jet.) For whatever reason, they’ve been hitting resistance at every step of the way, though I suspect it’s more bureaucratic inertia than actual active opposition.

Otherwise… yeah, they’re a good draw at Airshows, can bring some extra visibility to certain groups (I’ve run across a Vietnam veterans’ group who would do PR by landing somewhere in a Huey and answering questions about it. (When I was at Texas A&M, we had one land on Simpson Drill Field, in the middle of campus. That was cool.)

I’ve sometimes wondered how many military transport/utility aircraft find their way into civilian markets. I’ve noticed that most civilian air freighters tend to be freight versions of airliners, and not military style freighters (a very common thing among Military transports since the 1950s or so is to have the belly rest almost flush with the ground, with the landing gear mounted on the sides of the plane, so the floor of the cargo bay is as close to the ground as they can get it).

I suppose by the time the Air Force decides they’re done with a transport plane, you probably wouldn’t want to stand under the wing on a sunny day for fear of something falling on you. Freight haulers don’t exactly go obsolete, they just start falling apart after a few generations.

Leaving aside Davis-Monthan for a moment, I wish the U.S. was better in general about releasing warbirds to civilian use. Many of the warbirds you see, particularly jets, are imported through other countries. It’s fairly easy to come by a MiG, L-39 and now even a Sukhoi 27. But a lot of the domestic types, such as the T-33 and F-104, are actually Canadian imports because you can’t get surplus U.S. military planes.

These planes have to be permanently disarmed, the FAA (and I believe ATF) have to sign off on them, the pilots have to receive a type rating, and the plane may be restricted to certain speeds and operations. So basically, they’re just another kind of fast, complex aircraft. I have no problem with them flying around in civilian hands. The number of people who are likely to do so is beside the point.

In answer to the OP’s question, yes, they should. Specifically, when they are done with them, The Air Force should sell me a T-6 Texan II. For ten dollars. I’m a bit short at the moment.

Yep. That MiG-21 in the OP is priced about the same as a new Cessna 172 Skyhawk. But given the choice (‘Here’s a bunch of free money. Buy what you want.’) I’d take the Cessna. Operating costs are much lower.

You’d never be able to afford to fly it! :stuck_out_tongue:

That’s my point. Even though very, very few people would be able to afford to operate a T-33 or an F-104, the government could make more money selling them more-or-less intact than they could get for scrap. (Incidentally, I think the going rate for a civilian-registered airworthy F-104 is around $2 million or so.) They wouldn’t sell many to civilians, but ISTM that they can always scrap the ones that don’t sell.

Ten or 20 years ago Congress decreed that Bell AH-1 Cobras could no longer be sold to individuals except as scrap. They had to be destroyed before selling. Why? Because they’re attack helicopters! OMG! :eek: But without the weapons and the systems to use them, they’re just another fast, expensive-to-operate helicopter.

The Viet Nam era warbirds are about the last civilianisable ones, regardless of the buyer’s ability or willingness to spend moeny.

The current regs require removing not only the weapons themsleves, but pretty much everything upstream of that. No pylons. No wiring leading to where the pylons used to be. No black box that fed the wires that were removed. No weapons control panel that drove the missing black box. It’s not quite to the point of having to remove the trigger or pickle button from the control stick grip, but it’s close.

Now consider that for the F-16C, F/A-18C, and all later machines, almost all the weapons-related stuff is software embedded in the single central computer. You can’t practically remove the weapons systems from the aircraft. You’re never going to get the source code, nor be able to certify the result of modifications you’d need to make if you did get the source code.

F-15s, early F-16s and early F/A-18s had discrete computers for various functions and it was at least theoretically possible to remove all the weapons-related boxes and still have a flyable machine.

And of course it was easier / trivial to pull all those boxes from an F-4 or Century series fighter.

I’m not personally real familiar with attack helos, but I’d bet the last practically convertable one would be about the AH-64A. Later AH-64 models are pretty integrated.
The same issues would apply to any other country’s products; I’m just not familiar enough with them to name specific models.

