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U.S. Air Force Turns B-52 Bombers Into Scrap Metal : Arizona: To carry out an international arms treaty, America is dismantling the planes that were once the backbone of its nuclear arsenal.

September 11, 1994|ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — You've probably seen the Veg-O-Matic vegetable chopper advertised for years, and maybe the Ginsu miracle knife.

But there's nothing like the Air Force "scrapomatic."

It turns a B-52 bomber into 100,000 pounds of scrap metal with the drop of a blade.

It's a 13,000-pound guillotine blade hoisted by a crane, and it carries out the dictates of an international arms treaty requiring the United States to destroy some of its systems for attacking with nuclear weapons.

For more than 30 years, the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress was the backbone of America's nuclear arsenal.

The eight-engine, long-range bomber was capable of flying thousands of miles, refueling in midair, to drop nuclear warheads or conventional bombs. It played a key role in the Vietnam War.

Many of the aircraft, built between 1955 and 1962, were brought to the desert here years ago, obsolete and destined for the scrap heap anyway. Some models, modified to carry air-launched cruise missiles, remain in operation.

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But 365 of the jets are doomed under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and other successor states of the Soviet Union.

It takes about 300 hours to prepare a plane for destruction, logistics management specialist Carl Mlodzik explained before a recent session. The B-52s are stripped of their engines and other reusable parts, and radiation and hazardous fluids are removed, he said.

Then a 120-foot tall crane brings over the guillotine, attached by cables, to drop the blade about 80 feet.

More than a dozen airmen watched as the blade went to work on one day's task: Destruction of two B-52Ds, Nos. 50073 and 50070.

The first slice cut across the tail section of 50073, severing the fuselage. The treaty allows 60 days from the first chop to finish the job, but the crew does the chore in a day.

It took seven drops of the guillotine to cut the fuselage of 50070 into three pieces and sever both wings. The nose almost rolled over at the last cut, but stayed upright.

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"It's pretty impressive. You don't get to see an airplane destroyed very often," said Tech. Sgt. Richard Foster, a sheet-metal worker for 16 years.

"History," said Tech. Sgt. Ken F. Prince.

Since August 1993, 177 B-52s have been turned into junk metal. The other 188 are lined up on the desert at this base in Tucson, at the Aerospace and Maintenance Regeneration Center. They're to be destroyed over the next two years.

The planes are being destroyed at the rate of three a week. More than 100 lie chopped up in heaps on the desert floor.

Under the treaty, which Ukraine hasn't ratified yet, the hulks must stay in place for 90 days to allow satellite verification.

Then they can be hauled off for scrap, said Master Sgt. Sam Haney, a base spokesman. At 20 cents a pound, each scrapped B-52 earns the Air Force about $20,000.

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