Sunday, June 03, 2012

Atco, New Jersey: Where old aircraft go to die - or live again as props

 Andy Wade with a pile of airplane parts . He calls the aircraft "our trophies, and they all have a story to tell."

 A rusty locomotive stands like a sentry at the front gate. It was once used at Lakehurst in the 1930s, operating near the mooring tower for Nazi Germany's doomed airship, the Hindenburg. Next to it is a 1928 Graham-Paige motorcar with running boards, straight out of a Bonnie and Clyde gangster movie.

But it's what is inside the fence - beyond the 80-year-old gasoline pumps, old tractors, ladders, wagons, and lawn mowers - that sets Wade Salvage apart from other scrap dealers.

The place is a graveyard for military and civilian aircraft, with fuselages, wings, and engines resting atop mountains of other scrap metal.

The proprietor, Andy Wade, is South Jersey's mogul of scrapped planes and helicopters, called upon recently to provide props for first responders staging an elaborate drill.

He knows each aircraft and rattles off their stories as he wanders through canyons of refuse at his Atco, Camden County, yard. He has about 100 aircraft spread over his 10-acre Waterford Township site off Jackson Road in the Pine Barrens.

"You know how hunters have trophies," said Wade, 50, of Atco. "These are our trophies, and they all have a story to tell.

"We put Sanford and Son to shame; we make them look like amateurs," he said of the former TV sitcom junk dealers. "We put the 'P' in American Pickers," he said, referring to the TV series about buying antiques and collectibles.

Wade comes by his Hollywoodish banter naturally.

Some of his planes and engine parts have "starred" in movies, including the Steven Spielberg-produced Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in 2009, and The Invasion with Nicole Kidman in 2007. They've also been in the 1995 movie Twelve Monkeys with Bruce Willis and the 1983 film Eddie and the Cruisers with Tom Berenger.

In April, parts of one of Wade's passenger planes were rented for $35,000 to simulate a crash site at the Atco Raceway, where municipal, county, state, and federal officials drilled under realistic conditions that included mock casualties. He hauled over the fuselage of a passenger plane to the raceway.

"We're a one-of-a-kind operation because of our mix of aircraft," said Wade, smoking a cigar while strolling amid his "trophies."

"I've never studied crash sites," he said, "but I've cleaned up enough that I know what's what."

Over his shoulder was the nose of a C-130 cargo plane emblazoned with the letters USAF, along with A-7 Corsair, F-4 Phantom, and A-4 Skyhawk fighter jets, all from the Vietnam War.

Nearby was the yawning mouth of a Korean War veteran, a F-86 Sabre jet with now-defanged machine-gun channels on either side of the cockpit.

The planes are shorn of their wings for transport to Wade's yard.

Trees and vegetation have grown up around some of the aircraft, creating scenes like those seen in the Hollywood movies Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone. The controls and instrument panels in the cockpits are open to the elements and deteriorating but still spark the imagination.

"If we don't feel [an aircraft] has any static-display or training use," Wade said, "then we will cut it up for scrap-metal value, which is what we purchased it for in the first place."

His more-intact aircraft are kept at Atco, but parts of them could also be held at his other yards, in Deptford, Monroe Township, and Philadelphia.

Most of the planes and copters are purchased from the military, said Wade, who doesn't expect to run out of them anytime soon. Thousands of planes across the country are due to be "timed-out" - judged obsolete because of metal and parts fatigue - in the next couple of years.

"I'm a preferred airplane chopper in this region," said Wade who searches out aircraft at bases in New Jersey and across the country. "We chop them on the runway and bring the parts here.

"At the Atco yard, we separate the parts, according to the metals, and package them so they can be sent to whoever is going to get them," he said. "They could go to companies that buy aluminum, stainless steel, nickel, or copper."

Wade and nephew Gregory Sharp have had some close calls during the dismantling. Though the fuel is supposed to be drained and armaments and explosives removed, mistakes happen.

The military "declares they are safe before they go up for sale," Wade said. "They go through inspections before we get a 'burn permit' to chop them up with a torch or saw. But we've had three blow up on us."

He said he was sawing through a Korean War-era reconnaissance jet in 1982 when he cut into an extra fuel tank that had been forgotten.

"It blew up on my left side and I had third-degree burns from my knees to my head," Wade said. "I was in shock more than anything else. I got mad later."

"There it is," he said, pointing to the reconnaissance aircraft, next to the large fuselage of an open Convair 880 passenger plane.

Sharp, 43, of Indian Mills, also has been injured. He was cutting up the cockpit of an RB-57 bomber jet in 1986 when the explosive charges for the ejector seat suddenly blew the canopy and blasted a stainless-steel bolt - like a bullet - into his upper right arm.

"This is definitely an unusual job," he said, pointing to a deep scar and then indulging in some sly humor.

"I had a lady come in here one day and I said, 'What do you got?'

"I've got my husband's organs," she said, according to Sharp.

"It was an electric pipe organ," he said with a laugh, pointing to it on the ground next to the office.

Beyond a coffin, cars from the last 80 years, and tires is a long line of planes, including Douglas DC-3 propeller-driven airliners. "We chopped up about a dozen of them and we have enough parts for about three," Wade said.

Also amid the collection is an operating Army truck; another Convair 880 passenger plane - this one believed to have been flown by billionaire Howard Hughes - and an armored car from the army of former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.

"My father and grandfather owned this property, so we've had it a long time," said Wade, who has never married. "I plan to die in this yard. It's my pride and joy."

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