Giants lurk among the hedgerows and rolling lowlands of the Cotswolds. They appear from behind trees unexpectedly, looming beside the rural roads.
But these are not creatures of myth – or relics from some bygone age. Instead, they are the flotsam created by our appetite for foreign holidays and our desire to visit far-flung places. This field in Gloucestershire, surrounded by English countryside, is where aircraft go to die.
Five Jumbo Jets, two Boeing 777s, a handful of Airbus A320s and 20 other large passenger aircraft lie scattered across a former RAF airfield. Some are clustered in groups while others sit alone, propped up on railway sleepers.
This is no graveyard; these hulks are not going to be left to rust away. Instead, they are the life-blood for a salvage industry that cannibalises discarded airliners.
“The engines and parts are worth more if you take them off than if you try to sell the aircraft as a flying machine,” says Mark Gregory, the founder of Air Salvage International, which is responsible for dismantling this collection of unwanted passenger jets. “These are all aircraft people fly away on for their holidays or to take transatlantic trips.”
His company has been operating for the last 20 years out of Cotswolds Airport, a private airfield near Kemble which was owned by the Ministry of Defence until 1993. Between 50 and 60 passenger jets make their final flight here each year, their wingspans casting huge shadows over the surrounding chocolate-box villages as they rumble into land.
Once on the ground, Gregory and his team begin meticulously dismantling the aircraft. “About 80 to 90% of the value of an aircraft are in its engines,” says Gregory, a former Dan Air engineer who used his severance pay to set up the company. “Once we have removed them, we then set about salvaging the other valuable parts of the airframe.”
The process can take around eight weeks for a narrow-bodied passenger jet like a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320, while for giants like a Boeing 747 or 777 it can take 10 to 15 weeks.
Before anything can be removed from an aircraft, however, it first has to be bled. Fuel, harmful de-icing liquid and hydraulics fluid are drained out into large tanks on the airport’s tarmac. Then the engines are lifted free with the help of cranes before having a preservative fluid pumped into them.
When they reach the end of their life, many aeroplanes are sent to this field in the English countryside – not just to die, but to be reborn. Retired aircraft hold surprisingly valuable parts, and sometimes you can find some unusual lost property too.
Two giant excavating machines with metal jaws deliver the final fate to what is left of the aircraft after this process, tearing chunks out of the remaining airframe so the material can be sorted and recycled.
Gregory and his staff will often discover discarded or long-lost items between the seats. On one occasion they found the wallet containing $600 wedged under the captain’s seat of a Air New Zealand aircraft. The pilot, who had lost it nearly a decade earlier, was thrilled when they returned it to him in Australia.
Loose change, mobile phones, pens and sticky sweets are other regular discoveries. Wallets and stray items from luggage turn up in the cargo hold. Six years ago, the team found something somewhat more valuable when removing the rear panels of a toilet on an old Jumbo Jet.
“There were these packets hidden behind the panel that looked like lots of cassette tapes wrapped in plastic,” says Gregory. It later turned out to be 3kg of cocaine – about £300,000 ($385,000) worth, according to police.
“We have no idea who put it there but it had been there for a while,” adds Gregory. “Whoever stashed it there had obviously not returned for it and the plane had been flying around with the drugs on board.”
For anyone who has lost something during a flight themselves, it may be comforting to know it may be found eventually, even if it is unlikely to find its way back to you.
Gregory himself remains surprisingly nostalgic about the aircraft he has made a business out of destroying. In one corner of the airfield sits an aging airliner, faded by the Sun.
“That one is mine,” he says. “I’m never going to pull that one apart.”