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The Unemployment Line

Where airliners go when they're out of work.

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We draw up beside a 300-series 747 that came to Evergreen last year. The airplane, which had spent two years on a ramp in Singapore, illustrates what can happen when aluminum meets salt air. When Evergreen’s mechanics inspected the 10-year-old airframe, they found it so riddled with corrosion it made better sense to cannibalize the airplane for parts than to try repairing the damage. “It’s a shame,” Sharif says. “That plane still had a lot of life left in it.”

With the right care, airliners can soldier on for an amazingly long time. Sharif leads me up inside a 200-series 747 that came to Evergreen for a C check, an inspection it must undergo every two years in which an army of airframe-and-powerplant mechanics spend 5,000 to 6,000 man-hours checking chiefly for corrosion and structural wear and tear. Long retired from its glamour days transporting passengers across the seas, the 25-year-old airframe has been stripped of its seating, carpeting, galleys, and overhead bins, which allows us to see it for what it really is: a vast, pressurized tube.

I follow Sharif up a rickety ladder leading from the main cabin to the flight deck. Technicians test its systems, causing the instruments, running off ground power, to hum. I take in the smell—the same you’d find in any old cockpit: stale sweat, spilled coffee, metal, and oil. I look at the captain’s yoke, its black enamel finish worn down to bare aluminum. The instrument panel has a softball-size attitude indicator and rows of old-school “steam gauge” indicators. There is no “glass”—computerized displays that in more modern cockpits take the place of the older instruments. This 747, so seemingly modern when viewed from the ramp, already belongs to a different era, one in which even the biggest jets came equipped with avionics not much more sophisticated than those found in today’s trainers.

This airplane has spent close to 100,000 hours—11 years—in the air. First it delivered hundreds of thousands of passengers, then it became a freighter, carrying countless tons of cargo. The airline that owns it has decided that the potential usefulness of the 747 is worth the cost of another overhaul. But one day, probably not too far off, someone will decide that another inspection is just not worth the expense. With air traffic—both passenger and freight—slacking off as it has, the date with that beer can manufacturer may be just around the corner.

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