One Set Of Codes To Rule Them All? ….No Thanks!

Aircraft-Hangar-Fire-Building-CodesThe last four years have yielded a tremendous number of opportunities where I have had the opportunity to listen to frustrated hangar owners, airpark owners & developers, FBO managers, and even airport managers. The one frustration that could be considered a motif amongst these groups was their shared frustration with their Fire Marshal and building inspector who were overseeing their hangar development. 

Regardless of the level of planning, financial resources, and size and scope of the hangar to be built or remodeled, the Fire Marshal and building inspector hold the keys to the kingdom. This position of power along with complex building and fire codes (and non-standard interpretations of these codes) have created volatile exchanges, bruised egos, and completed projects that were a far cry from the original concept and budget. 

First off, Fire Marshals and building inspectors are not bad people. They are not the enemy. Most are rational. Most are professional. And most will proactively support you in your hangar construction endeavor. Remember, their goal is to protect human lives and property. Just like a pilot, there exists no room for error and no Fire Marshal wants to be armchair quarterbacked by a review board exploring the cause of a fire under their jurisdiction. 

If you are reading between the lines, you’ll notice there exist two problems. The first problem is the fire and building codes themselves. The second potential problem is the occasional instance where a Fire Marshal and/or building inspector do not truly understand the codes, their applications, and most importantly, the aviation industry. The cherry on top of the powder keg is when two egos (yours and theirs) combine to create a synergy of frustration. Egos in aviation? Yes, they go hand-in-hand. If you decide to lock horns with a building inspector or Fire Marshal, you will lose, every time.

I’ve spoken to airpark and hangar developers across the country and all have different experiences when it comes to fire and building codes. What is ok, what is not ok, what is grey, and what is black and white can be a crapshoot at best. Below are just some of the stories I’ve come across over the past year.

Norco-Manufacturing-Hangar-Door
Image Courtesy of Norco Manufacturing

Inspections

All states have building codes but some, amazingly, don’t have an inspection process to ensure you have complied with these rules. I covered an airpark home in Arkansas and once the initial permits were written, no inspections were required during and after construction to ensure compliance. These particular states just assume you’ve followed the rules. Most states, however, inspect during phases throughout and again at the end of the construction process.

Classification Of Structure 

While presenting at AirVenture, a person listening to my session told his story about how he built a private “storage facility” on his own property in the southeastern United States. It was not until after the structure was completed that he discovered he would not be able to store his airplane in the building. The reason “why?” was because once it was discovered the structure was going to be used for an aircraft, it changed the dynamics of the structure. 

Firewall

Another individual in the northwest United States built an airpark home where the house was attached to the hangar. The owner’s desire was to have several windows that would allow viewing into the hangar from numerous vantage points within the house. This was not permitted because the Fire Marshall felt that a solid “2-hour firewall” with no windows needed to separate the hangar from the rest of the living area.

The same objective as the one above was successfully accomplished in the south central region of the United States. The glass windows and sliding glass doors permitting view into the hangar from within the home were permitted so long as the windows could not be opened and the sliding glass door was equipped to spring-load in the closed position.

Residential vs. Commercial

An airpark developer in the southeast United States is being told that all hangars above 2,000 square feet must be built to commercial code. This is a state code, is arbitrary at best, and adds significant cost and time to the scope of the project. This developer, along with other airpark developers from the same region, has presented their case to the state but with no success to change the state code.

NFPA 409

Corporate flight facilities and other larger hangars around the 40,000 square foot threshold and above are subject to an even greater number of fire and building codes. Navigating the National Fire Protection Association’s 409 Standard On Aircraft Hangars complicates the issue further as the guidelines written in this document are purely that….guidelines. The NFPA is an association and not a governing body yet its guidelines are interpreted as law and many Fire Marshals will stick to the words written within as if it were Holy Scripture.

The examples above just scratch the surface of the total number of issues faced by those wanting to build a hangar and/or hangar home. Codes vary from city to city, county to county, and state to state. This fact, along with all codes being subject to interpretation, open Pandora’s box even before a project can get under way. Compounding this problem is the fact that those outside our industry are the ones writing our building and fire codes. As soon as they hear the word “aircraft,” Hollywood Dementia creeps into their minds and all neurons relating to common sense exit the brain. This leaves us being held hostage to a group of individuals who may not have any real understanding, appreciation, or empathy for the aviation industry.

Comparing Industries – Agriculture vs. Aviation

Let us compare similar structures from different industries:  Agriculture and Aviation. Both house vehicles that cost hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars and all of these vehicles can hold tremendous amounts of fuel. Hangars and “ag” buildings are routinely built far from necessary water supplies to meet the tremendous demands of sprinkler fire suppression systems. Heating large volumes of air within both structures to prevent sprinkler supply lines from freezing and bursting is costly and in most cases impractical. 

One of the key differences that does exist and should result in a lessor need for fire protection for aircraft hangars is that aircraft never enter or exit a hangar under their own power. An aircraft’s engine or engines are always “off” inside a hangar. This is not the case in the farming industry. Tractors and trucks drive in and out of their facilities countless times a day yet no stringent fire protection systems are required. I studied Agricultural Engineering at the University of Illinois and this is not an attack on our fellow farmers but simply a benchmark to show how ludicrous and arbitrary fire and building codes are within the aviation industry.

If Only Our Planes Could Plant And Harvest Crops.....
If Only Our Planes Could Plant And Harvest Crops…..?

This begs the questions “Why do we have such stringent fire protection rules governing our industry?” “How do we change the system?” The answer is that we create an entity that specifically caters to the needs of those who have interests in hangars and develops new, meaningful codes. The entire organization would be made up of aviation stakeholders consisting of aircraft owners, operators, airport sponsors, aviation consultants, developers, FBOs, airpark owners, etc. Our objective would be to develop our own set of codes that are specific to our industry and promote their adoption throughout the country. The new fire and building codes would be written through careful collaboration with fire safety and building engineers who have been educated and indoctrinated in aviation so that our codes are common sense.