Source: 2021 Q3 Beartracks, Jared Yates
Beartracks is largely a “how-to” publication, though I’ve enjoyed providing a few “how-not-to” tidbits over the years, usually in rather light-hearted cases with minimal impact. I think it’s important to share mistakes as much as triumphs, if we are to promote safety and success. This time I’ll share one that is far more consequential and unfortunately also much less educational, at least with regard to prevention.
I was in a hotel on a work trip, as I often am, when I got a call from the owner of our local small airport where we rent our hangar spot. He was at the beach that weekend, taking a break from his non-stop jobs at his grading business and at the local fire department. His friends at the fire department said they were responding to a call at his place, to give him a heads up and see if he was burning brush piles or something. He wasn’t, so he started calling the tenants and pretty soon we got word that our hangar was on fire. Relatives had been through the airport to check on things around 3:00pm and everything looked normal. Sometime around 5:00pm the neighbors heard things and saw the smoke, and called it in. By 5:30 the fire was out, and you can see what was left.
I was scheduled to be home around 24 hours later, and seeing that there wasn’t much for me to be there to secure or protect, I completed the work trip and arrived at home the next afternoon. I had lots of questions, as I’m sure you do. Most pressing, was there anything to try and save? Was there any indication about what might have started the fire? The county has investigators who were on the scene right after the fire, and they would eventually report the cause as undetermined. I don’t think there was very much left for them to investigate. Before arriving I wondered if any of the small batteries, like those for the electric drill or flashlights might have been to blame. Oddly, all of those things were in a part of the building that didn’t seem to get very hot. In the days after the fire, when restoring electrical power to the other hangars on the same service, we found that the breaker was damaged. The power company’s meter records usage in 30-minute increments, and there was a spike in usage on the afternoon of the fire, but we don’t have any way to know if that was a cause or an effect. The meter usually has such small demand that even the relatively large increase was still a small amount of total kilowatt hours, so I doubt that’s a solid indication of a problem. All of these things may have been effects rather than causes. There’s not a smoking gun that we can point to, or a simple moral to the story of “don’t do this or your hangar will burn down”. Some things that might have mitigated the impacts of the fire would include having an all-metal building and not one with a wooden structure. Same with tool storage and work benches. Thankfully I didn’t have any welding gasses in the hangar or any fuel in our storage containers. I don’t think it’s a reasonable expectation to have a hangar/workshop with nothing plugged in, and no sources of energy.
As for trying to save anything, there were a few mementos worth digging for. One was a stubby 7/16” wrench that I carried in the airplane’s travel toolbag. It was part of a high-end SK stubby wrench set that I had received as a gift back in college from a mechanic I worked for. In the early days of flying the Bearhawk, I had lost it, and then replaced it with a new wrench. During a subsequent condition inspection, I found the original 7/16 rattling around in the wing, evidence of a cardinal sin of aviation maintenance. When the airplane insurance adjuster came to visit the site, he asked about the airplane’s data plate. I hadn’t thought to look for it, but after his asking we poked around and eventually found it, so I saved that. One of the strangest things was how in one sense, there was nothing there. But in another sense, everything was there. At least everything that hadn’t combusted. My wooden toolbox was a pile of charcoal, but excavation yielded the remains of most of the steel tools, charred and absent their necessary heat treatment. The wooden pedal plane Bearhawks we had made for the girls were gone, but their steel parts like the pedal crank and steering mechanism were left behind right where they dropped. Nearly everything had left some evidence of itself and nearly none of it was of any use but recycling.
The airplane structure was an interesting study. The area around the boot cowl experienced some very high temperatures, probably because of the fuel on board. When a steel truss from the roof fell down onto the fuselage, the strongest tubes in the airplane were hot enough to bend like spaghetti. Copper wires draped over the tube that passes under the instrument panel, along with the engine control cables. Anything aluminum in this area was completely gone. Some of the thickest parts of the wing structure, such as the spar at the wing strut, were still present but badly deformed. There were puddles of aluminum on the ground where the wings had been. The steel structures from the wing were on the ground, and control cables still connected back to the stick. Interestingly, some portion of the paint on the fuselage survived the heat. Fiberglass parts like the nosebowl and wingtips were reduced to piles of what looked like virgin fiberglass cloth. The binding plastics were burned away but the glass fibers persisted. I removed the engine and took it to Bob, and we’re waiting to hear back if any of the internal steel engine parts are serviceable.
