Open Your Hangar-Mind On Windlass Days


The hangar door’s ratchet clicked with a sound attributable to Archimedes when he expounded on the titanic power of levers and pulleys while attending Syracuse University in 252 BCE, making him more relevant to aviation than upperclassman, Hercules. So why, 2200 years later, did Lockheed name its C-130 transport after the latter and not the former? Dunno, but partial disclosure: In 1967 I became embarrassingly airsick aboard a C-130 Hercules, and the USAF never invited me back, which tangentially supports my observation that physics majors tackle life’s real problems, while jocks get all the glory. I’ve been neither but suspect that had Hercules designed my hangar door, the raising instructions would’ve read: Just Lift It, Wimp.

Luckily, he didn’t. Instead, a 20th Century Archimedes, named Gary, designed the system to raise the heavy single-piece door, utilizing the compound forces of pulleys, cables, and a hand-cranked boat windlass—no electricity needed. First, some obfuscating background.

In 1977 I put my name on the hangar waiting list at a California airport. Ten years later, the municipality sent me a letter stating that I was now first in line and for a fee could reserve that slot until someone currently leasing a hangar died from natural causes or otherwise. The city clerk posed an ethical conundrum as I pondered benefiting from a stranger’s timely demise. Aircraft owners will do nearly anything for hangar space and hate seeing it wasted storing boats or aircraft that never fly. But by then, I was 2000 miles east and had built my own hangar on a private airfield. Technically, Gary designed and built it, while I provided free, unskilled labor, proving you get what you pay for. I could drag 2x4s up a ladder and, swinging a hammer, occasionally hit a nail, often my own.

My motivating delusion was that I could fly whatever I’d stuff inside this galvanized box over the next 37 years and counting. Abused occupants included a Bonanza, a Marquart Charger biplane, the Aeronca I’ve had since my California pilot-in-waiting days, and a Piper 180 Challenger—possibly the worst name in aviation marketing. “A real challenge to fly?” Not since Studebaker dubbed one of its cars the Dictator has corporate been more brand deaf.

Referring to a hangar as a box demeans all that goes into one, including its design. Ostensibly, we acquire hangars to shelter our aircraft from the very elements through which we fly: wind, sunlight, FARs. Some of us have been nutty enough to launch when towering cumulus clouds (TCUs) taunt with herculean brawn. I’ve since learned to calculate how quickly a squall line 15 miles away, moving at 60 knots, can remedy constipation, so I respect Zeus-dwelling mountains of uppity downdrafts, spitting lightning bolts. I also tend to view science in Classics Illustrated comic book images.

The real reason we shelter our airplanes is to seal the intangible experiences gleaned upstairs inside something tangible down here. Up there we’re Walter Mitty adventurers, pilots who grasp at the illusion of being in command. Down here, inside the hangar with hailstones machinegunning the tin roof, we’re storytellers or better yet, listeners. To me, an open hangar door offers an invitation for strangers to visit, admire dusty aerojunk on the shelves, artwork on the walls and ask silly questions, only to receive even sillier answers.  

Visitor seating is beneath the 400-square-foot door suspended overhead, parallel to the floor, like the skillet of Damocles (another Syracuse alumnus, class of 354 BCE), ready to drop and squash impertinent curs who dare question homespun structural engineering.

To be useful, a good chunk of a hangar’s wall must relocate up, out, or sideways. We in the keep-it-cheap community are on a Holy Quail search for the perfect way to move hundreds of pounds of rigid door without paying full retail. Old school sliding doors are simple but nearly impossible to shove along misaligned tracks on corroded rollers. My door’s low-cost overhead retraction mechanism, by contrast, is higher-tech and inspired by the 1957 Ford Fairlane hardtop convertible.

Ford engineers satisfied America’s desire to lift a massive steel roof and slide it into a hole where the trunk should be without compromising the car’s Mamie Eisenhower sex appeal. Building on Ford’s ingenuity, Gary deployed pulleys, cables, counterweights, and a hand crank to create a system that supports Archimedes’ boast about the power of levers: “Give me a place to stand on, and I could move the earth.” Argue among yourselves if a pulley is a lever.

