Saturday, May 21, 2011

$200 Crab Cake

"The $100 Hamburger" is an old expression pilots use to convey the idea of flying somewhere for no real reason other than to joyfully exercise the ability to fly. While there, they'll stop in at the local airport grill (a fading concept, to say the least) and buy a hamburger, then fly back home. Considering the fuel costs and fixed costs amortized over every hour of flight of one's airplane (tie down fees, maintenance, insurance, and more), the assumption is that the pilot spent around $100 just to get that hamburger. And they'd do again over and over.

It doesn't cost $100 anymore, however.

New to airplane ownership, it wasn't until today that I finally took the opportunity to fly to another airport simply because I could.

Venice Beach, on Florida's gulf coast, is place many friends I know fly to from where I live at Quest Hang Gliding Airpark (formerly an old cropduster airport, officially known as Sheets Airfield). They either do so assuredly, with powered aircraft, or with limited success in a hang glider.

Two other popular flying destinations in this part of Florida are Chalet Suzanne to the south or Cedar Key to the north west. Both, however, have fields a little too tight for my comfort (and underpowered airplane). So I chose Venice Beach for my first adventure in $100 hamburgers and used my iPad to plan a route from Leesburg, where I keep my plane (as Quest Airpark is also a little too tight for my level of experience with this plane).

I set in three airports as waypoints to give me a gentle curve to the east that avoided Tampa's airspace. First up was an airport across the street from Quest, one that would give me a nice view of Quest (the blue dot) out my left seat window on the way down. Secondly was the airport in Lakeland, home of each April's Sun n' Fun Airshow (perhaps the second largest air show in the country). This last April was the first time I visited it and I was curious what the field would look like now, empty, when last April it had been overrun with aircraft and cars.

Thirdly, and almost reluctantly, I chose Hidden River as my last waypoint. It's a private airport community that I'd only heard of because it's mentioned now and then on the The Uncontrolled Air Space Podcast (UCAP), to which I regularly listen. It comes up so often because it's the home of Jeb, one of the podcast's hosts.

Even though Hidden River would be a perfect waypoint for me, I chose it hesitantly because it seemed almost voyeuristic of me to be peering down on the home of a celebrity of sorts (to me, at least), someone I'd met and shook hands with at last April's Sun n' Fun.

Because of plans formed and commitments made long before I decided to buy an airplane last summer, I've spent eight months overseas during this first year of owning an airplane. Furthermore, in just a week I'll leave for another summer in Europe.

The plane has, then, been severely under-utilized, something I hope to make up for this fall once I'm back. Further adding to it's neglect has been my focus on getting a multi-engine rating in the ten weeks I've been home since returning from Australia. A few days ago I took my own plane up for two hours of just flying around, immersing myself in the newly acquired joy that I could fly whenever I wanted, and so I just floated around, gazing from above at this or that or anything else that interested me.

To make some practical use of the time, I maintained a specific altitude and power setting during the entire flight so that I could start gathering data on my engine's fuel consumption under various conditions. This is something it's Pilot's Operating Handbook spells out in great detail but, with a 42 year old aircraft, is unlikely to have much bearing on reality now.

This morning I drove the short drive to Leesburg, preflighted the plane and topped off the fuel, then departed south for Venice Beach and a hamburger. First waypoint up was Osborn, the airport across the street. Passing over it, I watched Quest Airpark drift by on my left, a sight I'd seen for hours on end while hang gliding. I was more interest in what was next; Lakeland.

Though my navigation waypoint was oriented to a point in the center of the airfield, I purposely drifted right so that I could view the airport in it's entirety from the window to my left. I was cruising 2000 feet above the airport's airspace ceiling so I didn't need to talk to the tower to overfly, but I still tuned it in to listen to what was happening in Lakeland's vicinity.

Having spent the major part of four very happy days last April on a small section of its grounds where the airshow displays were focused (the corner centered in the bottom of the picture with many trees), I felt a great sense of nostalgia viewing it as I was from the air, even though the memories were only a month old. There Dolores and I strolled among the warbirds. There we sat on the grass and watched the airshow, there I met the UCAP gang...

