“It’s impossible to find a hangar anywhere,” was the refrain every pilot around me sang, but within a month my new plane had a roof over its wings. Was it just luck? No matter how I acquired my hangar, it seems they are in short supply around here. “Here” being northern New Jersey, a modest drive west of New York City, but pilots from around the country seem to sing the same song.
There are many airports around here, from Newark Liberty International Airport (KEWR), which would be a preposterous base for an aircraft unless you own a Fortune 500 company and your aircraft is a multimillion-dollar jet, to grassy airstrips visited only by the taildragger crowd.
Fortunately, New Jersey really is the Garden State, just like it says on the license plates. Once you get a few miles from the I-95 corridor there are abundant, small and friendly airports west of NYC and north of, let’s say, Princeton. Even Charles Lindbergh built an airfield on his New Jersey estate. Many of these small airports are set amid rolling farmland and some of the most idyllic scenery in the country.
After visiting a number of these airports, I found the hangar facilities fell into three categories.
1. Common hangars
One airport offered only a single common hangar that housed about 20 airplanes and helicopters, from Cessna 172s to a Learjet. With so many different types and sizes, a pilot really needs to rely on the airport staff to pull out his plane, which might not be possible outside of working hours. Or your plane could be waiting for you on the tarmac if you call ahead—and fueled up, too.
Most of my friends shuddered at the prospect of serious “hangar rash” with so many aircraft being moved around. Also, there may be little security. I’d never leave my headsets or portable GPS in that sort of hangar.
I doubt if an owner could do much maintenance either, maybe just a simple oil change. You might be allowed to keep a small tool box along a wall, but the airport management would certainly not be responsible for any loss of that either.
Common hangars usually have some space available and are often the cheapest roof over your plane.
2. Shared hangars
Another airport had a couple hangars to share, big enough for three or four airplanes, but with no space available. This situation is better than a giant common hangar, as a tenant would get to know the other aircraft and how to move them if needed.
There’s still a risk of hangar rash, not just from moving aircraft. I can see even the most careful pilot twanging a wing with a broom handle while cleaning up.
Shared hangars are more expensive than a common hangar, but are more secure, with only the aircraft owners having access. It could be a social environment, too, which is good if the other pilots are responsible and fun people—or a nightmare if your hangar partners are a bunch of slobs.
3. Private hangar
This is the way to go if you can afford it, and these are the ones impossible to find. Of course, the owner(s) of a single aircraft have to pay all the rent, but at least they can control the use of their hangar.
Private hangars have many advantages:
• Security—Keys to the hangar and access to the plane are limited. You can lock up your headsets, flying and maintenance gear, including tools.
• Storage—Although the FAA is cracking down on “non-aviation uses” of hangars, especially at airports that receive federal funds, there’s room to store some stuff. An FAA investigation found hangars that held cars and boats, with nothing related to aviation, and they believe this takes space from people who actually want to house a flyable aircraft. Items stored in a private hangar should have some association to aviation, such as tools, aircraft skis or floats, covers, oil and other aircraft maintenance items.
• Workplace—For homebuilders, a hangar may be primarily a construction site. The FAA is not completely on board with the idea of a hangar being used to build a plane, when so many people need space to store flyable aircraft. Using a hangar (sometimes for years) for a plane that doesn’t need the access to runways is a real issue.
• Maintenance—I’ve seen workshops of varying complexity in hangars, from a small box of tools to a full machine shop. Having a private hangar allows owners to pull apart their plane and leave the parts spread across the floor, whether for an oil change or an annual inspection.
• Social—Hangars can be a simple slab of concrete surrounded by tin to protect your airplane from the worst of nature’s elements, or it can be the ultimate recreational space. All pilots know that the coolness of an individual’s personal space is increased exponentially when an aircraft is parked within. (“You’ve got a pool table in your man cave? Bah! I have a P-51.”) Hangars are places where pilots can gather to relax, drink and talk flying.
Other cost factors
Besides the cost differential of common versus private hangars, I found prices were driven by a few other factors.
1. Location—With proximity to a large city, or a suburban town where big-city big shots live, the greater the price of hangars. No surprise there, especially if half the airport is used by business jets.
2. Amenities and upkeep—Hangars are as scarce as hen’s teeth at those beautiful, almost park-like airports, with neatly cut grass, a restaurant and a thriving community of pilots. Other airports only offer ancient, drafty, tin hangars with rusty doors, potholed runways and muddy taxiways. You get what you pay for.
