Northwest Arkansas is known for its backcountry flying experiences with 64 airstrips within an 80-mile ring.
Quick, what’s the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do as a pilot?
Master the NDB approach with a fixed card ADF during your instrument training? Survive your first type rating at FlightSafety? Flight plan a trip into the Northeast corridor without ForeFlight?
Here’s mine: Move to a new city and attempt to find suitable hangar space. Packing up my life and moving to a new state was difficult enough, and doing it in the era of COVID added another level of stress. Meanwhile, a top priority was figuring out where my aircraft would call home.
My husband and I relocated to Northwest Arkansas this past summer from Kansas City. We absolutely love it here by the way – it is one of the best-kept secrets in America. (So, keep this to yourself, okay?) The combined cities of Bentonville, Rogers and Fayetteville is one of the most livable areas in the country with a relatively low cost of living, lots of culture and entertainment, and beautiful surrounding terrain. Set in the Ozark Mountains, the area is known for world-class mountain biking, miles of hiking trails, and boating on nearby Beaver Lake – a dream come true for someone who loves being outdoors.
Northwest Arkansas also has a vibrant aviation community. Bentonville-Thaden Field (KVBT) is a growing and popular GA airport, thanks to significant investment in a world-class FBO, restaurant and infrastructure. Dozens of backcountry grass strips dot the Ozarks, making it a pilot’s playground for those looking for an adventure off the beaten path. Also nearby are several great airports: Rogers Executive, Springdale Municipal, Northwest Arkansas Regional and Drake Field in Fayetteville.
This leads me back to my original dilemma: finding hangar space at one of these airports. One of our aircraft is used weekly for business travel by my husband or me. The other aircraft – which I have written about on this page before – is a Cessna 172M that my mother bought new in 1975. With only 1,300 total time and in mint condition, it’s a special little bird that I have no intent of letting go but posed a challenge as it needed a roof over its head, too.
Very much like every airport in America, hangar space here is at a premium. I did what most aircraft owners do: got my name on every waiting list. I started with the airports in order of preference and then reluctantly worked my way in concentric circles to fields that were further away. Every airport manager I spoke with sheepishly told me the wait time is at least five years.
We all know that those waitlists often contain names of pilots who either already found a hangar or have moved away and didn’t take their name off the list. Also, at many airports, hangar lessors who no longer own an airplane often sublease their hangar to their friends, and lax airport officials look the other way. And then you have those who haven’t owned an airplane in years and use the space for storage of everything from RVs to lawn furniture. I’m NOT suggesting that is happening here, but I have certainly been the beneficiary of those “secret” sublease opportunities in the past at other airports.
In 2016, the FAA updated its hangar usage policy to clarify compliance requirements for airport sponsors, managers and tenants, as well as state aviation officials and FAA compliance staff. The policy updates are lengthy but essentially disallows any usage of an airport hangar that isn’t directly related to aviation. In short, if the airport accepted grant money from the Feds, they needed to ensure the hangars were being used for airplane storage.
At my former airport home in Olathe, KS (a suburb of Kansas City), a 2017 tornado wiped out numerous hangars. This event, along with the FAA policy change, prompted the local airport authority to clean up its lease act to make access to vacant hangars more equitable. Although not known for being particularly GA-friendly, the airport authority is keeping close tabs on who’s in what hangar.
So back to my hangar dilemma. What are the alternatives? Find a suitable plot of land to build a hangar and work through the bureaucracy with local airport and government officials to get the needed approvals for construction. We were willing to consider, but that option was not particularly appealing and looked to be a long-range project. We wanted our planes under roof before winter rolled in. A community hangar, while not ideal, would provide cover. Unfortunately, every FBO in the area had a considerable waitlist.
So, we did what any aircraft owner and aviation enthusiast would do: we injected ourselves into the local aviation community. We worked to get to know many of the interesting and fun people who love flying as much as we do. We were fortunate to meet some incredible people and accomplished pilots who welcomed us with open arms. And you know what’s really cool? Pilots love helping other pilots. We soon had a small contingent of aviators who began working the network on our behalf.
Fortunately, we were introduced to a delightful owner of a private executive box hangar who had room for two more aircraft at a reasonable rental rate. Our two birdies now have a warm, well-appointed nest only minutes from our home at the airport that was our first choice. A win-win for all, and we now can call some fantastic pilots our friends.
So, what’s still on my “wow, that’s hard” list? Shooting an NDB approach using a fixed card ADF is something I learned once and plan never to do again. Flight planning without Foreflight and Garmin Pilot can be done…but why would you? And as I learned, finding hangarage in a new town can be difficult, especially with the scarcity of hangar space. But I’m thankful for the good people who make up our collective aviation communities. They look out for each other, knowing that the freedoms that general aviation enjoy are special and not to be squandered. When I can, I’ll pay it forward, so it doesn’t have to be on someone’s “hard” list.