While 2020 has been tough on aviation in every respect, the slimming down of the global fleet has spurred the development of a new and interesting industry. Avgeeks the world over have been putting their hands in their pockets in a bid to own their own little piece of aviation history, collecting everything from scraps of skin to larger and more unusual pieces.
Simple Flying caught up with three elements of this new marketplace – the dismantler, the repurposer, and the avid collector – to get the inside track on this new global obsession.
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Tearing down retired aircraft, sympathetically
2020 has seen the tragic demise of numerous iconic aircraft. From the Boeing 747 to the Airbus A340, 2021 sees the global fleet with far fewer members of the quadjet families in service. But people aren’t letting these aircraft go quietly. Everyone wants a little piece to remember them by (and some a rather large piece!), and an entire industry has blossomed to cater to the demands of these avgeek needs.
Simple Flying spoke to Andrew Keegan from eCube Solutions, one of the UK’s leading airplane dismantlers, about the growing obsession with keeping bits of aircraft. He explained how things had accelerated beyond all imagination in the past few months.
“It all started with the TV show, really,” he told us. “From that, people got to know us a bit better, and then when the Virgin 747 came, we started getting requests for parts of the aircraft from fans.”
What happens to airplanes when they die?
— Quest (@QuestTV) May 19, 2020
eCube Solutions has been dismantling aircraft at its home in St Athan, Wales and its second site in Castellon, Spain, for over nine years. For the first couple of years, just four or five aircraft a year would be taken apart. Last year, the company handled more than 50.
After shooting to fame on the back of the Quest TV show, the company began receiving requests from members of the public for airplane parts. To cope with the rising demand, they set up an online store, branded Plane Reclaimers like the show, last June, and things have really accelerated from there.
“Now, we’re getting orders in the range of 500 to 600 items a month,” Andrew explained.
Andrew says that his most in-demand item is always the window cuts. These have proven to be popular for turning into clocks, mirrors and other attractive items, and are just at the right price point to be accessible to most. We asked him what the strangest request he’d had was so far. His answer – the toilet door from a narrowbody Airbus!
eCube Solutions are the first stage in the processing of airplane memorabilia. People who buy parts from the company know they’re getting a rough and ready item, and often plan to ‘do it up,’ smoothing it out, adding lights or other features. Some even create new pieces to sell on to other enthusiasts.
Creating art from scrap
One of the UK’s leading creators of airplane art is the inimitable Aerotiques. Since 2016, the company has been developing unique, beautiful pieces from reclaimed aircraft parts, selling everything from bespoke coffee tables made from engine parts to clocks made from window blanks.
Although Aerotiques has garnered quite the fan base within the avgeek community, their business remained somewhat niche for many years. Simple Flying spoke to founder Darren Lewington about how the business has blossomed more recently. He told us,
“It’s really gone crazy in the past 12 months.”
Aerotiques’ reputation for supplying beautiful aviation-themed artworks has made it popular with affluent collectors and with businesses looking for statement pieces for offices and HQs. For most of us, the dream of owning an Aerotiques piece has remained somewhat out of budgetary reach, but that changed in 2020. Darren explained,
“The 747 was a gamechanger. It attracted a lot of attention, so to satisfy the needs of avgeeks on a budget we began selling smaller items, like the skin keyrings. People came to us for that and then realized that we do other stuff too.”
Darren explained that, in his heart, he is a lifelong avgeek. While the demise of the Queen of the Skies has been heartbreaking for everyone, he feels that it is almost his duty to make sure everyone who wants to can get a piece to remember her by.
An impressive purchase
Perhaps one of the most impressive plane part reclaims we’ve seen belongs to a Simple Flying reader called Drew. Having dabbled in collecting bits of aircraft memorabilia in the past, lockdown presented a one-of-a-kind opportunity for his avgeek indulgence.
Through Plane Reclaimers, Drew managed to source perhaps the most iconic statement piece from a Virgin 747 anyone could wish for. His purchase was a 3.5-meter wide section of G-VAST, the Boeing 747 known affectionately as ‘Ladybird.’ His section depicts the iconic Varga Girl and is being lovingly displayed in his living room.
G-VAST had flown with Virgin Atlantic since 1997. Its last commercial flight was from Montego Bay to London Gatwick in March 2020, after which time it was ferried to Manchester for storage. It departed Manchester Airport for the last time at 11:00 on July 15th, 2020, landing shortly after at St Athan for scrapping by Plane Reclaimers.
Speaking about his purchase, Drew noted how special the aircraft is to a lot of people. He said,
“A lot of friends and people I know in aviation have lost their jobs due to the downturn. It’s nice to have something to share with them to remember happier times. Some will have worked on the aircraft for the past 25 years, so it’s nice that a piece of it has been saved.”
Drew has gotten the collectibles bug so bad that he has found an opportunity with two of his aviation enthusiast friends to share the love across the avgeek community in sourcing a global supply of retired aircraft parts. The business, aptly named “Doors2Manual,” goes live imminently at Doors2manual.org – be sure to check them out!
We asked eCube Solutions how challenging it was to deliver such a large piece to their customers. Keegan told us,
“It wasn’t too bad, just a man and van really.”
While pieces like this are something of a one-off, the rising popularity of collecting plane parts shows no sign of slowing down. Keegan noted that there are new arrivals to their dismantling hubs every week. Right now, he said they are still working on Boeing 747s from Virgin and British Airways, A319s from TAP Portugal, and a number of other aircraft from carriers, including Dragonair, Iberia, S7, and TUI.
He hasn’t yet had the opportunity to tear down an A380 but is looking forward to the day it happens.
Getting your hands on a part
For many avgeeks, securing a part of a dismantled aircraft seems like an insurmountable challenge. But with companies like Plane Reclaimers working to become more public-facing, it’s getting easier by the day.
Aerotiques founder Darren Lewington shared some top tips with us for anyone looking to get hold of their own unique piece. He suggested would-be collectors should, first of all, keep an eye on what’s being scrapped and where. Knowing what is headed for dismantling and which company will be handling the process can put you a step ahead of the competition.
However, he warned buyers to be realistic about what they can actually handle,
“Some of these parts are much bigger than people expect, and some components can be dangerous or toxic. It’s important to know what you’re doing and to understand what you’re taking on before you get into this sort of thing.”
Have you collected any aviation memorabilia recently? Let us know what you got in the comments!