Alone Again (Unnaturally)

Posted August, 1999

It's funny how things turn full circle.

I was first introduced to the Fly Baby back in the mid '80s. Our EAA chapter was going to operate Pete Bowers' original prototype as a club airplane, and called a meeting on a Saturday for people who were interested.

At that time, the plane was being kept in a corner of the Ellison (Throttle Body) company's hangar at Renton Airport. We rolled it out of the hangar, unfolded the wings, and everybody got a chance to sit in it. We couldn't operate from Renton, though... it's a controlled field, and N500F didn't have an electrical system or a radio.

I volunteered to check on hangar availability at uncontrolled fields South of Seattle. I ended up getting on the waiting list at Auburn airport. The Fly Baby itself went North to Arlington, languishing outside in the rain. It rarely flew.

Then, a year later, I got a call. My name had come to the top of the waiting list. I called Ross, the boss of the club, and suggested he bring the plane south to Auburn. He was a bit reluctant...there hadn't been much interest in the club, and he was worried about making the hangar payments.

I went to the airport to sign the lease, and made one *very* good move: I got the hangar in *my* name, not the club's.

Finally, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I saw a small red and yellow biplane enter the pattern at Auburn. Ross landed the bipe, and I waved him over to the 'Baby's new hangar. Our first job was the conversion back to monoplane; 500F flew tail-heavy with the biplane wings.

We had only found one other person willing to join the Fly Baby club. While the club had four members, only two of us were of the dues-paying variety...the other two didn't intend to fly the plane, but had to be on the Club corporate roster.

We had to find some way to kill the bite of the $115/month hangar rent. Thus began the hangar-sharing tradition. Switching the wings was the last operation performed in an unshared hangar. From that point on, N500F always had a shedfellow.

First was a T-18. It took a bit to figure out how to store the two planes, working among the pillars and stub walls of the open-bay hangar. We eventually overlapped the wings, which required us to lift the Fly Baby's tail to bring it across the T-18's wing. This arrangement didn't last very long; the owner's name came up on another hangar waiting list. He took the good pair of chocks with him when he left.

Then came Terry and his award-winning Long-EZ. Terry was (and is!) dead-set against letting anyone else handle his airplane, so we spent a couple of hours figuring out how to put the two airplanes together so that the Fly Baby could be removed without needing to move the 'glass speedster. Terry ended up painting a curving line on the concrete floor, showing him exactly how to move the nose of his airplane to get it snugly into its spot. He put in a couple of extra anchors to tie down his airplane, and we were in business.

Long EZ N86TD's wings tied down on either side of the Fly Baby. It looked like a wooden chick dozing under a composite hen. We had to unhook the tiedown rope to one of the EZ's wingtips, then slide N500F's tail sideways to slip it under the EZ's wing. The tailwheel was non-swiveling, so I built a triangular "cart" with castors. All we had to do was pick up the 'Baby's tailwheel, drop it on the cart, and we could move the plane around willy-nilly.

Sharing with Terry went smoothly. It was an "Odd Couple" sort of relationship. Terry would leap out of his airplane with a squirt bottle as soon as the prop quit turning. The only water the 'Baby saw was an occasional "anointing" of the tailwheel. But we went along happily for a number of years. In the interim, Terry's name came up for his OWN hangar. He just sublet it, preferring to pay for a half-hangar for his airplane rather than a whole one and preferring to trust someone used to working around his plane.

Then the airport cracked down on subleases. Terry switched to his own hangar, picking up a T-18 to share with. His sub-lessor, Bob, brought his Veri-Eze in with me. The "Veri" is smaller and shorter than the Long, and we found that the locating of Bob's airplane wasn't as critical. Bob painted a set of guide lines on the floor for steering one of his main tires, and we were good to go. We even got rid of the tail trolley...N500F's tailwheel turned well enough to steer the tail into place. The Veri's wing didn't ride over the Fly Baby's turtledeck like the Long-EZ's had, but we still had to undo the tiedown to let the Baby's horizontal tail by.

Bob was a different kind of hangar partner. His was one of the earliest Rutan designs to fly in the Northwest, but lately he'd been having cooling problems. Bob was always fiddling with the airplane...I doubt he flew more than ten hours in the years we shared hangars. But like when Terry shared the hangar, the check for his part of the hangar rent appeared on the Fly Baby's seat like clockwork.

