HANGAR HOME HAPPINESS

HANGAR HOME HAPPINESS

After my engagement dissolved, and she and I sold our house near Dallas where we’d lived several years together (cue the music: All of My Exes Live in Texas), I rented an apartment while I dreamed of what my next significant place should look like—and as a pilot, those dreams had an aerial view. A man needs his space, and this guy (thumbs pointing to chest) is no exception. The man-cave I envisioned didn’t just have a four-car garage and a heavy workbench, it needed to include a wide hangar door that led to a long stretch of painted pavement that in turn led anywhere a tank of aviation gasoline would carry me.

In a Southwest Florida Airpark, I found 3,000 square feet of hangar with an equal size house attached, side-by-side. This is where I envision building an airplane with my 81-year-old dad, and still have room to store a trailer-able boat, my Jeep, my pickup truck, my motorcycle, and a not-yet-purchased golf cart (for community gatherings) with plenty of room left over.

Plus, this space isn’t just about storage and building things: it’s located beside a runway, and that’s the feature worth moving to The Sunshine State (from The Lone Star State) for. My dream hangar needs to be the showpiece of my home, the place my friends can gather for my annual celebration-of-life party and the place I can show off thirty years of aviation collectables and art (featuring the original trainer boards that TWA used to teach its pilots, including me, how the long-retired Boeing 727’s various systems functioned). Like all fresh starts, creating the ultimate aviation hangar home began from the floor up.

When I moved in, the structure of the hangar already existed, but it had primarily been used as storage for the previous owner’s construction equipment. The cement floor was dirty, with stains marking the location where various trucks and trailers were usually parked. The loft over the garage portion could only be reached by climbing a 16-foot ladder. The hangar’s size was impressive, but it didn’t have the inviting appeal that I wanted as I stepped from the house into where I was planning to spend a great deal of time. I knew this when I’d made the original offer on the house and hangar, and so I’d prepared for it.

Prior to leaving Texas, I apprenticed with Distinctive Concrete Concepts and learned hands-on with Tim McGill (and his family crew) the best techniques to epoxy coat a floor in order to give it a significant wow-factor. I wanted to be able to step from my house into my hangar without feeling like I’d left my cozy home and entered a stark garage. An epoxy floor coating would add both the initial visual and tactile improvement that I was looking for. So, prior to my move, off I went (on my days off from flying) to Darrell’s Custom Cycles where Tim and his crew were creating an epoxy-floor showroom for the owner.

The first lesson I learned was that prep work is the critical construction step. I watched Tim’s crew grind off the top layer off the motorcycle shop’s concrete floor—an incredibly dusty but necessary experience. When Dad and I eventually began this process on my hangar floor, we rented a grinder with diamond-tipped blades for $168 from Home Depot’s tool shed and ran it continuously for 10 straight hours—taking turns at the machine’s helm. He may be an octogenarian, but he’s as tough as titanium (maybe even three times tougher). I also used a wire wheel mounted on a power drill to scrape the first row of cinder blocks (above the floor) where I planned to extend the epoxy in what’s called a stem-wall. This seals the hangar’s perimeter edge so I can hose off a car or a boat without worrying that water will seep into the walls. That tip alone made me glad I’d decided to apprentice with the floor-coating pros prior to attempting my project. I wouldn’t have thought to go vertical with the epoxy.

Next, Tim taught me the importance of properly mixing Part A and Part B of the epoxy: two-to-one exactly of the color and the hardener. This didn’t sound like critical information, but when Dad and I started mixing in my open hangar in Florida, the summer heat caused the epoxy to start hardening faster than it did in the air-conditioned motorcycle shop back in Texas. We began at 5 a.m., and still had to make smaller and smaller batches with each notch of sunrise in order to use up what we’d mixed in the bucket before it became too tacky to spread. Here’s the rub: the smaller the batch, the easier it is to get the precise two-to-one ratio a little off, and then the chemical reaction doesn’t work. One section of my floor didn’t harden for days, and we had to call Tim for ideas on how to rectify that. First, we rolled the perpetually wet floor segment as thin as possible. Then we rolled a thicker coat of properly mixed epoxy over it, hoping the new blend would combine within the proper hardening parameters. For the most part, that solved the problem, but eventually we had to scrape up a couple minor patches back down to bare concrete and re-apply.

Berry apprenticed with with Tim McGill (and his family crew) at Distinctive Concrete Concepts and learned best practices for epoxy coating a floor for a huge wow-factor.Shown here are Berry, right and his father, Len, left, during the process.
Berry apprenticed with with Tim McGill (and his family crew) at Distinctive Concrete Concepts and learned best practices for epoxy coating a floor for a huge wow-factor.Shown here are Berry, right and his father, Len, left, during the process.
Berry opted to beef up the attic joists so the ceiling structure could handle the tremendous torque that the six enormous fan blades of the Big Ass Fan produce.
Berry opted to beef up the attic joists so the ceiling structure could handle the tremendous torque that the six enormous fan blades of the Big Ass Fan produce.