3. Subsidies—One of the airports I considered was a state property, and the rental rates were the lowest around; your tax dollars at work. But, of course, they had no space available.
“Are you one of us?”
Does social politics play a role in who gets a hangar? Do taildragger airport managers scoff at nosewheelers? I wondered, as pilots at a particular airport would say, “Yeah, the manager told me there were spaces available,” but when speaking to that manager, “Unfortunately, there aren’t.”
Then, an instructor would say, “Yup, he told me yesterday there was space available,” but when asked again, “Sorry, we’ve got no space.”
Is it the pilot or the plane? I kept hearing, “We’d love to have your airplane here.” Is he more interested in the airplane than the pilot? Do the managers want only the coolest aircraft at their field? I suppose anything’s possible.
No doubt, if a pilot’s reputation as a troublemaker precedes him, I’d want the manager to claim there’s no room, too. I hope I’m not that guy.
No room at the inn
When all options fail, you may have to tie down your aircraft outside. If your airplane is worth any amount greater than the average car, it really deserves protection.
But, without a roof over your plane you should invest in a full set of wing and fuselage covers, engine plugs and pitot tube covers. Reflective shields will protect the interior from the summer sun, helping to slow the inevitable cracking of plastic and vinyl, and perhaps extending the life of your avionics, too.
The only advantage of a tiedown over a hangar is cost—as little as $50 per month—but you get what you pay for. Usually, that’s just a square of grass (if you’re lucky) or mud, and perhaps a concrete anchor to tie down your plane.
Place some metal grid or industrial rubber matting on your tiedown spot if you don’t want to wear a muddy hole in the ground where you climb in. Most pilots buy a locker to hold a small ladder, cleaning supplies and oil, and place it alongside their plot. (You’ll want the locker to store your covers while you’re out flying, too.)
If you tie down, be prepared to shovel snow or be grounded. Most airports can’t remove snow from grassy tiedown areas, and when the snow melts you still may not be able to taxi over the soft ground. A heavy rainstorm might also keep you mired in mud.
For more cash you could get a tiedown on tarmac, which is better than a muddy spot and will usually be plowed after snowstorms. You’ll still have to deal with rain-soaked aircraft covers, bird droppings, frosty wings and muddy feet in your cockpit. You’ll also worry when there’s a forecast for hail in the area, and need to be wary of birds and bugs building nests in any available nook of your plane.
As in a common hangar, tied-down aircraft are not very secure. Any theft from a plane that I’ve heard of, usually a headset or GPS, was from a tied-down plane.
Tied-down aircraft cost a little more for insurance, too. Avemco, for example, gives a 10 percent discount on the hull coverage premium if you hangar your aircraft. That’s due to the number of claims from on-the-ground weather incidents, such as hail damage. All in all, hangars are better.
Beggars can’t be choosers
If you have few options, you’ll have to take the best you can get, as-is. I’m very happy with the airport I found, and feel lucky to have found a hangar there. It’s a beautiful spot, with a friendly group of pilots, a wide variety of aircraft, an EAA chapter and a pretty good restaurant.
I think my good fortune was just the luck of timing. It was autumn when I needed my space, so I think some pilots had sold airplanes and moved out during the summer.
However, there are a few items that my hangar lacks, which could be worth keeping in mind during your hangar search.
1. No running water, not even a hose faucet anywhere along the row of hangars. I can’t hose out the hangar or wash my plane, or even fill a bucket to do some cleaning.
2. My hangar has only one electrical outlet. I need to run a 40-foot extension cord to get power anywhere else in the space. A few more outlets would have been convenient.
3. The hangar has a small lip from the concrete floor to the tarmac. This seems really minor, but it can be a struggle to push my plane over that by myself. I did install a couple metal ramps, but it’s still a pain.
4. If I had my choice, I would have picked a south-facing hangar. Mine is in the shade all winter, and significantly colder than the ones across the taxiway. On a chilly but sunny winter day, those hangars get almost toasty.
Finding a hangar for your airplane can be more difficult, with fewer choices, than finding a home for yourself. And there are no realtors to help. If you’re thinking of buying an aircraft, start early to explore the airports in the area where you’d like to fly.
Talk to pilots hanging around the airports, look over the facilities and let people know you’re in the market. A guy who knows a guy who’s thinking of moving out of his hangar could put you in the right place at the right time to find the right home for your plane.
Dennis K. Johnson is a writer and a New York City-based travel photographer, shooting primarily for Getty Images and select clients. He spends months each year traveling, flies sailplanes whenever possible and is the owner of N105T, a newly restored Piper Super Cub Special. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.