Leading Edge: Just Add Aviation

Where airplanes make everything better.

I have been hearing about the $100 hamburger since long before I had a pilot certificate. The phrase itself is meant to conjure up the absurdity/passion surrounding aviation, but it always made perfect sense to me. The dream of becoming a pilot was not about access to remote and exotic locations, but rather to visit places I already knew—only to approach them from the air. Even precertificated, I knew that adding aviation to the familiar only sweetens the pot.

Let’s start with food. There’s a reason that overpriced burger is an aviation milestone. My theory is that having a “mission” makes a flight seem more urgent, more necessary and ultimately more defensible. Every pilot I know is just begging for an excuse to head to the airport. And eating is important. If you don’t do it, you will die. That is a fact. A flight in an airplane seems totally justified with such life-or-death stakes.

There’s a great lobster shack in Montauk, New York, where my friend Glenn lives. From my home upstate, it’s a five-hour drive—a worthy pilgrimage on the way there, a complete waste of time on the long road home. Weather permitting and Glenn willing, I fly east. This past summer, everything lined up, and I pulled the airplane from the hangar, excited to move from mountains to ocean in an hour’s time. I can recall crossing the Hudson River as I watched the New York skyline pass off my right wing, then following the long finger of Long Island eastward to land at the tricky field Montauk can sometimes be. After tying down my Beech Bonanza, I hopped in Glenn’s car, and 20 minutes later, we were eating warm, buttered lobster rolls. Glenn marveled that a phone call over breakfast quickly turned into lunch. He asked about the flight and the approach over the beach. He had heard (correctly) that the winds can get weird at Montauk with tall dunes near the runway. I played it down. Flying is normal, I told him. Mundane, even. It’s just like driving a car.

It’s not, of course. It’s magic. Pure magic. I just don’t want to scare the deer. With time, I’ve learned it’s often better to not extol the magical elements of aviation to nonpilot friends. It doesn’t convey the confidence needed to get them on board. We finished our meal, and then I casually climbed back into my V-Tail and, like a bird, flew myself the 140 miles home, 2 miles above the Earth, feeling just as astonished as Glenn.

This past month, while I was working in California, my buddy Carlo Mirarchi, a chef, told me about a restaurant up in San Jose where his mentor cooks. Google informed me this would be a six-hour, eight-minute drive. ForeFlight called it at one hour and 38 minutes. Now I’m no mathematician, but those numbers clearly illustrate that flying would be more fun than driving. I offered to fly us up from Santa Monica. That logic worked for Carlo, who met me at the airport. No magic mentioned. Just practical travel. Nothing to see here.

Actually, quite a bit to see. “Right turn at the shoreline approved” was the instruction from Santa Monica Tower as they cleared us for Runway 21. Departing at sunset, climbing at 1,700 feet per minute, we watched the marine layer begin its creep back toward the coast off Malibu, while the sun disappeared off the left wing. Smooth air and cool temps kept passenger and engine happy, respectively. Autopilot on, route activated, prop pulled back, mixture leaned, engine cowlings closed. With all that done, I leaned my seat back and freely wallowed in the joy of answering my friend’s multiple questions about the new panel and systems. There’s always so much going on for me up there. All of it good. Magic, surely.

The meal was one of the best I’ve had. Food taken to another level. Twenty courses, many ingredients of which I could not identify without the server’s help. My favorite was the fresh truffles over handmade pasta so thin, it was almost translucent. But I found myself sitting there, eating dessert, becoming just as excited to get back to the plane and fly home as I was to sit down to the food. This was the $100 burger, flipped. An incredible meal made almost trivial by the draw of the return flight.

If a good meal could be made magical by flight, this was a pale shadow to the brilliance of what flying did for the other passion in my life, motorcycle racing. The epiphany struck years ago when I saw a photo of a Pilatus PC-12 loaded with two sport bikes in the baggage area. Many times over many years, I have made the 16-hour one-way trip from upstate New York to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Those road trips were great. Fine memories. But once you learn to fly, a road trip seems arcane. My Ford F-150 might as well have been a pack mule. When I was finally able to rent a Piper Arrow, I had command of a spaceship.

Read More from Ben Younger: Leading Edge

I flew my friends across the Canadian border in that Arrow to Calabogie, Ontario, the site of my favorite racetrack on Earth. It’s a perfect asphalt ribbon cut and paved into the land, miraculously done without disturbing the surrounding landscape. Racing was something we all loved and knew, but with the Arrow, I had the unique opportunity to introduce my friends to aviation. None of them had ever flown with me before. I had a newly minted complex/high-performance rating under my belt and couldn’t wait to show them what a retractable was capable of. But I had never flown the Arrow with all four seats full, and it is not known for its aerodynamic efficiencies. The phrase “flying brick” has been mentioned.

We made a required stop in Kingston, New York, to clear customs. The approach was fine, but I flared a bit early over the runway, and she dropped the last 5 feet like a Steinway after a crane cable snaps. I saw all the confidence I had accrued during takeoff and cruise drain from my passengers’ faces in one brief gravitational pull. I made sure not to repeat the mistake flying into our destination airport in Ontario. On the way home, confidence restored, I let my friend Ilya, an emergency room doctor, take the controls and watched the sheer joy on his face as he piloted his first airplane. Working at a trauma center, he treats gunshot wounds with the coolness of James Dean. But when his hands grabbed the yoke, his face lit up like a small child.

If I needed further proof that flight sprinkles magic dust on everything, this past winter, I had the opportunity to fly to Inde Motorsports Ranch in Arizona. This racetrack was an airfield in a former life—a common occurrence because the zoning is favorable, the eased noise restrictions are in place, and a runway makes for a perfect straightaway for motorcycles. I called the manager a few days beforehand, and he told me to just radio in when I was close. On approach, I saw bikes racing around the track. I called in, and they paused the session, cleared the track and gave me permission to land. You make it a good one when all your fellow racers are watching. I taxied off the active, returning the asphalt to its double life as a racetrack, then parked and grabbed my gear from the back of the plane. Forty-five minutes later, I threw a leg over a Yamaha Champions Racing School R6 and screamed down that runway at 150 mph. No rotation this time. Just lean angle.

Ever since getting my license, an invitation to a wedding, a track day or just plain old lunch becomes a chance to fly. The first thing I do when presented with an opportunity for travel is open a VFR chart and see where the closest airport is. And I do this with great excitement. I love every minute of the time spent researching and planning a flight. Figuring out a route, planning fuel stops, checking weather, studying instrument approaches are all tasks that fire up some primordial part of my genetic constitution as a human. And as such, I will come up with whatever reason necessary to open that hangar door.

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This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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