During the motorcycle showroom experience, Tim also taught me the advantages of saturation coating the first tinted layer of epoxy with multi-colored flakes. Both the original tinted epoxy layer and the subsequent clear epoxy top coatings cure to three-times harder than concrete (9100 PSI) and are difficult to damage, but if someone drops a heavy tool and somehow the floor’s finish does eventually get a blemish, the flakes are the key to making the epoxy coating look new again. When I had to scrape and patch those two small sections in my hangar, the random flake pattern made blending in repairs look seamless because I didn’t have to recreate a pattern or exactly match a solid color. Dad and I spread 10 fifty-pound boxes full of flakes onto 3,000 square feet of wet floor. After it dried, we scraped up and saved the excess (the step prior to applying the clear coats) and we ended up recovering about six boxes of used flakes that we can re-use on a smaller project if we choose to. Even though it seems excessive, the initial large quantity of flakes is necessary to assure full saturation during that step of the process.

Berry opted to beef up the attic joists so the ceiling structure could handle the tremendous torque that the six enormous fan blades of the Big Ass Fan produce.
Berry opted to beef up the attic joists so the ceiling structure could handle the tremendous torque that the six enormous fan blades of the Big Ass Fan produce.

Tim’s company sells a pro-tools application kit (shoe spikes that allow walking on wet epoxy, rollers with the ideal mat thickness, etc.) and listed where I could obtain the remaining components (like the industrial scrapers that made smoothing such a large surface area a breeze). We went through a lot of gloves—bought in bulk at Home Depot. After one use they harden to three-times the stiffness of cement just like the floor. Mineral spirits became our best friend as we struggled to remove any epoxy that had settled on our skin after each day of spreading it. Tip: a painter’s hat, long sleeves, and long pants are a must. Dad and I mostly completed the floor work ourselves, although we did borrow a neighbor to sprinkle the flakes while Dad mixed the epoxy and I spread and rolled it. The quick curing time, especially in hot climates, made extra helpers a valuable commodity.

It took Dad two separate Florida visits from his home in Massachusetts to help me finally finish the floor—then we finally moved on to installing a spiral staircase, installing a 14-foot Big Ass ceiling fan, and putting the aviation artwork up on the walls as we built a hangar paradise from the ground up. The spiral staircase involved hoisting a 19-foot center pole exactly vertical (three feet taller than the hangar-floor-to-loft-floor height), and then driving heavy retention bolts through the epoxy-covered floor to anchor it. Yes, I felt the need to apologize profusely to the now-showroom-beautiful flooring while I power-drilled the bolt holes.

Next, each massive metal stair tread, plus the middle and top landings (required by code), had to be slid down from the top of the 19-foot pole into place—one on top of the next. Because of the vertical logistics, my retired pilot buddy Greg assisted Dad and me with this challenge. We started at the second-story loft’s edge and used a heavy rope to lower each tread—careful not to let its weight pull us off the high perch. Once the stair pieces were in place, we had to shape the curved aluminum hand railing (making a thousand minuscule bends so the aluminum wouldn’t kink), and then cut a myriad of vertical balusters to proper size and bolt them into place. I would have thought the best location to start was from the stair’s base, but the instructions were very clear to begin fastening from the top landing since its position needed to be exact, and the bottom stair just needed to end up facing in the general desired direction. A combination of ladders was necessary in lieu of actual scaffolding (that we didn’t have readily available for this project).

Once the new spiral stairs were completed, I could walk up into the loft and then climb an additional ladder on up into the attic that stretched out some 30 feet above the hangar floor to ready the ceiling for the Big Ass Fan. Greg has structural design expertise, and he advised me to beef up and tie the joists together with 2x6s so the combined ceiling structure could handle the tremendous torque that the six thundering fan blades can produce, especially at start-up. Additionally, I paid a local metal shop to manufacture a custom-mounting bracket to support the fan’s center pole that we bolted between the now-reinforced center joists.

A Big Ass Fan with a 14-foot fan-blade diameter was chosen to fit between four giant pendant lights that produce unnatural daylight for the hangar’s huge open space. The fan motor’s heavy weight required us to hoist it into position with a Skyjack from below (once the epoxy coating fully cured—a minimum of 72 hours after the final coat), and then carabiner it to the looped end of a safety cable that began in the attic (bolted to the joists) and was fed through the ceiling via the center fan pole. Once secure, we began bolting the motor directly to the lower pole mount using a torque wrench set to the specific pounds of pressure listed in the instructions.

Each seven-foot individual fan blade and its linking bracket needed to be bolted separately into position. Finishing touches like high-visibility yellow winglets really brought this project to life, even before we ran a dedicated electrical cable from the first-floor circuit breaker box to the new fan controller and all the way up into the attic for power. When we were finally ready to turn this Big Ass project on for the first time, we recorded the moment for posterity (and social media bragging rights). We can be heard cheering in the video as the revolutions built up rapidly like an aircraft propeller. Ultimately, with the fan in place, looking up at the ceiling is now as impressive as looking down at the showroom floor, or over at the spiral staircase, all of which Dad and I (with some additional help) created with persistence and perspiration.

I booked the band, sent out the Evites, ordered the food and drinks, and finally had the opportunity to share my new space with lifelong friends, as well as many new neighbors. My favorite new phrase kicked off the house-warming party: Open the hangar door! Around a hundred pair of dancing feet shuffled across my newly epoxy-coated floor, including a Mark-asaurus (me in an inflatable eight-foot T-Rex costume). Filling the space with celebration made all of the hard work worth it. I’m the guy (thumbs pointing to chest) who likes big projects with big rewards, worthy of dedicating a great deal of my time to all-the-way until completion. A week after the party, the crate full of pieces for assembling the empennage of the plane that Dad and I plan to build as our next father-and-son project finally arrived, and the next evolution of the ultimate man-cave hangar home is about to begin. After all, what’s a hangar without an airplane?