WHEATLAND – The historic snowstorm, dubbed “Snowmageddon 2021,” ambled through Platte County for four days leaving in its wake stranded and dying animals, people without power and much damage to property. Some of the worst roof collapses were witnessed at the airplane hangars adjacent to Phifer Airfield on Antelope Gap Road, east of Wheatland.
Drifts at the airport were reported in some places to be over seven feet high. If not for a crew of faithful volunteers, the damage would have been even more substantial.
“Our airport is unique in that those hangars are privately owned on private land,” Chairman of the Wheatland Airport Board Dallas Mount said. “So, it’s really an impact to the owners. Unfortunately, some airplanes were damaged in that too, so those airplane owners are licking their wounds a bit.”
Of the planes that suffered damage, only two were insured. Those were the only flying airplanes that suffered damage. Others were in a state or repair or in storage for parts.
In the back row of hangars to the west were Darrell Steinhausen’s four planes, which were in various stages of repair and according to Mount, all those will be considered a total loss.
“Darrell was also a collector of antique tractors and some antique vehicles that were back there, most of which would have suffered damage,” Mount said. “The failure point (to the I-beam trusses) was right in the center of each bay. The beam that was running east to west and that one went down, the roofs caved in.”
The airport was pretty much closed from March 14-16 with the first plane coming in March 17 after the storm was cleared out and the airport was reopened. The city, which plows the runways and airport surfaces had the areas cleared so the airport could open last Wednesday.
“Before these hangars were destroyed, it was hard in Wheatland to find a place to keep an airplane,” Mount said. “A lot of those hangars have been passed down from generation to generation and some of the people that have inherited them are not flying and so they just use them for storage units.”
The unfortunate reality is that there are airplane hangars not being used to house airplanes.
“It’s going to make it even more challenging for people that have airplanes that want to find a place to keep them to find a spot,” he said. “A bright spot could be is we maybe could see some construction of some new hangars out there. I imagine it will be a long cleanup phase. We have insurance adjusters coming out to look at the two airplanes that were insured.”
According to Mount, when you buy your airplane insurance you make a choice as to ground, airborne or both. Both insured planes had full coverage.
Steinhausen did not have any insurance on property or contents.
“We got a call at 9 a.m. from BJ Axford who was out at the airport in the middle row of hangars collecting some internet supplies,” Mount said. “He said, ‘hey, we just lost one of the bays in the back row.’ He actually heard it go. Robert Hilty who is my neighbor picked me up and, on our way out, BJ called again and said that we had lost a second one. And that was Robert’s plane.”
By the time Mount and Hilty got to the airport Sunday morning, they had already lost two bays and Platte County was just being declared unpassable in the blizzard conditions.
“One of the doors had fallen off from a front row hangar and we could see an airplane sitting there,” Mount said. “You could look inside and see that the roof was sagging about 18 inches. It was popping and making noise so we knew it was collapsing. The only way to get that airplane out of there was to actually pick it up and turn it sideways because of the way everything was jammed up.”
The five men there got around the Cessna 170 and actually walked the plane out of that hangar just ten minutes before it caved in. It was Kelly Kennedy’s airplane and was temporarily put into Axford’s hangar. At that point, the crew of five went down to the next hangar in trouble and Hilty had to go back to his shop at Western Building Supply and picked up his telehandler which they used to support the hangar until they could successfully get the planes out.
“We had two other machines out there,” Mount said. “Superior Excavating and owner Darren Hershey, along with Bruce Hilty, were pushing snow with their machines to give us a place to work. It was tough, but within minutes those guys were out there helping us. We were out there from just after 9 a.m. until 3 p.m.”
As the crew began rescuing planes and inspecting hangars, in some cases, the best course of action was to shovel off the roofs of some of the hangars.
“Darren and Robert jumped up and shoveled about four or 5 tons of snow off the roof all by hand,” Mount said. “That’s when another hangar collapsed that we had just pulled a 150 out. That was Al Weiser’s plane. There were two other planes in there that were grounded and they got destroyed.”
The men then jumped up to the next bay and according to Mount, continued to shovel snow until they were just completely worn-out.
“We’ve lived here almost 20 years and we’ve had significant snow events, but nothing quite like this,” he said. “I was told that engineering in the area requires 30 pounds per square foot on a roof load, so this would have exceeded that.”
According to Mount, the pilot that did fly in Wednesday said the Wheatland airport was the only airport open in the area with Torrington, Guernsey and Cheyenne all still down at that time.