A Tale Of Two Airports

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“There are no ‘storm safe’ hangers. Requiring something that does not exist is laughable.”

Embodied in this comment, which appeared in last week’s poll, is the sort of low-information that bedevils credible preparation for increasingly expensive weather disasters. The uninformed may enjoy a cynical laugh, but I can assure you a couple of hundred owners of hangars at Punta Gorda airport are breathing a sigh of relief. When Hurricane Ian swept through last week, their “storm safe” hangars remained intact and so did the aircraft inside. A potential disaster was instead a short wait for electric power to be restored and some debris cleanup.

As I reported in a previous blog, my home airport, Venice, was not so fortunate, despite being exposed to winds half as high as Punta Gorda experienced. Our entire hangar complex was damaged to an unknown degree, including the one sheltering our Cub. The city has locked all the owners out of the airport and stationed police to prevent access. If my Cub escaped undamaged, it may be awhile before I can confirm that.

I will concede that my choice of “storm safe,” driven by the need for brevity in a poll question, was a bit leading. You could ask what it even means and I would reply that it means hangars built to modern code that can withstand gusts to 155 MPH, as the Punta Gorda hangars did. That’s a strong Cat 4 but may as well call it a weak 5. The argument that no hangar could survive anything stronger so why bother strikes me as defeatist in the same way that people who don’t bother with storm shutters or impact windows live in a fantasy world where reality never intrudes.

“Too expensive,” is the usual argument. Really? My Cub partner, Bob, also has a hangar at Punta Gorda for his Lance. Like all of the T-hangars there, it was constructed after hurricane Charley flattened the place in 2004. Like most modern code hangars, it has a Hydro-Swing door and additional steel reinforcement. He pays $316.87 a month. In Venice, we pay $294.25 for an older hangar with sliding doors that are wholly inappropriate for hurricane country. That’s a whopping $22.62 higher. Five times as much difference would be worth it for a secure hangar.  

Apart from a protected parking space, what’s the point of hangars anyway? They are a service airports provide in the interest of promoting and sustaining aviation, they attract business and planned correctly, they can and should provide revenue for the airport and the city or county. I haven’t examined Punta Gorda’s P&L, but they evidently structured the hangar deal to be both affordable for owners and profitable for the airport. Moreover, it helps with insurance loss prevention and keeps streams of shredded aluminum from fouling the neighborhood. What’s not to like? (And by the way, when those hangars get cratered, you may be paying for the cleanup. For hurricane Ian, FEMA is picking up the debris removal bill.)

Also in Punta Gorda’s master plan, which all airports have, are a couple of rounds of proactive investment in replacement bi-fold doors on hangars that have something less. It’s not clear which hangars these apply to because although the new T-hangars there largely escaped damage, larger commercial box hangars did not. These are a difficult problem because tall hangars are higher in the wind field and exposed to higher wind speeds and they have correspondingly higher windage. In the photo above, you can see the damaged box hangars at the top of the frame; the new T’s are, in comparison, tidy and apparently free of debris. One roof in another hangar block suffered minor damage. Punta Gorda, by the way, was in the hellish northeastern eyewall of Ian for an hour or more. Peak wind reported varies between 135 and 155 MPH, with 110 MPH sustained reported by a private weather station. Venice’s highest was reported at 82 MPH.

Hurricane Charley should have been a wake-up call and was for Punta Gorda. The airport had little choice since it woke up in a pile of debris. I watched Charley bear down directly on Venice that August afternoon, only to take its right jink up the Peace River, sparing Venice all but a few gusts and some rain. The message was lost on the city, for little was done to upgrade older hangars, albeit some new ones were built. They appear intact, but one owner emailed me Friday that he wasn’t allowed to access it. T-hangar upgrades were proposed in the master plan, with the state paying most of the cost. I don’t know why the work wasn’t done. The plan also called for a hurricane disaster preparation design set to provide faster response after a storm. If it’s being executed, I think most of my fellow tenants would agree that it needs a little work.

So once again, a big storm has offered a wake-up call, for all airports in the southeast, not just Venice and not just coastal cities. Punta Gorda has shown that an engaged airport management with community support can make secure hangars practical and economical. Owners have shown that the market is there, for I’m pretty sure Venice would support $50 to $100 more a month for hangars, if it came to that. And it probably needn’t. In Venice’s defense, the city has run hot and cold on supporting the airport and unlike Punta Gorda, it’s surrounded by residential areas that complain of noise and traffic. There have been efforts to curtail operations or even close the airport. But more airport-friendly communities should take heed. More intense storms are coming for you and will do significant damage inland, as Ian did in Florida.