The future of “warbirds” will be trainers and trash haulers. At most.

And where does one order hydrazine, enough for say the F-15, let alone get certified to handle it? (or OG forbid INSURED to handle it?)

And we won’t discuss the ‘special fuel’ for the SR-71, let alone the ignitor stuff [Triethylborane, anyone?]

I was thinking more of the ‘Vietnam era’ planes (excluding F-14s and F-15s, which were coming online then). There are a few F-5s, T-38s, and F-104s in private hands. I saw an ad for a ‘warbirds show’ on TV, and there was an F-4. I don’t know if it’s privately-owned. As I’ve said a couple of times, and as others have pointed out, a jet is an expensive proposition. Very few people can aspire to own one. But I think they should be more readily available. For one thing, there are people who want them and can afford them. For another thing, people start missing them after a few decades. Think of how many Lancaster, Mosquitos, B-17s, Spitfires, T-33s, and so on were chopped up for scrap, and how many old-timers wish they’d bought one when they could. (My dad could have bought an F-4U for $600 after WWII, but what would a kid do with one? In the '70s or '80s he told me there were some T-34s available for $5,000 each. I begged him to buy one, but he said it would cost too much to get it flying. A lot less than you can buy one for now!)

There are still several DC-3s operating commercially. On the NetGeo show I saw some C-123s. Those might make good bush delivery planes; for example, in Alaska or Africa. Loads of C-130s, too. Those can be used for firefighting – as long as they don’t rip the wings off, which has happened. (I’m not going to bother looking up the video.) It just seems to me that a working airplane is more valuable than so many new soda cans.

Hydrazine was an F-16 oddity. F-15s don’t have/use it.

There was a hydrazine spill over at the F-16 hangars when I was at Edwards. One of my coworkers was exposed.

Doesn’t de-weaponising (or rather, forbidding re-weaponising) break your Second Amendment?

Anyway, I think America is missing a trick here: they should allow such planes to be sold intact. So if there’s a war, America now has a pilot with a lot of hours in his plane. It doesn’t matter that that pilot probably doesn’t have a lot of combat training; they can free up other pilots and aircraft to go and fight.

It is, but by the Collings Foundation - once saw it advertised for $10,000 per ride. There is also a 2 day flight training program with it.

My favorite ex-warbird story was the Cobra assembled by Garlick Helicopters in Montana. The owner claimed to use it to hunt coyotes.

Then there is that near mythical ex-Blues FA-18 that was up for sale about 10 years ago…

Erm… no. The Second Amendment has pretty much universally been interpreted to apply only to weapons with civilian applications. You can buy a Sherman tank, too, if you like, but you don’t get to fire the 75mm gun.

I mean, I could come up with some situations where I’d need a 20mm cannon or a couple of Sidewinders, but I’d have a pretty tough time getting it by the courts nonetheless.

The benefits of having civilian pilots nominally able to operate military aircraft are, it’s pretty safe to say, outweighed by the downsides. For one thing, they won’t know how to operate the fire control systems, radar, jamming suites, countermeasures, ECM… and Independence Day notwithstanding, it’s probably not something they can pick up on the fly (no pun intended). Besides that, they’ll never have flown the plane with full weapons loadouts, which I assume (not being a pilot) rather drastically changes the handling of the aircraft.

All this, of course, completely disregards the potential hazard posed by hundreds of civilian pilots bombing around the countryside in aircraft which get even veteran military pilots killed on a somewhat regular basis.

There’s an old joke: What’s the most dangerous thing in the skies? A surgeon in a Beechcraft Bonanza. You get better at most things with more experience. If you can’t afford to spend at least a few hours a week (and probably more than that) flying around in your military surplus F-16, you probably can’t fly the thing very safely without running the severe risk of flying it straight into the ground (actually, pilots becoming disoriented and flying straight into the ground was a somewhat common problem early in the F-16’s career. The plane is unforgivably responsive to pilot inputs.)

Nevermind that old planes, especially old high performance planes, are going to be long in the tooth and will need a lot of care and maintenance.