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Airlines Park Jets in Mojave, Await Upturn

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five years ago this week, the experimental Voyager aircraft made aviation history by circling the globe nonstop without refueling.

Now, the quiet desert airport where the tiny Voyager was developed is back on the map--the roost of a ghostly fleet of jetliners grounded by the nation’s deepening recession.

With major airlines folding and ridership slumping, row after row of Eastern, Midway and Braniff jets sit silently on the Mojave Airport apron, gleaming like 200-foot-long toothpaste tubes on a barren landscape usually dominated by rolling tumbleweed and spiny Joshua trees.

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“It’s something new for the airline industry--airplane parking lots,” said Mojave general manager Dan Sabovich.

Since February, more than 140 passenger planes--worth between $2 billion and $3 billion--have been routed to Mojave for storage. With this month’s shutdown of Pan Am, dozens more are expected.

The planes are not just from defunct firms. Some are up-for-sale airliners from United, Continental and KLM, as well as a batch of spanking-new jets--including three Air Canada 747-400s--that have not yet been called into service because of the lull in air travel.

The town of Mojave, 95 miles northeast of Los Angeles, may be a diminutive desert crossroads. But small potatoes this operation is not.

By comparison, Los Angeles International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest, generally has no more than 200 aircraft on hand.

The sight of dozens of shark-like tail fins looming over the roofs of Mojave’s truck stops, motels and K Mart shopping plaza has startled motorists and longtime residents alike. Yet far more important, experts say, the idle planes are a gloomy reflection of the state of the nation’s economy.

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“The industry, for the last 18 months or so, has been adjusting its capacity to the (diminished) demand by removing seats, whole airplanes, and most recently, whole airlines,” said Paul Turk of Avmark, an Arlington, Va.-based aviation industry consulting firm. “The expectation is that they aren’t going to be stored out there into perpetuity--but (only) until they are needed again.”

With business going figuratively south, it is not all that surprising that the Western world’s major airlines are turning to southwestern airports--including several in Arizona--for storage.

“The desert is dry,” Sabovich said. “You can’t park an airplane next to the ocean because of corrosion. Salt water and aluminum don’t mix well.”

But Mojave Airport, analysts say, is storing far more commercial jets capable of eventually returning to the air than other such storage sites. Mojave has proved extremely popular for four reasons, they say: the dry climate, long runways, inexpensive storage rates and a ready supply of mechanics.

Two private firms--Aerotest and OK Airline Support Inc.--look after the jetliners, which are charged a basic storage fee of $500 a month, excluding maintenance. Mechanics are plentiful because of the airport’s reputation as a civilian flight test center and its proximity to Edwards Air Force Base.

“As long as everybody keeps going bankrupt, we keep busy,” said maintenance worker Victor Garcia, as he taped a layer of protective aluminum foil over the cockpit window of a newcomer, a Midway DC-9.

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Mojave Airport, which has three runways up to 9,700 feet long, was built in 1942 as a Marine Air Station. And in many ways, the public airstrip remains a throwback to the grand old days of flying.

The 2,999-acre airport is host to a wide assortment of colorful inventors, tinkerers and dreamers of the sort who have hung around airports since barnstorming days.

There are the Rutan brothers, cantankerous individualists hard at work in separate hangars, developing successors to their record-breaking Voyager.

There is the genial Sabovich, 66, who cruises down the runways in his sleek yellow Cadillac, keeping a watchful eye on the airport he has operated since 1969.

And there is Mike Potter, president of OK Airline Support, who ambles around in a rhinestone-festooned sea skipper’s cap and red, white and blue suspenders while baby-sitting tens of millions of dollars worth of Eastern and Midway jets.

In recent years, Mojave Airport has served as an experimental test center and a “boneyard” for planes that are fiscally or physically unsuited for takeoff. For years, two dozen 1950s-vintage jets stored on its aprons were visible to motorists on California 14 and 58 on the way to Mammoth Lakes, Las Vegas, Bakersfield or Los Angeles.

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But the view began changing dramatically last February, shortly after Eastern Airlines’ wings were clipped.

“Eastern called me first and it started ballooning out from there,” Sabovich said. “I had three (mothballed jets) come in yesterday, one the day before. I have up to 140 airplanes right now.

“And Pan Am is next.”

As the numbers grow, Mojave Airport employees have tamped down portions of the desert floor to make room for more. To preserve each plane’s life span, mechanics replace engine oil with a “pickling” fluid, set the wheels on steel plates and cover engines and windows with heavy-duty foil.

“You get dust here at Mojave,” Sabovich said. “But you tape everything up.”

The curious sight of all those planes has led to a flurry of questions from tourists. “Some ask, ‘If the town is so small, how can there be such a big airport out there?’ ” said Julie Riccomini, who works at Reno’s Coffee Shop.

It has also led to unorthodox thinking by certain residents.

“It’s gone through my mind that if we ever have to skip the state because of a disaster, they have enough planes over there in which they can ship us all out,” said a cash register attendant, who asked to remain anonymous, at the Casa de Gasa Service Station and Mini-Mart.

As the storage business increases faster than the airline business, Mojave has attracted workers from across the nation. “Nowadays, to stay in this field, you do what you have to,” said mechanic Rolla Bailey, who worked for Eastern in Miami until it went belly-up. “With so many airlines going out of business, it’s a dying field.”

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As Bailey stood on the wing of a Midway jet, aluminum foil and tape in hand, two large crows perched on a nearby tail fin, staring off to the 60-mile horizon.

Whether Mojave will serve as a graveyard or waystation for most of the jets in storage is not yet clear, experts say.

Without doubt, the brand-new planes, including Air Canada’s three Boeing 747s, will eventually be put into service.

The Canadian airline had hoped to sell the $120-million jets, said spokesman Denis Couture, but “didn’t want a fire sale.” Now, with no buyers in sight, the jets are scheduled to take to the air in April. After all, “They have been paid for,” Couture said. “And we have the human resources available to fly them.”

For many more, older jets, the latest oil change may just as well have been performed with embalming fluid.

“Some will be cannibalized for spare parts,” predicted Turk of Avmark, the aviation consulting firm. “And a lot of these planes are going to be turned into beer cans.”

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Still, the picture is not completely dark, Turk said.

“Some of those older airplanes would have to go out of the air sooner or later anyway. Otherwise . . . if the new airplanes needed 20 years from now don’t get built, then in 20 years you’d suddenly have 55-year-old DC-9s on the principal routes.”

Besides, Turk declared, cheap recycled scrap metal is not without its uses:

“The price of beer is too high,” he asserted. “And you have to get it down somehow.”

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