Recently I walked into Van’s Aircraft and kissed the cutest engineer I could find. He didn’t seem that thrilled. I suppose that’s what happens when you’ve been dating for five years.
We headed to the hangar attached to his office so I could finally marvel at the RV-15 he helped design and proceeded to discuss something we’ve talked about for many years: building an airplane of our own.
It’s always been my hope to build but this dream became more tangible than ever in September when we bought a house at an airpark, complete with a hangar and shop. We had talked on numerous occasions about how great it would be to live at an airpark, but weren’t sure how plausible this idea really was. True, owning my own airplane someday felt like a realistic goal, but having a hangar in my front lawn felt far less obtainable. For one, it sure doesn’t seem like they’re making more airparks and, two, existing hangar homes aren’t exactly cropping up like daisies. And if they do, every pilot and car enthusiast looking to store their Cessna or Chevy collection is on it. How could we compete?
You might recognize my boyfriend, Brian Hickman, who unlike me grew up in a flying family at an airpark in Oregon. We met while working at Glasair Aviation and quickly became friends then fell in love, as two airplane-centric kids do. It was easy for me to feel comfortable around him because I already knew his family through my office mate, Ran Fang, who is now married to the Hickmans’ oldest son, Jeffrey. Their dad is Rob Hickman, founder of Advanced Flight Systems, who raised three kids with his wife, Jenny, in a hangar-adjacent house overflowing with pugs, iced tea and Tom Petty.
You see, Brian already had a feel for airpark livin’ and assured me it was, in fact, all it’s cracked up to be. Among his belongings are a quilt made of retired EAA T-shirts that his mom stitched together and a photo of him as a toddler next to his dad’s RV-4 build. From the moment I met him I understood this was his whole life and I wanted it to be mine, too. When trying to figure out the best way for Brian to get to my house in Tacoma to drive a U-Haul truck full of my stuff to our new house, the possibility of Brian’s dad dropping him off at a nearby airport in his RV-10 wasn’t out of the question. When my brother asked what our plan was to get my stuff to Oregon, I sheepishly told him Rob might drop Brian off in his plane. He hit me with a grin. “I will never understand your life,” he laughed.
Brian and I did the whole long-distance thing the majority of our relationship. Six months after we started dating I got hired on at my current company and moved back home to Tacoma. He stayed at Glasair and we’d drive to see each other on weekends. I started working remotely when the pandemic hit; the company made it a permanent situation a year later. Freedom. Shortly thereafter, Brian got the call from Van’s saying he was in, so my response was an immediate, “You have to go!,” as I knew I and my traveling office would find our way down there eventually. Finally, our constant commuting would end.
The thought of buying a house, any house, scared us, especially in today’s market. But we knew buying would benefit us far more than renting. Renting a nearby hangar on top of a mortgage payment also scared us, which is why our hearts (and wallets) leaned heavily toward airpark life. Airpark residents tend to stay put forever, hence the lack of availability, so we saw this as a “forever home” type of investment, which put our minds (and wallets) at ease. We’re hoping to be no exception to this trend.
Our house hunt went quite leisurely because we both lived under our parents’ roofs and didn’t have lease expiration dates inching toward us. We were also anxiously watching interest rates rise and trying to predict, as well as anyone, when they would drop. We let family, friends and neighbors know what we were looking for and kept our eyes peeled for listings and open houses. Then our house, in all of its 1970s glory, became available. I opened a link Jenny had sent to a blur of brown images. The house was brown. The walls were brown. The carpet was brown. The lawn was brown. It was built in 1978 and there it remained. It appeared to have good bones, but the wallpaper alone seemed dauntingly endless. I had zero home-improvement experience so I wasn’t sure what we’d be getting ourselves into if we made the leap. Now I can’t remember what I did on weekends before house projects. Rest?
Brian and I had a few things working in our favor: We were the first couple to arrive at the open house, were pre-approved, didn’t have a real estate agent and what we believe to be most compelling—we’re both pilots. The previous owners weren’t willing to sell to a non-pilot so they were excited to hear there were two in their midst. After we left, we wrote a letter to the owners expressing our interest and gave them a bit of background about our Experimental roots and why living at an airpark felt important to us. Since we were buying our first home, our sale wasn’t contingent on a pending sale, which also made things easier. It ended up being a very smooth transaction.
Come closing, the thing I was most excited for was to finally have an office. I’d been working at my mom’s dining room table and was ready for a more defined space. I do, however, miss being able to turn around and talk to her. That’s been the only downside to moving: being further from my family. Now I write these silly little stories for you to the tune of my neighbor blasting off in his 180. My office was the first room we fixed up. Originally, there were about 50 ponies staring down at me, which I’m sorry to report, were the first two-dimensional figures to go. Friends and family sent messages expressing their disappointment when I posted a video of Brian steaming the ponies away, which were ironically tacked up with glue. I’m sorry, people! They didn’t make for the best backdrop while on video calls with management.
I wouldn’t be the first and certainly won’t be the last person to have to drive over 45 minutes to get to their “home” airport. While training I’ve always aimed to fly at least twice a week and as many of you know all too well, the commute gets really old, really fast. Drive. Work. Drive. Fly. Drive. I used to live 30 minutes north of Glasair. After work I’d hop on the freeway and drive another 20 minutes south to get to the flight school where I was training. I felt as though my life was sprawled out across the I-5 corridor. There was a rest stop midway between the airport and my house I’d sometimes visit on the way home. On one occasion, there was a little girl standing next to me at the sinks who announced, “I’ve gotta wash my airplane hands.” This took me aback. I, too, had to wash my airplane hands. I then realized she must’ve been holding her hands out the car window, catching the breeze. I missed being that carefree. To feel stable, comfortable and supported in this world. Instead, my hands had just been death-gripping the dirty yoke of a rental 172.
I didn’t particularly love where I was living and wanted to find a place that felt like home—something that’s hard to do when you spend far too much time on the road. I then moved back home, but didn’t feel totally comfortable there either. Not because of my family or anything, but because I didn’t have room to spread out. And with the distance, Brian and I were constantly driving, always driving. If we wanted to go camping, one of us would have to make the 3-hour trek before we could even begin thinking about getting to the campsite. “We should get pilot licenses,” we’d joke, after we’d both obtained our certificates.
Now I feel at home. I hop in my Subaru and explore my new town, windows down, fingers trailing in tow. I drink my coffee and wander the halls of our house and note what needs improvement and marvel at it all. We did it! All of my things have a place. Our hangar is filled with Glasair paraphernalia and an absurd amount of Hartzell “Props and Hops” pint glasses the Hickmans “collected” from AirVenture. There is room to grow, think and breathe. I imagine I would’ve sighed a breath of relief in any home, but having a runway out front makes me especially excited, even though my editor can now show up in his GlaStar, waving a fist and demanding more words. That’s OK, though, I’m sure a lot of inspiration will strike from living here—and it’s a perfect place to tackle my next big challenge: airplane building.
More to come! And if you find yourself at Van’s, please don’t try to kiss Brian and distract him. He has a lot of work to get done on the high wing you’re all anxiously awaiting.