Friday, July 12, 2013

Airport hangars fading as pilots’ fun hangouts: Federal Aviation Administration rules lead to city crackdown on ‘man caves’ long used to store boats, cars, soda machines — and build camaraderie -- Glendale Municipal (KGEU), Arizona (With Video)

A lull hangs over the Glendale Municipal Airport, one in which white-haired men huddle in lawn chairs, glare out at the desert and shake their heads. The kind in which “the way things used to be” is uttered with such reverence that it takes on its own holiness.

The somber mood reflects a bitter standoff between pilots who cling to the community spirit that once bonded them from hangar to hangar and officials who are cracking down on aspects of that culture as Glendale seeks millions of dollars to expand and appeal to corporate jets.

Many hangar owners say the malaise has pushed pilots away and has contributed to the overall decline in airport activity, while the airport administrator attributes the slower business to the recession, losing flight schools and the rising cost of fuel.

On the northern end of the airport, which lies just west of Glendale’s sports and entertainment district, 16 of 156 hangars lie vacant. On the southern side, 192 of 215 hangars and shades are empty.

Valley airports such as Chandler, Deer Valley and Phoenix Goodyear have waiting lists to rent hangars that span from one to more than 10 years.

“Glendale is the only airport that has a waiting list to leave,” said pilot Fred Coury, who recently gave up trying to sell his hangar.

For years, city officials overlooked that many pilots had used their hangars as storage for items such as mopeds, boats and old cars.

Other pilots, including Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers, had stocked their hangars with amenities from antique decor to bars with comfortable seating.

The hangars, with “man cave” ambience, were places to while away an afternoon with fellow flight enthusiasts.

“We’d all sit out there, and people would drive by and stop and talk and compare war stories and talk about cars and women and grandkids,” Weiers said.

The pilots mingled, threw community barbecues and worked on their boats, cars and airplanes with their hangar doors wide open.

“The camaraderie was bar-none,” pilot Bob Stratton said.

That began to change two years ago when the Federal Aviation Administration threatened to pull funding to the airport if pilots continued to store non-aviation items in their hangars.

The strict rules were to some extent about safety, but primarily to ensure that FAA funding supported only aviation activity.

Despite efforts by the city, many of the pilots haven’t budged. Instead, they have been pooling money to sue the city if the airport administrator continues to enforce the new rules.

Airport Administrator Walter Fix calls it growing pains.

Fix said he saw a similar pushback years ago at Deer Valley when he led that airport’s transition to attract higher-end aviation activity.

“The guys come here on a daily basis and work on the planes and socialize, and it is part of their lives, and it has been for years,” he said.

The problem is that the culture bumped squarely against the rules of the FAA, which the city must appease to keep money flowing. The city expects to receive $20 million over the next five years from the federal agency for airport upgrades.

Growing pains

Glendale had high hopes for its airport before the recession as the city had just opened its nearby professional sports stadiums and envisioned it becoming the next Scottsdale Airport, a major economic engine.

The city extended the runway and brought in a new service center for pilots with a far fancier setting, a move at which longtime hangar owner and pilot Richard Goldman still scoffs.

Those aspirations stalled under the weight of the sagging economy, the bankruptcy of the airport service provider and a lawsuit.

May 24, 2011, was a turning point.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that Glendale had discriminated against George Van Houten, who owns and leases multiple hangars at the airport.

The city was ordered to pay Van Houten $2.3 million as the court found that airport administrators had forced him to adhere to strict policies forbidding non-aviation tenants, all the while allowing other hangar owners to create their man caves.

On the same day, the FAA issued its ruling that Glendale had to bring all hangar owners into compliance or risk losing the federal agency’s funding.

Glendale promptly hired Fix, who began inspecting hangars in 2011. The initial inspection turned up 117 hangars in violation of federal rules, including Weiers’.

Weiers, who was elected mayor a year later, had to clear out a gamut of belongings, including stacks of antique Coca-Cola coolers, an antique car, vintage soda machines and a retro washing machine.

Photos taken by Van Houten’s attorney and verified by Weiers document a pile of rifles resting on a bench. Weiers declined to allow The Arizona Republic to photograph his hangar now, although he has not had another violation.

Weiers said he sold the old car because he had nowhere to stash it. His antiques are deteriorating in his backyard, he said.

Weiers called the sudden shift in policy inconvenient and unfair.

Fix’s inspections found 27 violations in 2012 and fewer than 10 this year.

Among them is Steve Beatty, who continues to store eight cars in his hangar, according to a late 2012 warning.

Roy Goss, as of this spring, continues to keep a jukebox, a bar and a bed in his hangar.

He said he has scaled back on the parties he once threw with his hangar buddies, but he crashes in the bed if he has had a late night or a drink.

Fix takes a case-by-case approach to regulating hangar usage. For example, he’ll allow a treadmill if the hangar owner says he needs it to stay fit. Or he’ll allow reasonable amounts of furniture. Even Goss’ jukebox is OK as long as he’s using it, but the bed isn’t.

Kirby Yowell decorates the office inside his hangar with a grass roof and stores his camper, Jeep, Mustang and camping gear. The tiki-hut roof gets past inspectors because of a fire-retardant material protecting the grass, but Yowell was cited this year for his other belongings.

Roy Bryan’s hangar is just as much a place for memories as a place for his airplanes.

His grandmother’s table that he stored in his hangar loft was stamped as a violation, so he took it down, set it up next to his Cessna, stuck a flight chart on it and called it his “flight planning table.”

“Lo and behold, it was approved,” he said.

Goldman still invites passers-by to keep him company over the constant hum of Spanish music through the stereo in his hangar. He has received multiple violation warnings for keeping his boat and trailer on site.