The home airport (and actual home) of Jeb, one of the UCAP gang, was up next. As I approached it, the CAVU day (Ceiling Absolute, Visibility Unlimited) was turning into the typical Florida summer afternoon; heavily developing clouds that often turn into thunderstorms.

By the time I got to Hidden River, I felt somewhat self conscious about wondering just where it was that Jeb might live. Some features are mentioned often enough on the podcast (a small lake, a particular kind of building) that if I really looked, I could probably figure out which house was his. Because of this, I almost felt it appropriate to avert my gaze, so to speak, and use only my GPS and iPad (running Foreflight navigation software) to confirm I had, in fact, reached the waypoint.

If anyone truly perused my own blog, they, too, could probably figure out just exactly which door to knock on if they really wanted to meet me or, perhaps, know which door to open to take books? My couch? Since my computer and iPad travel with me, probably the only thing worth taking in my home when I'm traveling is my espresso maker. If it turns out that someone really needs it, I suppose I could get another.

One of the reasons I live here, however, despite a greater longing for a cooler climate (and mountains...and running streams...and snow in the winter...and...and...) is something that most likely would prevent such an occurrence of theft. It's not just an airport, it's a community of hang glider pilots and tow pilots and people who "get it," as I've heard many pilots say about other pilots. We love waking up in the morning the sound of a 582 or a 912 (if you don't get that, you won't get it). Anyone walking up to my door, therefore, will be noticed by anyone...and everyone knows everyone...and knows who should and shouldn't be walking up to my door when I'm not here. It's like a gated community without the gate. People who've flown all their lives fly around as if they were walking to the mail box and back. People who've never flown anything smaller than an airline all their lives fly in something not much more than four tubes and a big patch of sail cloth, and send squeals of delight cascading down the atmosphere to where I'm sitting with a cup of coffee under my awning on a summer morning.

I politely averted my gaze as Jeb's airport neared. More to the point, the developing clouds had forced me to drop from my comfortable (and cool) altitude of 4500 down to 2500 just to get under them. Furthermore, I was only 12nm from Venice, an airport busy with student pilots and other aircraft that I could already hear repeatedly on the airport's frequency. I'd been monitoring it for the last ten minutes and was surprised at the volume of traffic. At Hidden River, low and that close to Venice, I was too busy looking forward, left and right for traffic to gaze at the ground.

And then, there it was. Venice Beach; soon to be home of my first $100 hamburger.

I landed and went into an airport cafe next to where I tied down my airplane. Sharky's on the Pier (visible on the coast on the left in the full sized version of the above picture) had been my intended goal but, one, it was a two mile walk around the airport's perimeter and, two, the developing clouds were worrying me. A phone call to the flight weather briefer worried me even more. He mentioned the possibility of thunderstorms back up at Leesburg. I'm glad I came down, I thought, but now I want to go...not hurriedly, but certainly not with my intended sense of leisure that would include a walk down to Sharky's and back. So I sat down in the airport cafe and, not really enthused about a hamburger, ordered a crabcake instead. My bill was $11. I left a $2 tip and went to fuel up my airplane.

Fuel for the round trip was $101.14. Add $13 for the crab cake and iced tea and you get $114.14. The hourly fixed cost on my Cessna 150J is hard to pin down this early in the game but a fair estimate might be $35. So, with 2.5 hours of flight time, the full cost of that crab cake might be closer to $200 than not.

Back home at Quest, I twittered: Had my first $100 hamburger today, but it was actually a crab cake and fuel alone was $101. Maybe, all told, $100 hamburgers are now $200.

Jack H., one of the podcasters from UCAP, responded directly to me; I'm afraid that "$100 hamburger" went the way of "shave and a haircut two bits."

I answered; Still, even at $200, it was a small thrill, coming so late in my flying career (40 years).

There's only about two days between now and my departure for Switzerland on June 1st when I'd have the chance to try this again, and earlier in the day so that I could make it to the beach and back before the thunderstorms threaten. If I can, I'll do it.

It's a new kind of thrill for me, being able to experience days like this. On one hand, I regret that it took so long for me to get to this point. On the other, and more significantly, I'm just so thrilled that I did get to this point.

Life is good.