Mark Antoniotti is a “gravedigger,” but he doesn’t work at a typical cemetery. Instead of rows of tombstones and mausoleums, his graveyard contains the remains of mechanical beasts and metal relics column after column.
This graveyard is the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, commonly referred to as the “Boneyard,” and is located on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. The group’s mission is to store retired military aircraft, so they can be preserved for future use or to provide valuable and hard-to-find parts to customers around the globe.
As a gravedigger, Antoniotti’s job is to pull parts from the more than 4,400 aircraft contained within the Boneyard.
“This job is critical to the troops overseas,” said Antoniotti, who has worked with the 309th AMARG for more than 24 years. “If they had to wait for a part to be made, it could down an aircraft for who knows how long. It would cripple the warfighter.”
The gravediggers are broken into two teams: priority removal and routine reclamation. Each team pulls aircraft parts, but they differ in what parts they pull and how much time they have to pull them.
Priority removal teams pull parts from aircraft that need to be sent out as soon as possible, such as to deployed units overseas, Antoniotti said. Meanwhile, the routine reclamation teams often have more time because they usually pull larger parts or parts not considered high priority.
The 309th AMARG doesn’t just supply much-needed parts to the fleet. It also saves the Air Force a lot of money.
“We save taxpayers millions of dollars every year by pulling and cleaning these parts,” Antoniotti said. “We’re reusing parts that are still good.”
Working as a gravedigger for more than two decades, Antoniotti has seen just about everything.
“There are all kinds of danger on the job,” he said. “We’ve got everything from rattlesnakes to slippery aircraft and sometimes we’re working at pretty extreme heights.”
Frank Luna, an aircraft mechanic with the priority removal team, is also aware of the risks associated with working in the Arizona desert.
“We’re not walking into aircraft that are complete,” he said. “Some of the aircraft are old, and they can fall apart at any given moment.”
Billy Amparano, another member of the priority removal team, isn’t just aware of the dangers the job can pose, his body is a living testament to the fact. Working in the Boneyard has left him with torn ligaments in one knee and took the middle finger on his left hand.
Despite the dangers of the job, the gravediggers keep climbing over, under and through the decaying mechanical giants because they know their mission is supporting a much larger one.
“The bigger picture is to support the war-fighter and help them overseas,” Antoniotti said.” That’s what our mission is and why we’re here.”