Which Came First, The Hangar Or The Airplane?


The informal definition of “genius” is the ability to maintain two irrational thoughts without getting caught compromising sanity. Most pilots qualify at the Mensa level. Example: Many of us can barely afford owning an aircraft, let alone a building in which to house it, but the enterprising pilot can rationalize either, often both. This realization hit me when I banged my head into my airplane’s lift strut for the 10,000th time. The actual number is between 9500 and 11,000, and I apologize for being imprecise, but I only started tabulating 38 years ago when I suspected such encounters were unavoidable.

But are they? According to nonexistent NTSB analysis, wearing a ballcap while pre-flighting a high-wing airplane increases the odds of “klunking your noodle by 37 percent, as the brim inhibits upwardly forward visibility.” Wearing a ball cap backward, though, just makes you look stupid.

Cessna 172 owners are easily identified by the little diamond imprints on their foreheads from walking into the trailing edges of flaps or ailerons. This mostly applies to earlier 172 models before Cessna filled the cookie-cutter diamond holes with extruded aluminum bumpers. While this did not prevent pilots like me head-butting wings or struts, plus antennas, doorframes and pitot tubes, it mitigated the stigma of wearing the Cessna Diamonds on one’s forehead.

In the high-wing vs. low controversy, low-wing pilots might feel smug about avoiding the Mark of Cessna on their faces, but other threats abound. I have permanent butt damage from slipping off Bonanza wing-walks and once encountered an unexpected Cherokee hazard that scarred both flesh and soul.

It was a damp Tuesday morning, and while preflighting a Cherokee 180, I ran my hand along the wing’s leading edge, tactilely inspecting for dents and calcified bugs, when something hidden snagged. Got my attention, especially given the Tarantino flow of blood from two fingers sliced open as though I’d caressed a dull razor blade. I’d forgotten that the Cherokee’s stall warning actuator tab, about the size of a dull razor blade, protrudes from beneath the leading edge. Handle it gently, as you would a sleeping rattlesnake, and it’s harmless. Get careless, and it bites.

Which brings up how casual low-winger pilots might be when inspecting the airplane’s nether regions, especially when the ground is wet. Truthin’ time: Do low-wing Piper fliers always crawl beneath the wings to sample fuel or simply accept the blue stains on wheel pants as proof that a calibrated drip of 100LL is continually flushing away any impurities? A rhetorical question that requires no answer, but you know who you are, and what you do under the wing is your own business.

To you Mensa pilots who aced your own SATs, compare and contrast the habits of high-wing pilots vs. low. How many Cessna 172 pilots remove both caps to visually check fuel levels or to see if there are, indeed, any gas caps atop the wings? Without a stepladder, compliance might be shy of 100 percent. Even with airframe steps, or a willingness to scuff up struts and fuselage while scaling the heights, high-wing fuel caps are easily overlooked. Low-wing pilots, by contrast, simply pop their caps to stare into filler necks with the pride of a college freshman studying a beer bottle collection on what his parents naively envisioned would be a bookshelf. But what is the unknowable ratio of low-wingers sampling fuel tanks to high-wingers tasked with doing the same? I don’t know.

Initial flight training taught us to drain fuel from however many leaky ports the aircraft offers and to inspect the samples for contamination before tossing them on the weeds (yes, you recycle, and proud we are). I read somewhere that we could power the entire GA fleet for a month with the fuel samples discarded in a single day. I may have dreamt that, but the point is, we sample a lot of fuel and mostly deem it acceptable. While that result is desirable, there’s perverse satisfaction when spotting a tiny water bubble at the bottom of the collection jar. Or would it be floating on top? You may think you know the answer, but for scientific verification dribble some spit into your next sample and see where it goes. Likely down your chin, which makes your hangar neighbor wonder if you’ve been drinking avgas … again.

The pointless game of listing pros and cons of high-wing or low really comes down to whether you prefer shade or a place to spread out charts. In a future article I’ll explain what charts were. I’ve owned and instructed in both airframe types and have concluded that whatever gets me aloft and safely back, is fine. Wing configuration synergy results when the pilot who rationalized buying both an airplane and a hangar takes the inevitable leap of logic into securing yet another airplane, because we all need a second airplane while our first is down for maintenance. Of course, this could require a second hangar.

An alternate plan might be to embrace the Yin-Yang concept of complimentary dualism and purchase both high- and low-wing airplanes. Harmony triumphs as you retain the original hangar to save money and invoke your Tetris skills to fit the low wing of Yin beneath the high wing of Yang and thus maintain the rationalized balance of perceived logic that has long kept aviation from teetering into the pit of uncompromising reality.

There’s a fine safety wire between insanity and genius, so it might not be unreasonable for pilots to hesitate before inquiring on which side we’re expected to land. But whatever the choice, if history has taught us anything, it’s that I’ll still bump my head on that dang strut. Doesn’t take a genius to understand that some things can never change.

