As the sun set on the graveyard, it took on an eerie air. We’d come to pay respects to one of our beautiful old friends, and being here around Halloween made the whole experience extra spooky. But while this was a final resting place, it was no ordinary cemetery. This was an aircraft graveyard. A place where giants of the sky, after a life of crisscrossing our planet, land for the very last time. On the ramp were the hulks of dozens of aircraft in varying stages of decay, among them one of our Airbus A340s- G-VGAS Varga Girl. And it was strangely sad.
To celebrate Halloween, Unical, one of the world’s leading providers of aircraft parts, invited cabin crew members Hannah Buswell, Wendy Aspey and John Hunter to tour their aircraft teardown facility at San Bernardino airport in California.
‘As soon as the sun set, Varga Girl went from being a sad shell of a former Virgin Atlantic plane to something out of a set for a horror film!’ – Hannah Buswell, Cabin Crew
Anyone at Virgin Atlantic will tell you how proud it makes them feel to see one of our aircraft in the sky – a splash of red in a world of grey and blue. So it’s no surprise that seeing Varga Girl in the process of her teardown, at the end of her life, evoked a sense of melancholy in our cabin crew.
As someone who works on our Airbus A340 fleet, Hannah admitted that being on the partially dismantled aircraft was both ‘weird and unnerving’. Safety cards, cups and other remnants littered the abandoned cabin, a reminder of the service the crew used to provide onboard. Parts of the aircraft they’d never seen before were suddenly on view. Boilers and panels had been taken away, some of the larger wing components had already been removed, and on the flight deck, all the avionics and instruments had been stripped out. Eventually, 95% of the aircraft will be recycled. “While it was sad to see the demise of these beautiful aircraft, including our own, it was reassuring that Unical had such a slick setup to ensure the parts were refurbished and reused,” said John “Particularly important nowadays in a world where we are trying to avoid waste.”
At the end of its service life, an airliner is put up for sale by its owner (often a lessor). Some aircraft go on to fly for other airlines, while others go into long-term storage. But many are bought by companies like Unical who realise the value of the parts and components. Everything from lifejackets to undercarriage is removed, assessed, restored to as good as new condition and held in stock. Since it started trading in 1990 Unical has amassed a stock of over 60 million aircraft parts, all inspected and sold with full traceability and provenance.
When G-VGAS was delivered to Unical it was accompanied by 1.4 tonnes of paperwork. This had been carefully maintained and managed throughout the aircraft’s life by our engineering Tech Records teams who had spent months preparing it for the handover. These vital records are the means to prove the history and maintenance of every part of the aircraft. Without this paperwork the aircraft is worthless. Removing the parts from the aircraft and processing them to a point where they can be sold on is incredibly specialised work. All repairs and restorations are certified to the very highest FAA standards. Unical has grown to serve over 3,500 airlines, providing fast spares delivery to anywhere in the world. It’s an incredibly impressive organisation.
The teardown facility at San Bernardino International Airport is just a small part of Unical’s operation. Here the aircraft – once they’ve been stripped right down to the bare frame – are moved, for the last time, to the cut up area where the undercarriage is the last piece to be removed before the aircraft is literally chopped up. The end. But it was Halloween, so it only felt right that we should have a bit of fun at the same time.
We’d like to thank the lovely people at Unical for being so generous with their time. Wendy summed it up. “The amazing hospitality of the Unical team really added to the whole experience. My lasting memories of the day will be the sun setting behind the empty shell of the stripped aircraft waiting to be demolished, and the airfield as it got darker and darker. Very spooky!”
Varga Girl and the registration G-VGAS was named after Alberto Vargas the Peruvian artist whose work inspired our flying lady logo as well as many paintings on allied and US military aircraft in World War 2. The aircraft was delivered new from Airbus on 9 May 2005 and flew to San Bernardino, touching down for the last time on 17 May 2017. During her service with us, she flew 6,522 flights and a total of 56,589 hours. What we don’t know is how many happy memories were made as a result of those flights. Thank you, Varga Girl.
If you’ve got it…. haunt it!
Also celebrating Halloween are our training teams who recently held their annual ‘Fright Night’ at our training centre in West Sussex. The team raised £1,200 for our charity WE.org You can find out more about our community investment programme on our Change is in the air website.