Aviation Week recently visited Ascent Aviation Services in Tucson, Arizona, to see first-hand the variety of services performed there. Ascent is one of the busiest aircraft MRO, storage and parting facilities in the U.S. A typically sunny Arizona morning found their ramps overflowing with narrowbodies from Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier.
Of course the most obvious activity of any MRO is maintenance, and Ascent maintains numerous types of aircraft, including many classics. Here a 1986 737-200 undergoes maintenance including an engine check.
According to the Aviation Week Intelligence Network (AWIN) Fleet database, over 900 aircraft are still flying with JT8D engines, as seen below.
Also in for an engine check was this 1960s vintage DC-9-15F, also showing off its JT8D engines.
The AWIN database lists only 38 aircraft (early 727s and DC-9s) still flying with JT8D-7Bs, so there are probably very few facilities still catering for them nowadays.
This 9-year old Boeing 737-800 is currently in between customers and many leasing companies choose to have their maintenance done with Ascent, before picking up a new lessee.
This MD-83 freighter spent most of its life flying passengers, and was only recently converted to cargo configuration.
Here one of its JT8Ds is seen during an inspection.
The western deserts of California, Arizona and New Mexico are home to the biggest aircraft storage airfields in the world, due to their ideal climate for preserving airframes. Whilst not on that scale, Ascent does nevertheless store aircraft at its Tucson facility. Usually this is while the aircraft are between leases. Here, a 737-700 awaits its return to service after spending 10 years in Brazil. Whilst here, various aspects of maintenance will also be undertaken.
The prospects for this 25-year old 737-300 may not be quite as rosy as for the -700, at least not to return to the passenger role. Conversion to freighter is a distinct possibility for aircraft like these though.
Another 737-300 alongside a -400 await their turn at maintenance after coming off their respective leases recently.
Transition is a service which Ascent offers, covering the "getting ready" of an aircraft for a new customer. This could involve re-configuring the seats, changing engines, re-painting, re-branding etc. Here a 737-800 is having some engine work done on one of its CFM56-7s.
A new livery has recently been applied and the finishing touches to the body and tail paintwork are seen here.
Parting out and recycling/reclamation
Many aircraft parts are recycled, with the engines usually being taken off first, being the highest value items on the plane when it arrives. Some aircraft can be stored for several years whilst being slowly robbed of parts. This 737-700 is 17 years old according to the AWIN Fleet database, and might conceivably have had a few years of service left, but sometimes it becomes financially more viable to break a plane down for parts.
Here a very early 1992 Airbus A320 is almost at the point of having little left to strip off it. Eventually it will be sold for scrap metal, once the owner determines that there's nothing left saleworthy.
The Boeing 737-500 seen here also dates from 1992 and has suffered much the same fate, and its eventual fate cannot be far away now...
Bombardier CRJ-200s, once they come out of a carrier's fleet, have a hard time finding new operators. This example had only 16 years in service. Over 200 have now been permanently retired, with almost as many in storage right now. Unfortunately for them, there are also over 200 Embraer 135/145s in store at the moment, and they are proving much more popular in the used aircraft market. It's likely many of those CRJs sat in the desert will end up like the one below.
Aviation Week would like to thank Jack Keating and the staff at Ascent for hosting our visit, and for providing an insight into this diverse industry.
All photos: Nigel Howarth