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WPA hangar project nearly complete

When the Cessna 172 belonging to Craig Cleckler and Mark Underwood entered the old WPA hangar at the Chilton County Airport on Wednesday, it was the first time the hangar had housed an aircraft in more than 60 years.

Just six months ago, the historic structure was in danger of being torn down. It had served as the county shop from 1950 until recently, and in 2007 was named the most endangered historic structure in Alabama.

But the efforts of four local pilots — Cleckler, Underwood, Andy Roberson and Alan Dykes — changed all that.

In December 2009, the pilots entered into a three-year, renewable lease agreement with the Chilton County Airport Authority and began a project to restore the hangar. As the work has taken shape, many have stopped by to see the building returned to the splendor of its glory days.

“When you put a plane in here, it just swallows it, and you go, ‘Wow. This is a really big building,’” Cleckler said.

“We’ve had quite a few positive comments about us saving that old hangar,” said Billy Singleton of the Chilton Airport Authority. “Now it’s been stabilized and saved, and that’s a huge thing in the historic preservation community.”

The hangar was built in the mid-1930s as a project of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Singleton said that to his knowledge, there is only one other structure of its kind intact in Alabama located in Evergreen. Both were sites along Commercial Airmail Route 40 between Memphis and Tampa, Fla.

Interestingly, the hangar once served as a social gathering place. Many locals hold fond memories of dances and other events held there.

“A lot of elderly couples have stopped by and talked about social events they attended here,” Cleckler said.

Not every part of the WPA hangar was salvageable. The windows, doors and exterior roof had to be replaced. But the original brick walls, metal rafters and concrete floor do remain.

“Everything that we could leave, we did,” Cleckler said. “The doors were just totally rusted and not salvageable.”

New doors will be manufactured on site. The original track system for the doors is in place, and they will be built based on the original design. When complete, eight 10-foot sliding doors will cover the 80-foot entrance space. Each side pocket will house four of the doors.

One familiar sight lost to local pilots is the word “Clanton,” which once adorned the exterior roof of the hangar. The group plans to restore this unique feature as soon as possible.

Other plans involve landscaping the area and restoring the old power shed that used to power the rotating beacon. A concrete ramp has already been paved, which connects the hangar to the county’s taxiway.

Cleckler estimated the project should be complete in about two months.