Moving to another part of the country is, in fact, considerably more complicated when there is an aircraft involved. Just as parents can prioritize school districts when evaluating where to live, an aircraft owner can purchase hangar options first and then center the Zillow search radius around the preferred airport. Or, if you’re anything like me, you’re stuck in limbo.
It all started last winter. Fed up with the endless frustrations inherent in my job in the public sector, I began to explore options in an entirely different career. In the spring of this year, I had accepted a new job that is 100% remote and allows me to live anywhere. By any measure, it was a huge improvement.
Initially, visions of unbridled freedom filled my head. Should I leave Wisconsin and move to the northern Michigan paradise I love so much? Or should I go back to live closer to my family and friends near Detroit? Then there’s always the option to branch out and try somewhere completely different, free of snow, humidity or mosquitoes. My mind sank at the possibilities, but I finally decided that I would like to return to the area where I grew up, near Ann Arbor, Michigan.
As I started scouring the various real estate websites, one thing became very clear: the right housing options were easy to find…but the right shed options, not so much. As a single person with no children and able to fit every last non-motorized personal good into the footprint of a small car, even the most modest studio apartment or tiny home would suffice. The aircraft, however, required some accommodations.
First of all, it would need a good T-hangar. As I would be staying in a northern climate, an outside tie-down would not suffice. I had no interest in clearing snow and ice from the plane before each flight, or exposing the airframe to UV rays and severe hail-filled thunderstorms.
An open hangar without an entrance door would not suffice either. For lack of a better option, I used one briefly when I first bought the plane. I wasn’t thrilled with the bird droppings that accumulated on top of the cell, and I certainly wasn’t thrilled with the idea of various other creatures settling there.
No, a decent, fully enclosed shed with a concrete floor would be needed. Electricity for my engine heater would be needed in the cold months, and it would have to be an individual T-hangar as opposed to a common hangar, where the plane is prone to rashes from others. I learned that this combination was an extremely rare commodity in the field I was considering.
To make matters worse, I would also need an option to land on grass. I installed a set of tundra tires this year, and running from hard surfaces chews up soft rubber quickly. Even ignoring this, however, I prefer to just take off and land on grass, as it’s more forgiving of tail drag and crosswinds.
Grass is fun too. When conditions are ideal, you can open the side window and use the sound of dandelion heads slamming against the left tire to precisely calibrate your flare and landing. I once took a flight instructor friend for a spin in a Cessna 152 and did it without revealing my secret. He was mystified by my ability to pull off one perfect landing after another. I finally got honest about 10 years later and we shared a good laugh.
The requirement for a grass option does not require an actual grass track. Through the efforts of the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF), the FAA recently recognized turf operations in runway safety areas. These operations most often consist of taking off and landing on the grass immediately adjacent to an existing hard-surfaced runway. Good airports that do not have a grass runway recognize the benefits and welcome such operations.
My first choice of airport was the airport where I did all my primary education: Ann Arbor Municipal Airport (KARB) about 30 miles west of Detroit, Michigan. It met almost all my requirements. The T-hangars were nice and well maintained, the airport was located exactly where I wanted to live, and it had a 2,750ft by 110ft grass runway that intersects with the paved main runway.
However, my excitement was tempered when I learned that there were 33 people on the hangar waiting list. Frustrated, I sent a non-refundable check for $100 to secure position #34. I reach the front of the line.
Still motivated to find a hangar, I opened up a VFR sectional map and began to work my way outward in an ever-increasing radius. My conclusions were grim. In every direction I looked, there were either no T-hangars available, the airports had fallen into disrepair, or my calls just never returned. Ann Arbor seemed like the one and only option that would meet my needs.
Discouraged, I reflected on what this meant for my life situation. I had sold my house earlier in the year and had since found a cheap apartment, still in the Madison, Wisconsin area. I was renting a large shed in nearby private land with a nice 3,100 foot grass runway. Even better, I had, over the past year, met some very good friends who got together quite regularly for all sorts of flying adventures.
Although it wasn’t close to my friends and family in Michigan, it was an enviable location.
Lots to offer
Before long, it occurred to me that I had only scratched the surface of what Wisconsin aviation had to offer. From strips of lush grass to remote northern destinations near Lake Superior, to uncharted swathes of surrounding counties, there was no shortage of potential adventures.
Even the barren, sub-zero, arctic winter months had plenty to offer. A few years ago, my friends Jim and Ross took me for landings on a nearby frozen lake. It was great, and now that I had a plane of my own, I could join them in my own machine.
Exploring frozen lakes can be a really fun winter activity. After confirming that the ice is thick enough, usually due to the presence of large diesel vans driving to and from the ice fishing huts, you can land and park on the ice at the nearest lakeside restaurant. There you can sample excellent local fish while admiring your plane against the bright blue sky and white landscape.
While I’m sure similar opportunities exist in Michigan, there’s a certain lakeside fish fry culture in Wisconsin that makes it especially enjoyable.
The plane was directing me
Gradually, my frustration at my inability to find a good hangar option in Michigan was replaced by visions of fall and winter flying adventures where I was already living. Of course, I still wanted to get away long term. But in the shorter term, if the main issue was that I needed to continue exploring my current state with good friends, well, that’s a good issue to have.
I also thought about the irony in the bigger scheme of things. On a given flight, I direct the plane to the places where I want to go. But when it came to choosing the city and state I wanted to live in, the plane was directing me. Maybe I was stuck in Limbo, but maybe Limbo wasn’t such a bad place.