As for owners, I would argue to disabuse yourself of the notion that better hangars can’t be built to protect your expensive airplanes. Punta Gorda is the test case. Airports may need to be jollied along by expression of demand for such things and would-be tenants may need to engage with airport management to put together deals that work. The point is, do this before you find your hangar reduced to rubble or cordoned off with access denied.

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30 COMMENTS

  1. Yip, brick and stone built houses after big storms often need new roofs. Wood built houses need new houses…
    The new weather means tiled roofs, in use for 2,000 years but vulnerable to hail after heatwaves, might soon go the way of the dinosaurs, and corrugated steel be the new norm — as it has been in monsoon countries since its invention.
    Patio doors are another aspect of the sliding verses hinge debate — in floods they are nearly always the first to go, often all at once with a deadly rush of water into the home.
    Architects and house builders need to think about it before the liability suits start.

  2. I live in the Florida Keys, where, since the mid-70’s, all new homes have to be built on stilts, so that the floor of the living space is at least 8′ above sea level. Is it more expensive to build homes on stilts? Of course. More recently, the code changed to require all doors and windows to be “hurricane-proof”. Is that more expensive? Yep. But when Irma came through in 2017, the vast majority of the stilted homes were fine. Our home, built since the door and window code change, came through without a scratch, and we were on the “wrong side” of the storm, and only about 12 miles away from the eye. With compelling evidence like that, and like the Punta Gorda T-hangers in Ian… of course it makes sense to build virtually all new buildings to “storm safe” codes.

    • Visited Key West last November. I was shocked to see the Key West tower is still in derelict condition five years after Irma. All the windows gone and wires and pipes flapping in the elements. An awful look for the airport.

  3. That was my comment in the poll.
    Point is that there are many kinds of storm events.
    Legislating a “storm safe hangar” is as impossible as legislating gun control; nature will just send a flood or a storm surge or a lighning/fire event or a cute little localized F4 tornado.

    Cost? As you say, the airport itself nor it’s renters paid. “The City” built the hangers and “The City” subsidizes the rent. Low-information people (and the willingly uninformed) forget that such legislation would be the death knell for private airports and for airports where cities are not going to budget airport improvements.

    • “Cost? As you say, the airport itself nor it’s renters paid. “The City” built the hangers and “The City” subsidizes the rent.”

      This is incorrect and reflects a misunderstanding of the economics. Airports are basic transportation infrastructure and local governments invest in them just as they do roads, bridges and traffic lights. The difference is that for GA hangars, they are the equivalent of toll roads. While the airports fund their construction–although not always–they recover the costs and generate revenue. In 10 years time, or less, they have recovered the investment and are well in the black. They could get a far better ROI in the stock market, but that’s not the point. They are in the business of providing infrastructure and enough revenue to pay its own way.

      Also, you’re uninformed on the cost of storm resistant hangars. They require about 5 percent more steel and a swing or bi-fold door, adding about $4000 to the cost. It’s a trivial increase considering the payback of not seeing them easily destroyed by storms. You’re using an edge argument–we can’t make hangars resistant to every possible risk, so we should do nothing.

      That’s not going to work in world where extreme weather is more frequent.

      • You ignored the bulk of the airports: private airports, cities that are trying to close their airports, and especially small city airports. If such laws are enacted then those will have to chose between building expensive hangars under the law, or not building.

        Unintended consequences might just be no new hangars get built at small GA airports and so expansions will be tie downs only.

        As far as the government, even they evacuate their planes before major storms.

        • Private use airports are businesses and they can do as they wish. They are not public infrastructure funded by tax dollars, as Venice airport is. Operators and owners are on their own. I’m sure you know this, so bringing it up is a bit of a distractor.

          When I moved to Venice 20 years ago, we bought and owned our hangar. We bought it from someone who bought it from the original owner. We paid the city a leasehold for the land. It was a good hangar with a bifold door. The lease expired and the city tore it down. Not a bad thing because corrosion had put it at the end of its useful life.

          Also on Venice is–or was–another group of privately owned and built hangars. This model works at many other public-use airports around the country and is a good deal for owners and the airports because it provides the infrastructure on otherwise unused land and little cost to the taxpayers. All it takes is willing owners and smart airport managers. It can be done.

          • “All it takes is willing owners and smart airport managers”

            I think the misunderstanding is on your part. Of course aircraft owners would prefer bomb proof hangars and airport managers are not stupid people. Therefore the “all it takes” is logically wrong.

