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How Aircraft Are Given a Second Life Through Upcycling

Aircraft being used for PlaneTags (Photo: MotoArt)

When aircraft reach retirement age, their years of service are often celebrated and aviation enthusiasts nostalgically remember the years they spent dutifully carrying out their respective missions.  After the celebrations end and the memories fade, what happens to the airplanes we remember so fondly?  Many end up in the boneyard or other storage facilities.  But thanks to upcycling, many of these storied aircraft are getting a new lease on life as works of art.

Upcycling, which is also sometimes referred to as creative use, is processing used goods or waste material into something that is of higher quality than the original. Since 2001, MotoArt, headquartered in Torrance, Calif., has been collecting vintage airframes in order to turn them into works of art.  

According to Dave Hall, Motoart’s founder, the idea for the company came about when Dave was given access to a propeller from a B-17.  Through working on that propeller, he learned about the process of transforming aircraft aluminum into an art worthy form.  As AirlineGeeks learned from talking with Dave, he’s come a long way since working on that first warbird prop.

Over the years, MotoArt has completed some very impressive projects.  In 2018, they created a puzzle consisting of 92,500 pieces using the skin of a Boeing 747.  Each piece of the puzzle represented one of Delta’s 92,500 employees.  In 2019, in celebration of the British Airways centenary, MotoArt created a special edition 747 PlaneTag for all of its employees.

British Airways tags for its centenary (Photo: MotoArt)

And of course, in celebration of American Airlines’ retirement of the iconic Super 80, MotoArt was there with 140,000 Super 80 PlaneTags, one for each American Airlines employee, to mark the aircraft’s retirement from the American Airlines fleet.

An American Airlines MD-80 being used for PlaneTags (Photo: MotoArt)

Although MotoArt offers a variety of products made from vintage airframes, the PlaneTag is perhaps their most intriguing product.  Debuting four years ago, the idea for the PlaneTag first came to Dave about a decade ago while he was working on a P-51 project.  “What if I could make a dog tag, but instead, a plane tag?” Dave thought.  

He got to work on the first prototype and soon the first PlaneTag was born.  However, after building the first prototype, Dave says it sat in his pocket until four years ago.  

MotoArt team members building PlaneTag art (Photo: MotoArt)

For the 2016 holiday season, Dave finally decided it was time to test the waters with the PlaneTag.  On Black Friday of that year, the PlaneTag was officially launched with an initial offering of six different tags.  The six original tags included a 747, a B-25, a DC-9, and the famed “Gimli Glider,”, an Air Canada 767 that, in 1983, successfully made an emergency landing at an abandoned Canadian Air Force Base in Gimli, Manitoba after running out of fuel mid-flight.

MotoArt’s office space (Photo: MotoArt)

Each tag is made from the actual skin of the aircraft it was cut from.  On the tag pictured below, cut from the skin of N171UA, a retired United Airlines 747, the white paint you see is what was really on the exterior of the airplane. Through the use of laser etching, MotoArt is able to create the design that you see on the front of each PlaneTag.  

According to Dave, each airframe presents its own unique set of challenges for making a tag. Variances between the airframe, such as paint type and thickness, all have an impact on the manufacturing and laser etching process. 

Since its debut, MotoArt has sold over 500,000 PlaneTags.  This should come as no surprise, as the PlaneTag is a truly unique way to own a piece of aviation history. MotoArt has a robust collection of commercial airliner PlaneTags available, and each one includes the aircraft’s tail number so one can actually find out when and where the aircraft the PlaneTag came from was in service.  

For example, if you opt for the DC-9 PlaneTag, cut from the skin of the DC-9 that wore tail number N8990E, your research would reveal that particular DC-9 flew from 1967 until 1991 with two different carriers. In fact, the PlaneTags have been so successful that two years ago Dave set up a separate company, still under the MotoArt umbrella, exclusively dedicated to them.

While Dave acknowledges the uniqueness and appeal of the commercial airliner tags, he feels an important part of MotoArt’s mission is to tell the story of vintage and historic airplanes.  “My goal is to create an encyclopedia of aircraft,” Dave said.  Even a quick review of the catalog of available PlaneTags makes it clear MotoArt is delivering on Dave’s goal.  

A United 747 PlaneTag (Photo: MotoArt)

There’s a PlaneTag made from the skin of the Douglas A-20 that was reported to be the personal plane of Howard Hughes.  Want to own a piece of the last airplane to fly out of the 20th century and into the 21st? You can with the PlaneTag made from the skin of the 727 flown by Clay Lacy, which made that flight.  Or perhaps owning a piece of the fastest air-breathing, manned aircraft ever built is your dream.  If so, the SR-71 PlaneTag is for you.

It’s worth noting that without PlaneTags, it’s very possible that the story of some of the aircraft they are made from would be forgotten.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that MotoArt is somehow preventing aircraft from being restored.  On the contrary, MotoArt gets their airframes essentially right before they are destroyed.  By making PlaneTags, MotoArt is saving many airplanes (and their stories) from being completely crushed and forever forgotten.

Each airplane, regardless of the mission it carried out during its service life, has its own unique story.  Through PlaneTags and its other products, MotoArt is keeping the stories of those airplanes, and a piece of history, alive and well. Since its founding in 2001, MotoArt has grown to 15 full-time employees and maintains a 10,000 square foot studio in Torrance, Calif.

Jordan Green


  • Jordan Green

    Jordan joined the AG team in 2018 after attending AAviationDay in Philadelphia. He is actively pursuing his private pilot certificate and has been an aviation enthusiast since childhood. An attorney by trade, Jordan jokingly refers to himself as a “recovering litigator” and now focuses on subcontracts management. Jordan focuses his writing on innovations in commercial aviation, aviation history, and other interesting topics he feels are worthy of discussion in the community.

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