Editor’s note: Low wings are yang, high wings are yin. It’s reversed in the southern hemisphere.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. No Mensa or SAT acing pilot here. What is a low wing? What is a 172? Never heard of either one. But my forehead does bear more than one diamond and evidence of strut bumps. The tail sits kinda low on its own wheel. Nothing has changed since 1946. And by the way, hangar first.

  2. My ribs are aching from the laughter. He could hardly be more graphic!
    Greetings from Argentina.

  3. “listing pros and cons of high-wing or low really comes down to whether you prefer shade or a place to spread out charts. In a future article I’ll explain what charts were.”
    Best line ever. Even my wife enjoyed it.
    For what it’s worth, I always used the horizontal tail surface of my 172 to spread out a chart, or use as a standing breakfast table at Oshkosh.
    Also, part of my preflight inspection routine is to verify the fuel caps are aligned with the airflow while I’m walking around back inspecting the tail. It’s a visual double-check that I closed them already. No ladder required.

  4. Thanks Paul! I thought it was just me! I’m really happy to read that it isn’t just my forehead that suffers from an unexplainable desire to bump into things airplane related.
    When I decided to return to flying, I had to make the choice: hangar or airplane first. The hangar won. In fact, I paid hangar rent on a really fine hangar for eighteen months before finding the perfect airplane to park inside. And then, after moving my newly purchased airplane into the hangar, it didn’t take two days of entering a darkened hangar to discover that my airplane’s wooden propeller, properly put to rest in the horizontal position, was exactly level with my forehead.

  5. I started taking high wing head bumping more seriously after a friend of mine did it and it killed him. This was years ago and I was a controller at LGB. Friend was a supervisor there but also a very active GA pilot. He would occasionally go to Fla and pick up new Pipers for our LGB Piper dealer. He returned with one one day, stepped off the wing, without looking really, turned and slammed right into the trailing edge of a Cessna. He died about a week later from internal injuries to his head. I keep bright colored swim noodles on the trailing edge of even my Aeronca Chief while it’s in the hanger.

    • Might add, they don’t’ do a thing to stop me from slamming into the training edges still…but doesn’t hurt as much.

  6. Hilarious … I nominate you for the Gordon Baxter Aviation Humorist Award. Too bad your name is Paul … that other Paul is pretty funny also. Seriously good writing. I look forward to reading anything that has your name attached! How many years has it been? I agree with David B.: “listing pros and cons of high-wing or low really comes down to whether you prefer shade or a place to spread out charts. In a future article I’ll explain what charts were.” Great Line.

  7. There can be a third dimension regarding whether to acquire the airplane or the hangar first – the vacation home. I can recommend acquiring the airplane first. Then, it’s necessary to purchase a vacation home to justify the airplane. Finally, one builds a hangar near the vacation home to “protect the investment”.

  8. Your premise is a false dichotomy. What comes first is Spousal Buy-In, preferably as a pre-condition to matrimony. We envy you 1%-ers of such wealth that such expenses can be considered unilaterally.

  9. As the former curator at EAA I probably hold the record for the largest number of different aircraft that have caused bodily damage. Never quite succeeded in learning to remove that ball cap when entering a hangar. But as to the question of which came first, I think we all know the Wright’s had a building on the sands of North Carolina before that powered contraption they created officially became an airplane on Dec. 17th.

  10. “Most pilots qualify at the Mensa level. Example: Many of us can barely afford owning an aircraft, let alone a building in which to house it, but the enterprising pilot can rationalize either, often both.”

    As usual, I was smiling throughout your article. I was looking with great anticipation for your first “official” use of “certified learnerator”. Didn’t see it in this blog. However, looking forward to your next where I am sure, the global aviation community will get its first exposure to “certified learnerator”. I am convinced that just like the almost unknown, mostly unused word gravitas that suddenly was thrust onto us during Bush Jr’s reign via a speechwriter’s choice…therefore being immediately over-used by the mainstream media…”certified learnerator” will follow in similar footsteps. However, I will still will be smiling because I know when, where, and why this soon to be adopted replacement for CFI came from. In a small way, I will be a part of history watching these two words be universally adopted by all aviation academia.

    Having owned a very early 172 ( the 128th off the line), equipped with the much taller and narrower “Land-o-matic” main landing gear, the “Cessna stamp” could also apply to the horizontal stab/elevator, particularly when tying down the tail. As a former moto-crosser many years ago, I developed a habit that was very useful when racing but very dangerous to proper noggin support/protection after the racing ended.

