At Flathead Lake Sky Ranch, a fly-in community, construction on concrete and steel custom home with airplane hangar takes off
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Sally Finneran
A small, unmarked plane sits inside a simple hangar. It’s called the Velocity. It has an unadorned interior and smooth, matte gray paint, and though it has seen the light of day, it has never taken to the skies. Eighteen years in the making, it’s not quite finished. The Velocity has also never seen its permanent home, a 2,000-square-foot airplane hangar built into the side of a hill in Lower Valley. The building, called Camp of the Rising Sun, which is also many years in the making, isn’t quite finished, either.
Both are projects of David Hudak, who works on them with his wife, Manda, and friends including his neighbor John Shriak, the Velocity’s co-owner. David has lived in the Flathead Lake Sky Ranch neighborhood for years, after buying a property “back in ‘39,” his pet euphemism for “a long time ago.” Akin to golf course or marina communities, the southern Kalispell ranch is home to folks with an aviation hobby captivating enough to build their lives around. A mile-long runway cuts through the middle of this 320-acre fly-in community, one of a handful in Montana, which now has some 16 homes.
“We’re just ordinary people that have an interest in aviation,” Bill Paullin, a founding member who has lived at the ranch since the early 1990s, said. “We have a purpose, and that is to keep our lifestyle and our airplanes going … Every one of these houses is somebody’s dream.”
The Hudaks’ forthcoming house, Paullin continued, is “wonderful.”
“Dave is an extremely talented and creative person,” he said. “It is an amazing house. He created this himself. It’s his idea, his everything. He’s worked hard at it. And the craftsmanship — he’s good with his hands.”
David hopes to finish Camp of the Rising Sun during the summer of 2017, and the Velocity the year after that. The Camp, designed by David and built entirely by the couple, their neighbors, and artist friends, doesn’t look like much else in the neighborhood of traditional homes, aside from the planes themselves. When viewed from above, the concrete and steel structure looks somewhat like a stealth bomber, or a big wing, David says. He would know. The 68-year-old has 1,200 hours of flying time under his belt, which he’s clocked in the past 27 years.
After taking an airplane ride with an acrobatic pilot at age 17, which David says was a “high point” in his life, the Vermont native couldn’t stop dreaming of the skies. But earning a pilot’s license is a lengthy, often pricey process, so his path turned to contracting, and he became a master electrician — today, he’s the president of Kalispell-based Powerhouse Electric Inc. When he turned 40, he told himself, “I need to do this, or quit thinking about it.” A chance encounter at work introduced him to Jack Archibald, a bush pilot and local aviation legend who taught David to fly over the following year.
Right now, with the business of building a custom house on their plates, he and Manda fly only about once a month, though they both wish they could get out more. They currently share a plane, a renovated 1958 Cessna 175 that lives beside the Velocity in Shriak’s hangar, with five neighbors.
“Flying around this state, it’s a breathtaking experience. It’s another vantage point to see Montana,” said Manda, who is a chef and instructor at Flathead Valley Community College’s Culinary Institute. “There’s a lot right here. You can go fly around for a half-hour. I like that regularity.”
The neighborhood, which receives less snow and calmer winds than other parts of the valley, and is in a wide-open space, is well suited as an aviator’s home base. Manda enjoys cruising the neighborhood, flying in the shadows of the Swan Mountains, above Flathead River, and down to Flathead Lake. Community members occasionally fly around the valley as a group, heading to eat breakfast together in Polson on a Saturday morning, for example. Members also sometimes fly to the Kalispell City Airport to pick up groceries, a practice Manda jokingly called “vulgar” before admitting she’s done it, too. David most enjoys traveling to remote wilderness airstrips, like the one at Schafer Meadows in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which takes less than 30 minutes to access by plane from the ranch.
“Montana is really unique in the sense that it’s big, you have to go a long way from one place to another, and there’s not a lot of traffic. You get the sky to yourself,” David said.
They fly beyond state boundaries, too; Spokane is a simple 45-minute flight away. And when the Velocity is ready, David and John want to take it to Mexico. David also dreams of flying it home to visit family back east and showing his aircraft to his brother, a pilot.
