General Contracting

The Beginnings of Aviation Construction


Blustery winds sweep across the rolling dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The constant winds — a necessary evil for the Wright Brothers’ first flights in 1903 — created strong air currents, blew sand around everywhere, and harbored often intense weather conditions.  While the brothers chose the area for its naturally occurring wind and wide, open spaces, the environment created big issues for their newly constructed airplane.


As the old saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention.”  The air currents so needed for testing also moved and damaged the airplane, and the sand and climate of the beach affected the ash and muslin the plane was constructed with. They needed a place to store their plane safely.


The Wright Brothers’ hangar in 1903 – Photo: Library of Congress


This precipitated the first documented aviation construction project and is vastly different from today’s massive steel building systems. Who knew that this small, wooden structure housed the future of human flight? After the Wright Brothers’ successful flight, aviation began growing.


The Rise of Hangar Construction


The World Wars of the early 20th Century brought quick and amazing advancements to airplane hangar design and construction. From portable canvas hangars to the iconic arched Quonset hut, military construction has fueled more than innovation in flight. Hangars started with pretty basic construction, like this  WWI hangar reproduction.


In his article “Building Airpower: American Air Service Construction in the Great War” for The Military Engineer, Andrew Billman notes the first Allied airfields in 1917 France were full of canvas hangars but the military had already changed that in 1918. Their aircraft production facility in Romorantin, France even had the military’s “first steel warehouses… with steel frames covered by corrugated iron sheeting.”


As more people began to purchase and operate airplanes, small, local airports cropped up all over the United States. The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission claims that by 1912, the United States had 20 airfields (including a converted country club). This great example of the Larson Brothers Airport in Milwaukee shows the early wood buildings used as hangars. In 1928, Peter Bernard founded the Rockland Airport in New York, and possibly one of the first flying clubs: The Aero Club.


Commercial aviation also took flight, creating demand for increasingly larger open-bay aviation construction projects.  These photos of the opening of the United Airport in Burbank, California include military planes and some amazing shots of the beautiful steel and concrete hangars to the left.


Photo: The Huntington


The beginnings of steel building systems in aviation construction are somewhat vague. Most reports claim that world-renowned pilot Louis Bleriot had a hand in it. Famous for the first flight across the English Channel, Bleriot supposedly crash-landed on a farm in France during a test flight. Needing a place to store his plane, he wheeled it into a steel barn nearby and noticed how the steel structure was an ideal size for an aviation hangar. He supposedly contacted the company after his ordeal ended to order his own steel building system.


Regardless of the dubious beginnings, it’s easy to see why steel construction, and pre-engineered steel building systems, in particular, are proven perfectly suited to aviation construction.


Steel Building Systems for Aviation Construction


The requirements for a hangar are more than “lots of space.” Tall ceilings, protection from the elements, large easily-operated bay doors, and climate control are just the short list. In some cases, like Hangar One (one of the world’s tallest freestanding structures), the structures can be so large and tall that they have their own clouds and a microclimate.


This pre-engineered building systems by our partner Butler Manufacturing shows some of the size and sheer volume allowed when using a PEMB.


Creating a wall that can support hangar doors isn’t an easy feat. Decades of research and development created customizable and reliable aviation hangar construction plans. The hangar doors above, for example, required over 400 feet of clear-span space. This was simply not possible in the past. In this 1940 article “Monolithic Concrete Construction for Hangars” for The Military Engineer, the discuss the massive proportions of “the widest span monolithic structure of the time”: the Hershey Sports Arena that measured 245 feet by 356 feet (you can view it at this link).


Using steel for such large construction, especially a pre-engineered building system also saves time and money when building a hangar. In fact, for the Navy facility Butler reports that a PEMB saved them 25% over the nearest conventional building method. Creating less waste and arriving ready to be checked and installed, a PEMB offers the best solution for most aviation construction projects.


If you’d like a consultation for your existing structure, or are considering starting a new aviation construction project, contact GALBRAITH for a consultation.