Weekend cabins are commonplace in the Midwest, but they typically involve lakes, not airports. However, there are many pilots who would rather get away to an airstrip for relaxation. It’s why the Poplar Grove Airport took a different approach to airplane hangar construction with the “Aviator’s Cabin.”
Poplar Grove Airport has been owned by Steve Thomas and his wife Tina since 1994, when they purchased it from Steve’s father, Dick. The Thomas family had built the airport back in 1972 – where it originally started as the family farm, as detailed in this article by General Aviation News.
Dick Thomas realized that Boone County, Illinois, did not have an airport. He converted the farm field into runways, and converted the cattle sheds into the airport’s first hangars.
After his father passed away in 1994, Steve and Tina decided they didn’t want the airport to struggle like other smaller, general aviation airports. They decided to pursue an alternate route. Privately-owned and open to the public, Poplar Grove became a friendly, fun “lifestyle” airport, home to airplanes and the people who love them. It featured a residential airpark with homes; a flight school; an aviation museum; and unique “Aviator’s Cabins.”
The strategic move was smart. As Construction Magazine Network notes, “In 1998, 45 planes were housed at Poplar Grove.” Today, the number is over 400 planes – which makes it one of the largest airports in the state of Illinois in terms of based-aircrafts.
Airpark Living: Home on the Hangar
Flying is integral part of a pilot’s life, which is why airpark communities began to dot the landscape shortly after World War II. As Bethany Whitfield notes in Flying Magazine, the pilot population had ballooned “from fewer than 34,000 pilots in 1939 to more than 400,000 by 1946.”
Thus, the Civil Aeronautics Administration proposed the construction of airport communities throughout the country to support the pilot lifestyle. It’s a smart move for Poplar Grove, where approximately 20,000 pilots live within an 80-mile radius (thanks in part to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.)
Whitfield describes residential airpark living: “When it comes to the benefits that fly-in communities afford, the upsides are plentiful, ranging from everything to more time spent in the air to a strong sense of neighborhood camaraderie among like-minded aviators.”
According to Ben Sclair, Publisher of General Aviation News and Living with Your Plane, it’s all about the lifestyle. “Whether you are into cars, boats, computers or planes, as a hobbyist you’ll do what you can to make enjoying your hobby as easy as can. Airpark living is also ready-made with like-minded airplane people.”
In this audio interview with Ben, he explains the appeal of airparks, as well as some of the many variations on the market.
Living with Your Plane even publishes a unique checklist to help pilots classify the type of airpark that fits them best.
Also check out this listing of residential airparks courtesy of ThirtyThousandFeed.com.
Aircraft Hangar Construction and Design: Offering a Different Approach
Poplar Grove already has its own residential, fly-in community called Bel Air Estates. Like most airparks, it’s located on 180 acres adjacent to the runway. Of the 140 home sites, 100 have access to the airport via taxiways, as well as their own personal hangars.
However, Steve found that he was fielding requests for aircraft hangar homes — something different than the residential airpark.
Steve decided to construct a series of hangars with the option to build living quarters. He reached out to Jim Peters of Freeport Builders of Illinois.
Freeport has experience building an airplane hangar or two. Their airplane hangar construction includes a 10-plane hangar at Albertus Airport in Freeport, Illinois, and airport condos for Cottonwood Airport, in Rockford, Illinois.
The initial plans called for steel construction, but Jim knew that choosing that route would be cost-prohibitive. An authorized Wick Buildings partner, he showed Steve how Post-Frame Construction would be the ideal match for Steve’s goals – both architecturally and financially.
Building an Airplane Hangar Home: “The Aviator’s Cabin”
Poplar Grove’s revenue comes from a number of sources. Rental hangar space; fuel and lubricant sales; maintenance support; and a flight school.
Through a series of fund-raising efforts, Poplar Grove opened a Vintage Wings and Wheels Museum, with a historic hangar relocated from the Waukesha County Airport in Wisconsin. The hangar was used because the intent was not to have a modern looking building for the museum. Instead, the museum campus used vintage hangars that replicated what an airfield was like in the 30s.
The new hangars would expand Poplar Grove’s offerings, and the post-frame construction methodology, with the exposed trusses and decorative gambrel dormers capture the nostalgia of old hangars.
In 2004, Thomas used Jim Peters and Wick Buildings to construct a series of hangars. The project involved 56 units – 39 T-hangars for single planes, and 19 box units – the hangar condos.
The hangar is comprised of six box units, each with 3,000 square feet of floor space, which allowed for 2-3 planes. “Typically, these hangars will appeal to people who have more than 1 airplane. They might have a flying airplane and a project airplane,” Thomas explained.
This past summer, Poplar Grove added six more box units. Due to new building codes, the new units required more insulation and a ceiling, so the trusses are no longer visible.
Airpark Condos? Well, sort of…
Post-frame construction was a perfect fit for the hangars. Because it allows large, clearspan wood trusses, the airplane hangar owner can create expansive open space, and in this case, add living quarters.
However, it should be noted that these aren’t specifically “Condos” or “Homes.” Steve notes that the airport is zoned for commercial use, not residential use. Nevertheless, these are “living spaces,” with sewer, water, natural gas and individual electric meters.
The airplane hangar height is 18 feet from floor to ceiling, and against the back wall, owners have constructed mezzanines that stick out approximately 15 feet from the back wall. “They may be 8 or 9 feet clear underneath, so they can stick an airplane underneath,” Thomas said.
The aircraft hangar living quarters are approximately 800 square feet — the “Aviator’s Cabin,” as Thomas refers to it.
Airplane Hangar Condo Specs
Airplane Hangar Dimensions: Individual Hangars are 60’ W x by 51’ D x 18’ H
Airplane Hangar Floor-Space: 3,000 square feet
Airplane Hangar Doors: Powerlift Hydraulic Doors (54’ x 14’)
Airplane Hangar Ventilation: Owner’s choice, based on build-out
Airplane Hangar Living: “Hangin’ Out”
The living spaces can be more or less customized as the owners see fit. The living spaces are lofts, and are not tied to the original post-frame construction.
“These people might live elsewhere, in a regular house in a regular neighborhood,” Jim Peters said. “They go to the airport for the weekend.”
That’s where the pilot community comes into play. “We choose to focus on the lifestyle type of airport, not a commercially-intensive airport. It’s where people come to fly. They enjoy the fellowship of other like-minded folks,” Thomas said.
Pilots are a different breed. Their passion for flying transcends typical hobbies, both in terms of infrastructure and altitude. In fact, even those of us who aren’t pilots would love to be a pilot, as the Smothers Brothers point out here.
Construction on the six hangars with living space was completed in the fall, and owners are now beginning to customize their respective livings spaces. In the meantime, they’ll be taking to the air as often as possible. Check out some of these videos to see Poplar Grove pilots take flight.
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