Three railroad rails (flat-footed rails for those wearing railfan caps) dangle from three cables that run overhead along pulleys from the hangar’s rear wall to the front door. The rails’ combined weight is slightly less than the door’s. When the door is released from the gust locks that hold it closed, the counterweights attempt to fall and pull the door up. Given more weight they would but in an uncontrolled maneuver likely to disturb the sparrows in the rafters. So, a rope runs from the windlass at the back wall vertically to a pulley where it makes a 90-degree turn and attaches to the center steel cable. By cranking the windlass, the operator adds “weight” to smoothly assist the counterweights in opening the giant maw through which airplanes exit, and loose characters on the airfield enter to lounge in the enviable sloth of GA civility.

Point—if there be one—is that every airport needs a Gary to implement the inspiration of Archimedes who, in his bestseller, On the Equilibrium of Planes, admonished pilots who store airplanes that never fly: “A closed hangar harbors a closed mind. Either crank yours open and fly or sell that flightless kiwi so the next pilot on the waiting list can get out of the rain.”

Note to USAF: I realize we haven’t spoken in years, but it’s not too late to accept my apology and consider renaming the C-130 after Archimedes, instead of some cartoon character wrestling coach.

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  1. Holy ‘Grail’ is the cup used by Jesus at the last supper. Not sure what the ‘Holy Quail’ is? Possibly the bird that got away on the Glorious 12th? Or is that a Grouse?

    • Holy Quail is used so snowflakes don’t pretend to be Holier-than-thou and get offended – because they can.

    • Sorry folks…not to bright, but, “What is a Windlass?” I looked the word up in google but couldn’t find a proper answer. Geez, I’m curious.

  2. “…without compromising the car’s Mamie Eisenhower sex appeal.”

    I miss my old hangar. But we’re building new ones.

  3. Perfect timing Paul, not to mention yet another delightful play on words by aviation’s best wordsmith. Perfect timing because on Friday our airport manager told me they were going to be circulating through our hangars to lubricate our windlasses. (My door has two of those levers.) Well, he didn’t really use the word “windlasses”. Not sure he knows what one is but that’s what he meant.

    Speaking of visitors, yesterday I was honored by the visit of a retired lineman and his son who incidentally even brought their own beer. And wouldn’t you know it, they immediately rolled their chairs, you said it Paul, to precisely beneath the guillotine which serves as a hangar door. That’s the spot where you can catch a breeze and still officially be in the hangar so to speak.

  4. Hangar doors; I’ve known quite a few in my lifetime. Some I’ve like but most I don’t. This time around I thought I’d found the perfect hangar: solid concrete floors, tight walls to keep out the vermin, and a roof guaranteed to spare my airplane from the dangers of excessive sunlight, rain, or hail. The only problem is the snow and freezing rain that cements the doors shut after a winter’s storm.
    There are no hydraulics connected with my door; it’s just brute manpower against mother nature, and at my age, such physical determination might be difficult to measure on any scale, so thank GOD for sledgehammers because this winter during the area’s many freezes, the floor lifted and locked the door shut, totally, frozen stiff, my airplane entombed.
    I love my airplane and have bonded totally with it, so sensing the desperation my airplane felt being trapped in the hangar, I raced home and returned with a sledgehammer and beat the offending concrete into submission. I’ve since learned that while it might only take a few minutes to beat the hangar floor loose from its death grip on the door, it can take up to two days to repair the damage under the watchful eyes of understanding management. And it’s never just the door! It’s the floor lifting, the moisture underneath the floor that lifted and blocked the door and the poor drainage that funneled the moisture under the floor in the first place and the rain, the snow, and many other things.

    Thanks Paul for discussing one of the most important yet least discussed aspects of aviation and airplane ownership: the hangar door!

  5. I’m not sure about your comment about the worst marketing name. I’m old enough to remember when Chevrolet tried to sell the Nova in Mexico, not realizing that No Va in Spanish means doesn’t go.

    • It’s a funny story, and I remember it from the 1980s. It usually comes up about the time kids start taking basic Spanish in junior high and notice the similarity.

      But it’s just an urban legend. “Nova” in Spanish is just as different from “no va” as “carpet” is from “car pet” in English. There is (or was) even a “Nova Gasolina” in Mexico.

  6. As a happy owner of a ‘73 Cherokee Challenger, what I learned early on is not to use the name with ATC, or they might ask you to up your approach speed to something like 150 knots. Now, for all the Greek references, Paul, seems like you might have just finished Stephen Fry’s trilogy.
    My hangar is sliding door. My daily fitness to fly test is getting the doors open and hauling the plane out and back in again using the puny little Piper towbar. I suppose that someday my fitness test will be starting the tow tractor.