The Magic of a Random Destination

Dick heads out for the thousand-dollar hamburger and finds magic in a random destination.



I'm not given to the $100 hamburger. This euphemism for a flight designed to get the pilot and the airplane out of the house, into the air, and over to a nearby airport that features a restaurant of uncertain quality has never held me in its grasp. I'm more inclined to flights that take me somewhere for purposes other than nutrition.

I make no judgment about pilots who do make the trip for lunch, however. I enjoy a good meal at a good eatery as well as the next guy and any time I can find one at an airport, I go there preferentially. Although I usually arrive by surface transportation, those pilots who have flown in give me something interesting to look at while I enjoy good food.

About once a year, though, I break all my own rules and prejudices and find a way to give into the very human desire to fly someplace just to look around and see something new. During a two-week vacation in New Hampshire last summer, my wife and I took a few hours to enjoy just this type of outing.

I was talking about a suitable destination with Mac McClellan one August morning soon after Oshkosh. Since he lives in the Northeast and I live in Florida, I figured him to be a good guide for the New England $100 hamburger. When I suggested Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket, he laughed at my naiveté. "Those places are mobbed in August. Sometimes there isn't any place to park. Why don't you try Rockland, Maine? They've got a transportation museum right there on the airport," he said.

Fair enough, I thought. KRKD was just 144 nautical miles away from our temporary airport in Lebanon, New Hampshire, it was neatly situated on the jagged coastline and we guessed that a lobster lunch could be found. I discovered two FBOs on the field in my Ac-U-Kwik and phoned them. Each had the same jet- A fuel price (45 cents cheaper than KLEB) and at one, Downeast Air, the phone was answered by an extremely helpful woman named Leslie. She promised a crew car and directions to a good lunch. Not the famous hamburger, but perhaps an equally expensive lobster.

The day was clear with a cold frontal passage and associated thunderstorms predicted for the late afternoon. I decided to go VFR, an unusual move for us in our Cheyenne, which is more efficient up high. I programmed our flight direct to GRUMP intersection, then direct to Rockland. We took off to the south, turned almost directly east, climbed to 13,500 feet and called Boston Center on 134.7. They immediately pointed out an Airbus at nine o'clock at 12,000. We turned slightly left at GRUMP and the Maine coast came into view. We easily spotted Portland, often voted one of the nicest cities in the country in which to live.

The coastline was indeed beautiful; there are coves and bays, inlets and rivers. RKD has an AWOS, so the weather was available, which was reassuring given the fact that we could see fog hugging the land. Some houses were visible in the oblique morning sunlight, while others were obviously obscured by the white coverlet that frothed just at the shore's edge. The airport was reported clear below 12,000.

We were turned over to Brunswick (Naval Air Station) Approach and they immediately instructed us to fly a 10-mile arc around their airport. The only trouble was that the field was not in our GPS database and by the time I dialed in the intersection (BRNNS) that sits right on top of the field, I was within eight miles of the airport. Since the president of the United States was due in Maine the next day for the wedding of his nephew, I worried that this incursion would result in the dispatch of a brace of F-16's. But nobody said anything and I quickly got us established on the required arc. We were not shot down.

We descended for Runway 13 and heard a Waco reporting four miles out when we were six from the threshold. A polite unicom discussion resulted in the other pilot entering the downwind and allowing us to land first. At least I think that is what he said; his accent was thick with Maine heritage. We thanked the locally based aviator and taxied up to Downeast Air, where its president, Robert Stenger, waved us to a stop in front of his "hangaaah"and showed us to a 1988 Mercury Sable wagon with a coat hanger for a radio antenna and a scant 135, 870 miles on the odometer. He directed us to the harbor and a great seaside restaurant.

We missed the Maine LobsterFest by one day, but we did not miss out on the lobster. We sat outside and watched the heavily armed Navy men guard the launch to the destroyer Booth that sat moored off shore. I had a lobster roll and Cathy had a genuine steamed Maine lobster, complete with bib and melted butter. Her response is obvious in the picture below.

The lobster lunch cost $42.20 and was worth every penny. We strolled through the picturesque downtown, looked into several art galleries and curio shops. The latter have sprung up in response to the arrival of cruise ships with their captive audience of buyers.

When we spotted an old-fashioned drug store with a soda fountain, we had to stop for a mint chocolate chip milkshake (thick, please) before staggering back out to the street.

On the way back to the airport, we stopped at the Owls Head Transportation Museum and found a surprisingly complete and detailed collection of antique airplanes, automobiles and, of all things, bicycles. This is no ordinary transportation museum. Founded by Thomas J. Watson Jr. (son of IBM's Thomas Watson), James Rockefeller Jr. and Steven Lang, the museum appears exceptionally well-funded and the attention to detail is easy to discern. There are full-scale flyable reproductions of the Curtiss Model D Pusher and the Sopwith Pup, among others, and an original Jenny and a 1941 Stearman.

Placards by each plane were full of colorful information. The Curtiss Pusher was one of the first airplanes to have ailerons; they had been allegedly suggested by Alexander Graham Bell, who worked with Glenn Curtiss. The Sopwith Pup was the first to land on a moving ship. Without brakes, it had leather straps so that deck hands could apprehend the just- landed airplane. The Jenny replaced the Pusher as a trainer because there had been too many deaths in the latter. And more.

The automobiles were great. Old Mercedes and Packards were beautifully maintained and displayed. An upcoming auto auction made for a floor full of antiques, and I wanted desperately to return to bid on an old Porsche, after I won the lottery.

We drove back around the field, filled up the courtesy car and pulled up to the hangar in time to see what looked like a Falcon 2000 take off on Runway 13. Several people stood on the tarmac watching as the big jet shot down the runway and then disappeared in the fog. For several seconds none of us could see the airplane and somebody said, "Well, at least I don't see any smoke." Finally the jet reappeared out of the cloud in an arcing right turn. Robert Spengler said, "He's heavy, full of fuel, and going all the way to Sugarland, Texas."

Robert gave us a break on our fuel, we said hello and thanked Leslie, preflighted and boarded. I filed IFR on the return as the cold front and showers had slid east and were just north of our route. We taxied out, took off on 13 and turned right. Brunswick Approach answered right away and cleared us as filed, even though, this time, I was ready to circumnavigate the Naval Air Station. We climbed to 12,000 and noted thunderstorms just to the right of our course. In and out of clouds, we congratulated ourselves on the best of the $100 hamburger experiences.

Our trip home took 42 minutes, 10 longer than the trip out. We descended to 4,700 feet and, once cleared for the visual to 25, switched over to the Lebanon tower frequency. This sounds easy but is harder than it might seem because a hill obscures the airport from the anxious eyes of pilots arriving from the east. We found it though, then landed softly and taxied to the hangar. We had left mid-morning and returned mid-afternoon. We had seen a whole new part of the country, listened to different accents, eaten the wonderful local seafood, and sauntered through an ancient historic downtown. Although it was more like a $600 hamburger that wasn't a hamburger, it was glorious. Rockland is available to almost any pilot in the northeast and it is certainly worth the visit. I may be rethinking the notion of flying out for a nice lunch. Right now, I have the sights of the day in my head. The blue sky on the way over, the nestled fog on the coast, the new-to-me runway at Rockland, the waterside lobster roll, the immaculate museum and the menacing thunderstorms just out of our line of flight on the way home, all made for a day to remember on other days that may not be so full of pleasantness. That is the purpose of a vacation, isn't it?