Proficient Pilot

A sad state of affairs

March 1, 2005

Pilot and journalist Barry Schiff is an outspoken advocate for general aviation.

Boat owners often claim that two of their happiest days are when they buy their boat and when they sell it. This is not as applicable to airplane owners. Selling an air machine often is a sad event because its owner has no choice.

So it is with me and mine.

I purchased a new American Champion Explorer (nee Citabria 7GCBC) in 1998 as a retirement present to myself. A new airplane, I thought, would provide years of joy with minimal maintenance; it would be a really fun flying machine. N707BS was the first aircraft American Champion had certified by the FAA for IFR flight.

The Explorer brought me full circle. Its great-grandfather, a 65-horsepower Aeronca 7AC Champion, taught me the basic fundamentals of flight during the mid-1950s. It barely lifted two in tandem but sipped only 3.5 gallons of avgas per hour. The hourly cost of fuel was less than a buck, and the wet rental rate was only $7 per hour. Throw in four bucks more for an instructor.

After a leisurely sightseeing flight from the factory in Rochester, Wisconsin, to Santa Monica Municipal Airport in Southern California, I tucked N707BS into the corner of a large hangar that it shared at first with Gene Korney's Beechcraft F33A Bonanza and later with Bob Katz's Mooney Mite.

The Explorer has been everything that I had anticipated. Carefree flying, light aerobatics, and the fun of taildragging with almost no maintenance other than annual inspections. It has been like a Labrador retriever that seemingly lives to please.

Last month, my landlord told Katz and I that we have to vacate the hangar to make room for a Cessna Citation whose owner is willing to pay a whole lot more for shelter than we can justify. (See " Airframe & Powerplant: Give Me Shelter," page 123.)

Unfortunately, it is not a simple matter of finding another hangar at Santa Monica. There are no other hangars available. One can get on the waiting list for a city-controlled hangar, but most on that list reckon they will be long gone by the time their names are called. Supermarine, the fixed-base operator on the north side of the field, rents 1,050-square-foot T-hangars for $1.50 per square foot, which is $1,575 per month. Believe it or not, there is a waiting list for those, too, and the rates increase annually. One can rent a decent apartment for less.

Even if I could get one of those hangars and was willing to pay the going rate, this alone would add more than $200 per hour to the cost of operating my 160-horsepower taildragger, something I cannot justify. Where available, one can rent a Citabria (wet) for less than half of that.

Hangar prices at Santa Monica are influenced not only by the demand of aircraft owners but also by something more insidious. It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the rental hangars at Santa Monica are occupied by those having nothing to do with aviation. At least two hangars store the automobile collections of the rich and famous; others are used by plumbing and electrical contractors, wood shops, ad nauseam. Such commercial interests are willing to pay rental rates that owners of small, single-engine airplanes cannot afford.

Of the approximately 160 hangars at Santa Monica, six were recently lost to Volkswagen-Audi, which is leasing space for an automobile "design center."

Santa Monica airport, like many others, exists because the land was given to the city by the government after World War II under the proviso that it be used as an airport "in perpetuity."

Doesn't this mean that airport property should be used only for aviation-related purposes? No one seems to know, and this ultimately will be settled in the courts.

Turbine operators and owners also are putting the squeeze on airport real estate, a trend that is spreading nationally, especially at airports in large urban areas. The result at some airports has been wholesale eviction of small airplanes and the removal of small airport businesses in favor of new jet centers. Affected lightplane owners are made to tie down in some remote corner of the airport or are forced to move to other airports. Others have simply thrown in the towel. Considering the growing number of turbine aircraft and the business they generate, this trend is likely to spread like a cancer.

I could tie down my airplane at Santa Monica and leave it to the mercy of the elements, but I don't have the heart to do that. I have nurtured my airplane with meticulous care. It has been treated every month to a coat of Teflon polish; it has always been hangared, and it has nary a scratch. I can't in good conscience leave my airplane parked outdoors where solar radiation and salty air would make quick work of its fabric covering.

A friend suggested that I might find an affordable hangar at 50-mile-distant Oxnard Airport, but anyone familiar with the traffic conditions we endure on Los Angeles freeways knows that Oxnard might as well be on another planet. A round trip by land would take half a day and render it impossible to enjoy whatever flying might be squeezed into the remainder of the day. This is not an option for me.

I will sell my Explorer and make other arrangements to have an airplane at my disposal, but no substitute will provide the unadulterated fun, freedom, and pride of ownership that N707BS has given.

Silly me. I used to think that airports were for airplanes.

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