When my dad was working on his Thorp T-18 homebuilt in the early 1960s, he started building it in the basement. In a poetic sense, this was appropriate because he had also built that basement (and then the rest of the house) about 13 years before. As the project progressed and the components threatened to become too large to get up the (skinny) stairs and out the (skinnier) door, he moved everything to a rented hangar at the Lake Elmo Airport just east of St. Paul.
That rented hangar became his private haven. He could work there in the evenings and on weekends, just yards away from the runways and the sounds of aircraft heading out and returning. Sometimes he succumbed to the call of the skies and rented a plane to take a quick flight for fun.
I was about 14 at the time and I remember that it was a BIG DEAL to be allowed to accompany him on the short drive to the airport and hang out. I wasn’t allowed to work on the plane – too many sharp edges, Dad said - but on those rare occasions I tagged along, I, too, felt the allure of being in a hangar at the airport even though that one was pretty generic looking. It reminded me of a pole barn with a lower ceiling and a larger sliding door.
As my parents’ marriage fell apart, Dad spent less and less time at the Lake Elmo hangar and ended up selling the mostly-completed airplane to a friend who finished it and put it in the air. I like to think Dad did get a ride in it at some point, but memory doesn’t always serve and he’s not here to ask.
I hadn’t been to a hangar in decades when my son, Scott, decided to join the Army to fly helicopters. I saw the outside of the big training hangars at Fort Rucker near Enterprise Alabama when we were there to watch Dad pin Scott’s wings on him in 1992. When Scott’s unit deployed to Iraq for the 2nd time, the farewell (and the blessed welcome home) ceremony took place at the big Army National Guard hangar at Holman Airport in St. Paul. Like the hangars at Fort Rucker, that hangar is so big it has offices in it, almost as though housing Black Hawks was an afterthought. It is almost clinical with its cement block walls and amazingly clean floors.
I joined the Red Tail Project in 2006 as a volunteer writer and soon came to love the old hangar that houses the CAF’s Minnesota Wing. It was built in 1941 and is a classic round-roofed Quonset style with a gigantic door facing the tarmac. The roof is metal, but the entire interior ceiling is covered in dark aged wood. On the days when the B-25 “Miss Mitchell,” the Squadron’s rare P-51C Mustang “Tuskegee Airmen,” the AT-6 Texan (a.k.a the “Harvard”), Vultee B-13 Valiant and Ryan PT-29 Recruit trainers, and the little Stinsen Sentinel are all jigsaw-puzzled inside, you could swear you’re back in the early 1940s. It also has a little museum and gift shop plus some offices.
To give you a sense of what the hangar looks like, here’s a print that’s available for purchase at the Squadron’s online store that captures it very well.
Here’s a link to a fuller description of the print, which contains the inspiring quote from Minnesota Tuskegee Airman USAF Major (ret.) Joe Gomer. This print is truly unique and is priced at only $35.00. If you have anyone on your holiday shopping list who is interested in the Tuskegee Airmen, Mustangs, old hangars or aviation in general, it would make a great gift.
Of course, our online store sells more than art prints. Take a look at what we have and save yourself some time by shopping online with us this holiday season. All proceeds benefit the Squadron’s mission of educating people about the power of perseverance and goal setting through the example of the Tuskegee Airmen.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.