Home is where the hangar is

Every pilot has more than one home. There’s the place where we sleep, eat, and get our mail (at least most of the time). Then there is another place where we have our being and that’s the airport. Often there’s a particular place on the airport. Sometimes it’s the café; sometimes it’s an EAA chapter clubhouse. In my case, for 17 years, it was Hangar 2 at Fitchburg Municipal Airport.

Fitchburg Muni is a pretty typical small GA airport. It sits in central Massachusetts, a little south of the New Hampshire state line. Work on the airport began in 1924, three years before Slim Lindbergh flew the Atlantic. The land, originally called Pigeon Swamp, was bought by local residents who were pilots in the Great War, later donated to the City of Leominster, and eventually swapped to Fitchburg for a reservoir. Who got the better end of the deal is still a subject for debate.

FIT hangar 2
FItchburg Municipal Airport when it opened in 1929 – with the author’s old friend Hangar 2 at left.

FIT was one of the first official airports in the Commonwealth. The first official landing took place in 1929 and the pilot was the chairman of the State Aeronautics Commission, one of the earliest such organizations in the country.

I first saw FIT in 1998 when I showed up (very late) to take an intro ride in a Cardinal based there. It was owned by a partnership with a share for sale. After an hour in the airplane, I fell in love with it and (despite the bad first impression of getting lost and being late) they let me buy in.

Since then there’s been a complete turn-over of partners. About five years ago, I bought out the group, painted the airplane, updated the radios and sold shares to new partners. But it still lived where it had for decades: in Hangar 2. It’s a sheet metal structure with a rusty roof that has lots of pin-prick holes. The doors are manual, sliding affairs, sheet metal with wood cores, and winter snow and ice can freeze them shut. The hangar is just about as old as the airport. Aerial photos of the early airport show Hangar 2 and its twin sitting not far from the original grass runways.

From when I first saw it in 1998 to this day, the structure is unimpressive. The roof leaks, those doors have always been very hard to open and one eventually deteriorated to the point where a wood replacement had to be fabricated on-site. So what makes it special?

For one thing, it’s the very fact that the hangar is a direct link to the origins of the airport and the earliest part of flying’s Golden Age. I’ve even investigated getting the hangar placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a move that would not make the airport management happy but would help preserve the hangar.

But on top of that, despite its flaws, it has protected “my” airplane for about 30 years, keeping the ice and snow off during the winter, hail in the spring and hot sun in the summer as well as most of the rain. The shelter it provided allowed the original paint and radios to last until I could afford the updates.

There are other issues. Being a “community” hangar other people have to push our airplane around to get their airplanes out and we have picked up some hangar rash over the years. Where you get stuck is also “first come, first served” so it is possible to have to move multiple airplanes to get out. We’ve been lucky to stay up front most of the time which makes going flying easier for aging members like me.

Hangar 2 is on the track for a lot people going back and forth to their airplanes, either from the tie downs or neighboring hangars. Lots of people stop by to chat, especially since I got the Cardinal painted and it now looks so amazingly beautiful (prejudiced, I know).

It’s not a pilot cave by any means: no insulation, no heat and crummy lighting. But it’s the place I went after 9/11 when all GA aircraft were grounded, maybe for good for all we knew. I went to the hangar, put my arms around the airplane’s spinner and told her I didn’t know if we’d ever fly together again.

New hangar
A new, fancier home. Just not as much charm.

Eventually, the hangar rash issue got to be too big to ignore. The winter of 2014-2015 was one of the worst ever, with record snowfalls is nearby Worcester. The airport management has always tried to squeeze more airplanes into the communal hangars during the winter, but this season we ended up with five aircraft shoehorned into a space comfortable for three and adequate for four. On top of that, one of our members was really having trouble with doors, and people kept unplugging the remote switch we use for turning on the engine heater. Time to move.

It turned out that one of the co-op T-hangars on the other side of the field was up for rent. The five of us talked it over and decided (not without some trepidation on my part as treasurer of the group) that the move was worth the additional cost, so the airplane moved into Hangar 31.

It wasn’t until April 19, 2015, I finally got to fly it from its new digs. I spent the entire fall and part of the winter completely laid up due to a shattered ankle. I went back to work in January, but it was still uncomfortable enough that, by the end of the day, all I wanted to do was go home and get my leg up. Then the horrible weather persisted into early April.

I’ve got to admit, I choked up during the preflight. There was my pretty airplane in her fancy new hangar with the electric bi-fold doors that actually worked. It was a beautiful day, clear as a bell, and nary a cloud to be seen. A little cool, but that just helped the performance with me and Chris Trainor, our CFII partner, aboard. We did my flight review and, as Chris had predicted, there was no reason for me to have worried about forgetting how to fly.

So the airplane has a new home and, for awhile, I have a new second home. Sadly, in a year or three, my wife Christine and I will be heading South, away from these miserable, seemingly unending winters. I can’t afford to buy my partners out, even if they were willing to sell, so N18738 and I will have to part company. That will be one of the saddest days of my life, but I will take with me almost 20 years of memories of a wonderful airplane… and Hangar 2 at Fitchburg Municipal.

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