    The goggles had multiple layers of plastic that when mudded up, you just tear that outer layer off
    ( called tear-offs). Hopefully, you had enough layers for that moto. Instead of turning your head, ducking, or doing the usual reflective flinch avoiding all the stuff being thrown at your face ( not good taking your eyes off the track), you simply put your head down slightly, letting the helmet and the helmet’s bill ward off the big chunks with the face protector taking the remaining debris hits instead of your nose , mouth, and chin. After doing this a few years, I have become accustom to not ducking, flinching, or turning my head whether I see the offending projectile, tree branch, lift strut, trailing edge aileron, flap, pitot tube, fuel vents, or elevator or not. I don’t even turn my head for wing tips. I just put my head own a a few degrees and whack, another head injury. My wife of almost 30 years now, is amazed that I have still retained that motocross habit, even after multiple head hits with objects, whole airplanes, and various normal household protuberances. As one who wears a ball cap often, at least I now know the 37% additional percentage of not seeing the offending object. However, I would have not ducked anyway. So, that stat is irrelevant to me and other ex motocross racers.

    Now, I have an old V-tail. I can tell you from experience, fuel tank vents can quickly lead to stitches. The V-tail does not lend themselves well to chart reading or breakfast platforms. I also know how quickly things can go south when avoiding stepping on the flap and missing the step with the foot but catching that step with another body part. Some of the price for speed I guess.

    For me the hangar always came last. My aircraft purchases were never extensively planned for. The airplane showed up first as a bargain. Purchase justified by aforementioned bargain, deal consummated, and then the search for appropriate cover began. Part of that decision-making process ( or lack of it) may be directly attributed to never-forgotten motocross habits. That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

    Finally, I had never heard the word Mensa. I am confessing, I read the blog three times before I googled the word Mensa. Obviously, I would not be included into that intellectual fraternity. But I justify that by not ducking when I should.

  11. Paul,
    My Stearman has all the visibility into turns inherent in a high wing, plus all of the ground visibility problems of a low wing, and adds the inability to see where you are going because of a big round engine on the front. Yet somehow, I have managed to keep it right side up and out of contact with the ground (except for the tires) for 10 years now! Must be luck, or guardian angels!

  12. Thanks for a great laugh when most of us are in dire need. Definitely up there with Paul Bertorelli’s best.

    I would only add that there is one more category of aviator peril – the “mid-wing” aircraft. Having experienced all the foibles of both high and low winged contraptions outlined in your blog, I “upgraded” to a Cessna 310R. During pre-flight the 310 gives me the worst of both worlds. I get to twist my ancient body into a pretzel to sump the fuel, and also risk permanent loss of an eye when rounding the sharpened tuna tanks. And the 310 sits impressively high off the ground on the ramp – about concussion high.

    But the 310 is a wonderful plane. Or so my mechanic tells me. I have noticed he’s traded in his old Chevy for a new luxury import.

  13. As a younger man, my answer to your question was airplane first. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that the south Texas climate can render an aluminum airplane into a pile of corrosion in short order. My low wing plane was literally brought low in but a few years by sun and salt air. As a more mature pilot (read older, not wiser), my answer now is hangar first. My current plane has managed 9 years with only minor climate effects.

    As to the preference between high versus low wing, my older self appreciates the relative ease of entry into a high wing aircraft. The aforementioned low wing Beechcraft showed its fangs one day when I hurriedly stepped off the wing to retrieve something left on the tarmac. My foot slipped off the step and my shin came down on it instead. A trip to the ER and seven stitches later, I learned that haste often makes for painful consequences. But, while I may revel in the east of sumping the fuel tank drains, I still have to crawl in the dirt to sump the two belly drains in my Cardinal. Good article, but my response is there is no perfect airplane.

  14. The Vision Jet’s air-stair door offers the best access/egress of any GA bird, without regard to wing placement. But its V-tail is a poor location for charts OR for lunch.

    Order the plane, first. Build the hangar while the bird is under construction. Timing is everything. 😉

  15. Acting as a broker for a high-end hangar I once had a guy tell me he was trying to decide if it was practical. I said, “Haha you just used ‘airplane’ and ‘practical’ in the same sentence!” He laughed and put down his deposit.

  16. If you are going to buy a hangar buy one big enough for your next airplane for 2 reasons. First there will be room for the inevitable junk err I mean important physical life milestones, and second you sure are going to feel dumb when you up grade and find the hangar is 2 feet too narrow for your new wings.

    • You will feel even dumber when the hangar is 2 inches too narrow. At my airport, there are 3 sizes of hangars, and the landlord decides which size you get by measuring your wingspan. I missed the smaller hangar – which would save me $100 a month – by 3/4 of an inch. That’s because they measured to the tip of my strobe lights, even though Cessna’s official wingspan is one inch below their cutoff point. Anyone want a good used set of strobes? 😉

  17. Fun read provoking “sh@t, I’ve done that” hangar tales. I still carry a diamond shape scar between my eyes. It happened during a night preflight, 50 years ago.