Then came the horrid, horrid, day when N500F was sold. I duck-walked under the wing of Bob's Veri-Eze to chalk the outline of the Fly Baby on the smooth concrete.

And now, I was stuck with a hangar I no longer needed. Get rid of it? Geeze, the waiting list was now up to three years. As it turned out, one of the members of the Fly Baby club bought his own T-18. Bob's Eze shared the hangar with the T-18 for the nearly two years that I owned half-interest in a Stinson....itself, just three hangar rows away.

Then came the glorious day that found me landing my own Fly Baby at Auburn. The T-18 was for sale and sitting in a broker's lot, so the as-yet-unnamed Fly Baby tucked itself beside the Vari-Eze. Moonraker has a full-swivel tailwheel, which made moving it in and out of the hangar even easier.

About a year after I moved in, Bob decided he needed more room for working on his own airplane. He'd had his OWN name come up to the top of the hangar list. He moved out...but the T-18 owner needed hangar space again. His plane had sat in the rain while waiting in vain to sell; it was badly suffering from water damage.

In all the year since the dawning of the Fly Baby club, my financial situation had improved quite a bit. I didn't really need someone to kick in $60 or so a month for half the hangar rate. But Steve was in a bind; he needed somewhere dry where the plane could sit while he disassembled components and put them to rights.

So in moved the T-18 with Moonraker. The guy in the next slot in the T-hangar had a taildragger 172. He invited us to slide the T-18 over a bit under his wing. After all those year, we finally had a situation where the Fly Baby would roll straight in and out.

Like with the Rutan designs, though, things weren't perfect. The planes sat closely together. One had to put all the covers and everything on before moving the plane into the hangar, as the other aircraft restricted access to the other side. Routine maintenance was a hassle, requiring either squirming between the planes or running them outside. And the positioning had to be done carefully. Moonraker's right wingtip would sit just inches below the T-18's spinner, and to get there the left one had to come within six inches of the opposite wall.

But heck...after fourteen or so year, I was used to it.

Then I got a call from the airport. A Comanche owner now rented the adjoining T-hangar, and he couldn't get his plane in the hangar.

We rearranged the airplanes, tucking them closely again to move the T-18 out of the other guy's space. Now I had to pick up the tail of Moonraker to bring it back...and I'm not as young as I have been.

In any case, it was to no avail. The Comanche's wing were just too long and too low. The T-18 had to move out, and for the first time in a decade and a half, I've got a hangar to myself.

Quite a shock. I could now preflight in the hangar; after the flight, I didn't have to fight the wind to put on the cockpit cover outside. My old pickup-truck seat no longer had a wingtip overhanging it...I could sit in comfort after flying and watch oil drip out the breather tube.

The advantage really hit home this weekend. There was an antique and classic aircraft Fly-In at Auburn, and we had a Young Eagles rally as part of it. I'd taxied Moonraker over to the showplane area in the morning (hey, it took a "People's Choice" plaque last year!) and spent the rest of the day working the ground for the Eagles. We flew 52 kids, even with rain showers ducking across the field every hour.

We finally closed down operation when a rain cloud came and stayed. I threw my laptop and printer into the trunk of my car and helped dismantle the booth. By then, the rain was pretty steady.

Moonraker sat damp on the ramp. I rolled it as close as I could to my car, took off the cockpit cover, threw it over the car's hood, then hopped into the cockpit and hit the starter. I tugged my YE baseball cap on as tight as it would go and zipped up my jacket all the way. We splashed back to the hangar, the propeller throwing hatfuls of Seattle sunshine past the Lexan windshield.

Spin the tail around, kill the mags, hop out (as far as this creaky old body CAN hop out of a Fly Baby), then push the plane straight back into the gaping, unobstructed hangar.

I marveled. No lifting, no stopping to check clearances (a tough job to do by eye, when you only have one of them). Just a steady shove backwards until the tires snub into the chocks. I didn't have to crawl under another airplane for the tiedown ropes. Just click, click, click, and it was tied down.

Then I had to walk all the way back across the field to get my car and the soaking-wet cockpit cover.....

I have no regrets about sharing a hangar over all those years. It was definitely a godsend in the early days, and a thrifty convenience even when it wasn't a necessity. It had its fun aspects as well.

But all in all...I guess I'm pretty happy to have a hangar all to myself again. Call me selfish, but it DOES make life a bit easier.

Ron Wanttaja

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