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What happens when an airline decides an aircraft is no longer suitable to remain in its fleet? It’s a question I’ve seen pop up frequently over the past few weeks, as United and — in a few days — Delta retire their Boeing 747-400s.
Airlines are typically hesitant to discuss post-retirement plans — and tours are almost certainly out of the question — so I decided to take things into my hands. I chartered a helicopter and flew some 70 miles east of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to a sleepy desert town called Victorville, the home of Southern California Logistics Airport (VCV) — and, as of a few weeks ago, most of United’s former 747 fleet.
There are dozens of unwanted aircraft at Victorville’s airplane graveyard, many of which are packed in tightly, positioned nose to tail.
My last VCV visit was back in 2014, when I drove out to capture several of the field’s older residents, which are still exactly where they were three years ago.
While you can get fairly close by driving along the perimeter fence, the best views are from the air.
We started our aerial tour at 5,500 feet — “photography operations” are generally not permitted, so we were required to stay just above Victorville’s airspace for the shoot.
Most commercial air traffic doesn’t fly at a low enough altitude near VCV, so don’t bother keeping an eye out as you travel in and out of LAX.
The helicopter provided incredible views, though, even from our position at 5,500 feet.
That wasn’t enough for me — I wanted to get much closer.
While the FAA wouldn’t specifically give us permission to descend to shoot photos, we were eventually allowed to practice some landings on the adjacent runway, which got us within a few feet of United’s former fleet.
While cargo carriers like FedEx are most prevalent, a handful of airlines are represented, too, with British Airways, China Airlines and now United representing most of the commercial inventory, along with a couple dozen now-replaced Southwest 737s.
United’s planes are the most recent additions, though — as they wait for a more permanent parking assignment, they’re crammed into any available spot.
As for what’s next? A small number of planes parked at Victorville may eventually fly again, though most will either be scrapped or used for spare parts.
United, for one, auctioned off some 747 components, including instruments and economy seats — some of which went for an ungodly number of miles. If you won an auction item, it’s probably still on one of the planes at VCV, though we did see technicians moving one of the 747s during our visit — perhaps getting ready to yank out your new treasure.
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