Dan Favio saw it first, a golden glow through the door of Reliant Air's hangar, sitting north of Runway 8/26 at Danbury Municipal Airport in Danbury, Connecticut. Wednesday, September 12, was a hot evening, so Favio, an off-duty controller at Danbury, wore shorts, flip-flops, a T-shirt, and a ball cap. He was kicking back inside Sadler Aircraft Center's hangar on the south side of the runway, "drinking beverages," sitting in on bass guitar for a jam session with a couple of other guys, including his best friend Kari Sorenson.
While Reliant Air's door glowed, in the opposite end of the hangar, the home of McNally's Steak and Ale House, about 25 customers were also drinking beverages.
"Holy crap!" Favio told Sorenson. "Look at that!" Sorenson grabbed a fire extinguisher. According to later accounts, it was approximately 9:30 p.m.
Reliant Air co-owner Phil Kelsey saw it next, while landing his Navajo on Runway 26. It looked like fog. He called the tower.
Favio also called the tower. "I've already called the fire department," the controller replied. Then Favio called Reliant Air owner Wayne Tohler at home. "Wayne," he said. "Your hangar's on fire. Kari and I are going over there right now to see what we can do."
The pair ran for Favio's truck. By the time they reached the hangar the fire had grown exponentially. They both realized quickly that the little fire extinguisher wasn't going to do much good, so they ran to the closest airplane, untied it, and pulled it to the chain-link fence that ran across the back lot of the Audi dealership. There wasn't much space to work with between the hangar and the fence, maybe a couple of hundred feet, and the heat was intense. They ran back again and again, rolling airplanes away from the building to the fence, seven in all, not really concerned about what happened to propellers or control surfaces. In his nine years as a Navy controller, Favio had seen a lot, but he'd never felt anything so hot. He and Sorenson lasted 10 minutes before the heat became too severe, and abandoned the 15 aircraft that remained parked to save the Beechcraft King Air in front.
The 11 airplanes sheltered inside the hangar, including two Cessna Citations, four Aerostars, and a restored Taylorcraft, were melting like beer cans tossed into a campfire. But in this instance, these beer cans carried full fuel.
Inside McNally's, separated from the hangar by a cinderblock wall, customers complained that it was too warm.
Favio and Sorenson tugged the King Air—a hopeless cause, Favio knew, but they had no choice. Suddenly Phil Kelsey swung the Navajo onto the ramp, shut it down, hopped out, and jumped into the King Air's cockpit. While Favio and Sorenson tore off the prop locks, Kelsey fired up the King Air and rolled out of the way.
The fire department arrived and swarmed the hangar; everyone inside McNally's filtered out to see the fire. They milled about, clutching their half-finished beers and watching the show.
Inside the bar a fireball erupted.
A police officer called Mike Safranek, the assistant airport manager, at home. He arrived seven minutes later, his shirt inside out. By then, 10 minutes after Favio first saw the yellow glow from across the field, the hangar was engulfed in flames, the temperature reaching an estimated 1,500 degrees. There was nothing anyone could do to save it.
Favio was home and in bed by midnight.
Danbury Airport is Mayberry for pilots. Everyone knows everyone else. During the summer at Sadler's hangar, the airport community rolls out the grills and coolers, sets up chairs and a projector, and shows classic aviation movies against a hangar. This is the type of general aviation that everyone says doesn't exist anymore. Favio loved going to work there every day. He seemed to know everyone and they seemed to know him. Nobody had anything bad to say about Favio, and everyone had a good story about him. One day, according to Mike Safranek, Favio sequenced a twin to land number two behind a Cub. "What's he squawking?" the twin pilot asked. "He's a Cub," Favio replied. "His method of squawking is waving his underwear out the window."
With his years of experience as a Navy controller, Favio called Danbury a "sporting " airport. "The most sporting airport in the Northeast...No matter what direction you're coming from you don't see it," he said. "The turbulence is just nuts." On base, you can't see the tower. On final, you slide between two mountains. War stories about landing added volumes to the camaraderie.
Reliant Air landed there in 1989 and took over the northeastern hangar, which the airport authority bought and moved from Roosevelt Field on Long Island during the Depression. This hangar was a piece of history: It had witnessed the beginning of Charles Lindbergh's famous transatlantic flight. Reliant Air built up a great reputation. Good clean shop, with excellent mechanics. The company ran scheduled flights to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. It owned two Citations, a King Air, four Aerostars, a Navajo, and even the fully restored Taylorcraft in which Tohler learned to fly. The Flying 20 Club kept its three airplanes there.
By 3 a.m. the firefighters contained the blaze. They continued dumping water on the ruins until 9.30 p.m. By then only the cinderblock walls were left, with a tall, lonely chimney towering above them. Inside, beneath fallen rafters, two jet engines, a gas grill, three gas welding tanks, and the shop's battered rolling tool carts, plus six inches of ash, covered the floor. Those six inches were the incinerated remains of 11 airplanes.
Since the hangar dated back to the 1920s, when asbestos was all the rage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state Department of Environmental Protection cordoned off the area and sent samples of the ash to the state lab in Hartford to be tested. The members of the Flying 20 Club expected further bad news. One of their Cherokees was reduced to the consistency of aluminum ash; it was unlikely that the logbooks of the other two survived.
The test results came back clean of asbestos, so Reliant Air personnel were allowed in to sift through the wreckage. They discovered several logbooks, some with just the outside edges charred, most with water damage. Ironically, the one that came through it unscathed belonged to the club's lost Cherokee.
Meanwhile, the state fire marshal began the official investigation. Arson was ruled out almost immediately, so the focus shifted to aircraft leaking fuel. There were no such signs. Reliant Air kept a clean, orderly hangar, with all fuels and flammables stored in the authorized manner. Even the fuel truck was parked a safe distance away. Investigators took everyone's statements and began poring over photographs and news footage of the fire. As of this writing, the cause remains undetermined. Investigators should release their final report in 2008.
Right away the City of Danbury turned its hangar on the field's southwest corner over to Reliant Air. Despite a loss of more than $20 million, Reliant Air will rebuild on the same site. They have competitors on the field, of course. The morning after the fire you could see them driving around the burned hangar in their tugs, moving aircraft out of the way for the fire department and inspectors. "The whole Rat Race, that went out the window," Favio said.
By now the excitement has pretty much died down, and things have moved on. The tall brick chimney and walls— and the airport's connection to Lindbergh and The Spirit of St. Louis—have been bulldozed to make way for the new hangar. And Dan Favio quit and took a job at another tower. At the end of September the pilots got together and threw him a big going-away party. "There are a few times I've felt honored," he said. "That definitely was the top." He hated leaving. "I worked at that airport for a while, and I got to know everybody," he said. "I'm never going to feel that kind of pilot-controller relationship again."
He's now moved down to an airport in Florida, because, well, it's Florida, but he still carries with him a reminder of his actions at Reliant Air's hangar in September. When he got in his truck to leave Danbury Airport that night, his flip-flops slid across the floorboard. He realized that heat from the tarmac had melted the soles.
"I'm not going to get rid of them," he said. "It adds character."
Phil Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City.