            Reality is that as long as the hangar keeps off rain, hail, sun and has a lock on the door, that will protect the plane almost 100% of the time. Save your money and fly the plane out if a hurricane is coming; forecasting is excellent these days. Put that $100 saved every month into a hurricane fund and you can take a really very nice vacation every 3 or 4 years with your plane.

          • “Reality is that as long as the hangar keeps off rain, hail, sun and has a lock on the door, that will protect the plane almost 100% of the time. ”

            You just described a tent. As for a ‘lock on the door’, a few minutes spent perusing the LockPickingLawyer on YouTube will dispense with any notion that a lock provides security.

  4. My understanding of a legal issue here, is that by denying renters/lease-hoders access to their property, the landlord has assumed “care, custody and control” of said property. I’m no lawyer, but I’ve had experience dealing with this problem (Hurricane Andrew). The hangar tenants may need to get together and have a lawyer assess the situation and take appropriate action.

  5. For what it’s worth, the EAA B-17, Aluminum Overcast, was in one of the large Arcadia Aerospace hangars at Punta Gorda undergoing maintenance. The hangar suffered significant damage. The B-17 received minor damage to the tail section.

  6. We build earthquake-safe homes and buildings in California, as required by law driven by solid engineering and experience. You can build hurricane-safe structures in Florida and other natural disaster prone areas. It just makes sense. Yes, it’ll cost more in the short run, but it’s cheaper in the long run, for all of us.

  7. Private use airports are businesses and they can do as they wish. They are not public infrastructure funded by tax dollars, as Venice airport is. Operators and owners are on their own.

    When I moved to Venice 20 years ago, we bought and owned our hangar. We bought it from someone who bought it from the original owner. We paid the city a leasehold for the land. It was a good hangar with a bifold door. The lease expired and the city tore it down. Not a bad thing because corrosion had put it at the end of its useful life.

    Also on Venice is–or was–another group of privately owned and built hangars. This model works at many other public-use airports around the country and is a good deal for owners and the airports because it provides the infrastructure on otherwise unused land and little cost to the taxpayers. All it takes is willing owners and smart airport managers. It can be done.

    • It appears to be. I got a look at it this morning through an opening in the jammed hangar doors. It appears intact and may not have even moved. Bet it was a wild ride in that hangar. The airport staffer who took us out there said the peak gust was 172 MPH. I’m trying to chase that data down. I find it hard to believe because the damage in this area is just not that great.

  8. Can a storm resistant hangar be built? Absolutely. Will it only cost $50-$100 a month more? Maybe (big maybe). But there are two problems with this: Pilots and airport management.

    Pilots:
    A) If the hangar rent was $300 per month, that could be a 33% increase. Remember all those pilots that complained about having to make a one time expenditure of a couple thousand for ADS-B out? And the ones complaining about having to spend more per gallon on the 100LL replacement? What do you think they would say about having their rents go up that much to replace a hangar that’s “survived every storm since it was built”?

    Airport management:
    Many of these hangars have been there for years. They’re paid for. The airport is receiving money every month in rent. Their bottom line is looking good enough that the city isn’t complaining about how much money they’re sucking out of the municipal funding. So now someone suggests kicking the occupants out to tie-downs, interrupting the revenue stream, borrowing money to tear down those hangars and build new storm resistant hangars. I can see airport board saying “we don’t have the money to build new hangars let alone replace hangars that aren’t broken.”

    Another thing is that there is more to surviving a cat 5 hurricane than just steady-state wind. There are small tornados that occur near the eye. These tornados generate incredible wind. There were two large hangars and a larger community hangar at F95 when Michael came in. All built at the same time by the same builder. The community hangar was complexly leveled, the other hangar was partially destroyed and then other received almost no damage. Meanwhile my end T-hangar less than 50 yards away didn’t even have a roof leak. It is suspected that one of these small tornados is what did the damage.

    While there is no doubt that it is a good idea to have wind resistant hangars, it will be a very difficult sell as long as hangars are standing.

      • It’s already required that new construction has to comply with current code. And IIRC (at least in Bay County) has to withstand 150MPH winds. Cost difference to get it up to Cat 5 is minimal.

        Of course that’s not going to help for the small tornados that occur during a major hurricane or the floods from storm surge on airports close the coast.