The airplane was insured fairly well. Not for enough to build another one at today’s prices, and not for as much as I would have liked to have sold it for, but at least something to offset the loss. In deciding on a hull value I had considered several possible loss scenarios, especially an off-airport landing or wind damage while tied down away from home, but I had not considered losing the plane and everything in it. Having that perspective, I might have chosen a little higher hull number. The good news was that the airplane insurance folks were very good, and they got us a settlement quickly. The structure itself was not insured, though it was fairly modest. The tools and contents other than the airplane appear to be covered as personal property under our homeowner’s insurance. I took lots of pictures of the aftermath to help remind myself of everything that was out there, and made a fairly exhaustive list of around 200 items. Several things aren’t on the list because there’s no way to assign a value or replace them, like my collection of scrap lead, or half a sheet of leftover Makrolon. So far it has been a month and I don’t think we’re very far along in the process on that claim, though thankfully we aren’t depending on that settlement for important day-to-day needs. I can only imagine how bad it must be to go through this process with one’s living space instead of one’s recreational space. We’ll have to provide another follow-up once we know how the claim turns out.
This was the same hangar that we used to build the airplane, and though I stopped logging the time spent there after the first flight, I had over 2000 hours up until that point. Since then there have been 7 condition inspections, a panel re-do, and countless other projects big and small. It was a special place full of special things and we hate to see it gone. There’s a fellow named Ron from up the road, and he would drive by the hangar around dusk. He’s a hunter, and would be scouting out of season and hunting during the season. Responsible hunters are good folks to have around, they pay close attention to the details. Over the years I had gotten to know Ron pretty well, based on our mutual hours on the property and our mutual interest in each other’s pursuits. I had thought maybe I wouldn’t take the kids out to the site after the fire, worried about all of the sharp edges and hazards. But I realized they had earned the privilege, having entertained themselves at the hangar so many times while I was out there working on things. A few days after the fire the whole family was out there with me. We had several good discussions and lessons as we poked around in the charcoal and found things, speculating what they used to be, and adding to the list. The afternoon was winding down and we were just about to pull out when I saw Ron drive up. I told Tabitha I needed to hop out and talk to Ron, so she left with the girls to go procure some supper, and come back to get me later.
I’m glad I waited, because Ron had some pretty insightful things to say. He said, “you know, lots of folks don’t know what it takes to build a hangar and airplane like that, but I do, because I watched you do it over all of those years.” He was right. Our interactions along each step of the way had given him good insight about the scope of building these projects. We talked for a little while, and it was time for him to head out. We said our goodbyes and I walked back over to poke around. Passing by on the road, he called out from his truck, “Hey, if it wasn’t for that pile of burnt metal over there, I’d have never met you!” This was something that I didn’t realize that I knew, but he was exactly right. The airplane and hangar were special but some of their best value came from the relationships that we formed over the years. Fellow builders and Bearhawk prospects who came to visit, friends and relatives that went for rides, more Young Eagles than I’ve counted, and a few transition training folks. There were so many people that we wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for that burned pile of metal.
So what’s the next step? We aren’t in a rush to buy a replacement airplane, in part because we can’t just buy one unless one comes along for sale. Until we have a replacement hangar, there’s not a place to start another build project, and I’m not sure we are in a stage of life with enough free time to build another, even though I suspect I could do it in half the time of the last one. With our daughters being 7 and 9, there is a lot of life to be living in the time it would take to build another airplane. So for now, we are going to focus on constructing a new hangar, and wait to see what comes along in the way of a flying Bearhawk or a repairable project.