“I’d tell the city to give it your best punch,” he said. “They don’t do anything.” That was before he wound up with a citation on his door in March.

He and a couple of other hangar owners have since hired lawyers and are fighting the citations.

The citations were the first punitive step the city had taken to enforce the rules. Fix said a municipal judge would determine the penalty. Civil-code violations can carry a $20 to $300 fine and an order for the violator to comply.

At least 70 pilots have signed a petition that says the city violated its hangar agreements when it began forcing owners to clear out their non-flight-related items. They own their hangars but lease the airport space from the city. The ground leases do not explicitly forbid non-flight belongings.

However, leases state that the hangars can be used for “the storage and parking of a base aircraft and associated aircraft equipment and supplies.”

And it adds that the “lessee shall not use the Property for any purposes other than those specified above.”

Glendale inserted a rule in the books shortly after the FAA ruling that said no one using airport property could do anything that hindered the city’s ability to receive grant money.

The hangar owners and their attorneys say airport officials led them to believe when they bought their property that they could use the space for more than just flight-related activity.

Nearly 10 years ago, a former city attorney had written to a former hangar owner that as long as hangar tenants are storing an airplane, “ancillary non-aeronautical items” were not in violation.

Even a former airport administrator, in a 2009 court deposition, said the practice was to allow these hangar owners to store non-aviation items as long as an aircraft was in the hangar.

The FAA ruling made it clear that couldn’t continue. And Van Houten’s attorney, Daryl Williams, is watching.

Earlier this year, he drove around the hangar lots and snapped photos of a slew of hangars storing non-aviation items. Williams said the hangar owners simply moved their stuff out prior to inspections and then moved everything back in.

In a January letter to the city, Williams compared airport officials to the three monkeys who see, hear and say nothing. He threatened to file another complaint with the FAA.

Because the city does not own the hangars, Fix said, he can’t simply enter them. Instead, he typically notifies hangar owners at least three days in advance of inspections.

“We have no idea what is in the hangar and what isn’t until the inspection period,” Fix said.

As hangar renter David Barron told The Republic while quickly replacing a car engine in his hangar on a Saturday morning: “A lot of people come in real quick and fix things. ... They sort of come through a back door.”

Fix has yet to apply to the FAA for a close-out letter deeming the city in compliance with the rules. He said he needs to iron out the hangar disputes as well as a couple of other issues first.

The FAA’s 2011 missive to Glendale raised flags across the country, as small airports from the Phoenix area to Georgia took note that the FAA was serious about its rules on hangar activity.

Chandler’s airport recently tightened leases for the hangars that it owned and encouraged private hangars with ground leases to remove their non-aviation belongings. Meanwhile, they’re looking to see what happens in Glendale.

No longer ‘inviting’

Despite the problems, Glendale officials cling to their aspirations for the airport as a corporate hub. They plan to annex nearby land for development and to continue to improve the expanded runway over the next five years.

Airport activity was at its lowest in years in 2012, with roughly 76,130 takeoffs and landings, down from about 87,120 in 2011. The number had hovered well above 100,000 until 2010. Fix attributed the problem more to the recession and the loss of flight schools years ago.

He remains optimistic and recently drafted the airport’s business plan to attract major flight schools and more corporate hangar development.

The mayor is certain that the negative atmosphere at the airport has driven the losses.

“The friendliness and how people were treated, when people weren’t afraid to open up their hangar doors, it helped the airport grow,” Weiers said. “Now, people don’t want to go out there, and it’s not the inviting place it used to be.”


1986: Glendale Municipal Airport opens just off Glendale Avenue at 6801 N. Glen Harbor Blvd.

Late 1980s through the 1990s: Private investors build and sell hangars on the airport’s north side to private pilots, while Richard Smith owns and leases hangars on the south end.

1995: Airport officials force Smith to evict hangar tenants with no clear aviation purpose, including the Glendale Police Department, which stores equipment there.

1999: Smith raises that complaint and others to the Federal Aviation Administration to no avail.

2003: George Van Houten takes control of Smith’s hangars.

2003: The airport extends the runway from 5,350 feet to 7,150 feet to accommodate corporate jets.

2007: The city’s longtime fixed-base operator, Glendale Aviation, which fuels and services aircraft, is replaced by the Rightpath Limited Development Group that worked with Glendale on other development deals.

2008: Rightpath opens an upgraded service center named Lux Air, which aims to impress corporate executives, celebrities and sports stars flying in for the Super Bowl.

2009: Rightpath falls behind on payments and boards up. (The airport signs with current FBO Glendale Aero Services a couple years later.)

2009: Van Houten files a lawsuit against the city and lodges a complaint with the FAA, arguing the city discriminated against him by strictly prohibiting non-aviation items in his hangars while allowing other hangar owners to keep man caves with RVs, classic cars, rolls of carpet, motorcycles and a myriad of other belongings.

2011: The court and the FAA both rule in Van Houten’s favor. Glendale must pay $2.3 million and craft a plan to avoid losing millions from the FAA.

2011: The city appoints Walter Fix as airport manager. He inspects hangars and finds 117 owners in violation for storing non-flight-related items.

2012: Fix conducts another round of inspections. This time, he finds just 27 hangars with non-flight-related items.

2013: Fix inspects hangars and finds fewer than 10 out of compliance. For the first time, the city issues citations. The hangar owners hire lawyers to fight the citations.

2013: Fix plans to complete about $20 million in airport projects over the next five years with FAA funding. Ensuring the city is in compliance with the FAA will be critical as federal aviation is expected to cover a large portion of the improvements.

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