Though Manda doesn’t have her pilot’s license, she says she certainly has “genetic appreciation for aviation.” Her father, a combat pilot and recipient of the Presidential Award of Valor, held the highest aviation license. Her mother also participated in a women’s flying club in Ohio, Manda’s birth state, which was “really unusual” for the time. Manda says she “always regretted” not becoming involved with aviation, “because it was such a big part of (her parents’) lives.”
When she and David first met, he invited her out on an airplane ride. She hesitated, at first, wary of an unfamiliar pilot. But eventually, they took to the skies, and later married in 2008. By then, David had already started designing the Camp, using 2-D rendering software and foam sheets to make a model, and Manda has picked up hammers and paintbrushes in stride. She said she loves that her husband is a dreamer “who makes it happen.” Through the years, David, who says he’s always wanted to build his own house, has tried to pick up as much as he can from working alongside “many great artists and craftsmen,” and studied architecture in his own reading.
“We genuinely enjoy working on it. It’s been fun to watch it evolve, to see it through. It’s been about the process,” Manda said. “When I get on a ladder, there’s my husband’s handwriting. That’s incredibly endearing.”
“It’s a labor of love,” David acknowledged.
The two-bedroom, two-bathroom house offers 2,000 square feet of living space, which hovers above a hangar of the same size. To maximize space below, the second floor is built like a bridge, suspended with tension members, rather than held up by posts. The hangar, which will have dramatic, hinged polycarbonate doors that will slide back into the building’s rounded walls, also has space for a workshop.
David chose to build with concrete because he didn’t want to hear the wind blowing in heavy gusts across the Lower Valley. Concrete also retains heat, so he insulated it on the outside to maintain the interior temperature. The floors are heated, and Manda says they plan to carpet the master and guest suites, lay inset carpet in the living area, and find another “soft surface” for the kitchen floor.
The guest suite includes a bathroom, and the master suite features a large closet with space for laundry machines, as well as an ironing board that folds out from the wall and looks out at the view. The main living space features huge, southeast-facing windows, which look onto sloping green land, a slough, and the Swan Mountains. The kitchen will be well appointed, “with a lot of stainless steel,” David said, to give Manda room to play and entertain. The house’s appliances need to be installed, including hanging toilets, a long-running joke between the couple — Manda says she knew she’d found a refined electrician when he mentioned plans for the sleek fixture. They’ll also put in a plunge pool, which will sit near a future sprawling garden.
One of the Camp’s unique features is its front door, framed by Carl Ambrose and built by metal sculptor David Secrest, two local talents and friends of the Hudaks. Designed to play on scale, the door is diminutive, as it appears to be much smaller than it truly is. It also conceals the sweeping high interior ceilings.
“So often, (entryways are) designed to be huge and a little intimidating,” Secrest said. “There’s certain cultures where you have to bow down to get through the low door. It sort of disarms you as you go through it. It’s humbling. From the distance, the building looks much larger, because you’re using that as a reference to give yourself a sense of scale. It’s a little bit jarring to your sense of perspective.”
Then, when you reach for the handle, the door opens up in an unexpected fashion, by way of a jagged crack.
“When you open the door, and you open the crack, it takes that sense of scale and gives it a humorous quality,” Secrest said. “I’ve never seen a door open in a crack. Things that are old, you have a crack in it, and it gives it a sense of time. Things do come apart; there’s a temporal aspect. It’s the whole idea of having some flaw in this thing.”
As David and Manda refine the home’s decorative aesthetic, they plan to incorporate more work of many other Flathead artists, as a “unique way of reflecting our environment,” Manda said. She feels blessed to know so many talented friends.
They’ll paint at least one interior wall purple, Manda’s favorite color. A few shades they’re currently considering include expressive plum, exclusive plum, and quixotic plum. They’re considering a different shade of deep purple/gray for the exterior that will “melt into our eastern mountain palate,” Manda said.
Even unfinished, there’s been buzz about the home, from neighbors and strangers alike, including some who have dropped by asking about the project and whether it’s for sale. The Hudaks can’t wait to call it home.
“We’re pushing pretty hard on it now; we’re both pretty anxious (to complete it),” David said.
Then, he can make the final tweaks to the Velocity and fly, maybe to Rosauers or Schafer Meadows or Mexico. And when David returns from the clouds, he’ll push back the arching clear hangar doors, roll the plane inside, turn the lights off, and be at home.