  9. Paul — Thank you for an excellent article. I’ve lived in hurricane country much of my life and hangars have been a constant source of anguish for much of my flying career. I have two small points to add:
    1. I looked into building a large hangar (~20 GA aircraft or so) in the early 2000s. At that time, the pricing difference between a 100mph resistant building and a 120mph resistant building was about 30%. Of course, that’s 30% of structural costs only, but it was a big deal. I asked about 150 mph resistant buildings and was told (probably incorrectly) that such buildings just did not exist. This supports your point that T-hangars are really a better choice, as the structure does not have to be braced nearly as high up as a T-hangar.
    2. The second is just a point to be aware of. After Hurricane Katrina came through SE Louisiana and SW Mississippi in 2005, I was fortunate in that my home airport in Hammond, LA (KHDC) was mostly spared. My aircraft was in a large, shared hangar operated by the local FBO. Well, the National Guard chose Hammond as a base of operations and ordered all aircraft removed to a remote airport location. Aircraft were to be removed immediately or the Guard would do so for us. I didn’t get back into the hangar for maybe 4-5 months. The takeaway is “don’t store anything in the hangar you’re not prepared to move quickly. I think T-hangars here would be a better choice, too.

  10. What I’m not understanding is why don’t the owners just fly their aircraft OUT of the hurricane zone instead of chancing flooding and wind/debris damage? This entire conversation about “storm-proof hangars” makes no sense to me when a simpler option is available. If the military flies their aircraft and moves ships elsewhere then maybe there’s a tip here.

    • Why?

      Logistics.

      A “hurricane zone” several days in advance of a storm can be big enough that you’ll have to fly a least 100 miles to be safe from the worst effects, though it’s still be rainy and windy. And you can’t pick any convenient airport – you have to pick whatever options the hurricane’s predicted path left you with. So the favorite airport with the nice restaurant may be off the list.

      So now find another airport. Do they have any hangar space? Or is it already full of local tenants and other airplane evacuees? You may have found an airport that is far enough to escape the worst effects of the hurricane, but you still don’t want to be tied down when the outer bands of the hurricane hit. So the search continues….

      But let’s say you get lucky, you find an airport 100nm away from the center of the predicted (but still uncertain) center of the hurricane. It’ll still be wet and windy, but luckily they have hangar space to rent. And at that distance it’s roughly a 1 hour flight for a typical fixed-pitch piston single. You fly the plane there, tuck it in its temporary home, and now it’s safe.

      How do you get back?

      Have your spouse or good friend drive over two hours (assuming a nearby interstate highway not jammed with evacuees) to pick you up? So it’s a half-day travel (at best) to get you and bring you back home. Now you still need to protect your home (move valuables and furniture to higher floors, put up storm shutters, and/or pack the car and leave).

      When will you find time for this? Do you move the plane days in advance so you have time to take care of the home front? Now you’re paying $20, $50, or $100/day to store you plane somewhere else. And how many more days before you can get the plane back to your home airport? Home and family comes first, plus whatever repairs are needed at the home airport before you can think about the half-day round-trip of driving to pick up your plane.

      Or do you wait until that last minute to be more certain of the storm track, but now you’re in the rush and crush of everyone else who also waited until the last minute. And that airport you had in mind as an escape? Full of people who didn’t wait.

      The final problem is the geography of Florida itself. There’s really only one direction to go when a hurricane threatens – North. That means everyone is funneled to the same few escape routes, drastically slowing things down.

      Not to mention taking time off from work. Hurricanes don’t follow a schedule, and you can’t always wait until the weekend to prepare.

      And having spent a thousand dollars or more in avgas, mogas, and storage fees to “just” fly the plane to safety, the hurricane veers slightly and your home airport is spared.

      Now, that’s not to say people shouldn’t fly their planes to safety (and I’m sure many did). But it requires a lot of prior planning and thought, and those who think they’ll “just” fly the plane to safety will likely find themselves scrambling. It’s like preparing for any other disaster – developing a plan, even a rough one, can really help when the time comes.

    • A) You could have to fly hundreds of miles away. And be ready to move again when the storm changes path. Half the planes destroyed at F95 had been moved there to get out of the way of hurricane Michael.
      B) If you don’t move days in advance (at that point, often the final landfall location isn’t known (see A above), then the weather has usually degraded to the point where flying out isn’t a good idea.
      C) Most people have jobs, homes to prep, family and pets to exac. A replaceable airplane is pretty far down on the priority list.

  11. As a x-tenant in PGD I can add that the airport is engaged and is a proffessional organization probably a bit on the high side of costs but we get what we pay for at least at PGD. They are good people with traditional work ethic (old america). City management is not an ovewrly Woke organization and thus you get quality of people I hope it stays that way.