Eating local

“Where’s the best place to eat around here?” I asked the lineman.

“Well, we’ve got an Applebee’s,” he replied with great pride, “about four miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”

Rio and I exchanged a critical look. “Uh… any thing more local?” I pressed, “We’ve got an Applebee’s back home, and we always like to try something we can’t get at home when we’re traveling.”

The lineman seemed befuddled by this. “Well… what are you in the mood for?”

Now, Lisa and I made that mistake a few weeks ago when we were in the mood for a steak in a town that didn’t have good steaks. I parried, “What’s the local specialty?”

The lineman hesitated. Fidgeted with his pen, and finally said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Clearly he’d never had this sort of conversation before. Clearly my new plan of when in Rome, eat what the Romans are eating, wasn’t working out too well either. The conversation started to go downhill from there, so I placed our fuel order and signed for the crew car.

At the hotel I asked the front desk clerk, “Where’s the best place to eat around here?”

“We have an Applebee’s,” she replied with upbeat enthusiasm, “about two miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”

“Uh… anything more local?” I pressed, “we’ve got an Applebee’s at home and we always like to try something new when we’re traveling.”

The clerk bit her lip, “That’s pretty much the best place in town.”

I found that hard to believe, but I didn’t press her further.

The gas gauge on the crew car was on “empty,” and remembering the time in Liberal, Kansas when the crew car gave up the ghost on us and left us stranded, we stopped at a station next to the hotel to add a few gallons. I asked the guy at the gas station where a good place to eat was. You guessed it: Applebee’s. When I pressed for local flavor he said, “Well, we’ve got a bunch of Mexican places that are pretty all right.”

We are from New Mexico. This was Texas. Even the best Mexican food in Texas is bound to disappoint.

And you know what? In the end, the Applebee’s was very good.

When in Rome… even if the Romans are eating at Applebee’s.

Applebee's

Not just a plane ol’ restaurant

As soon as I saw the Ercoupe on the menu, I knew this was going to be my kind of place.

What? Oh, you misunderstood me. You can’t order an Ercoupe there, but The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has a photo of an Ercoupe decorating the border of its dinner menu, right next to the Flying Chicken Florentine.

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And another Ercoupe picture is featured by the Chocolate Touchdown. And a third by the Runway Chunky Chicken Strips. Of course the menu art also includes Jennies, the Wright Flyer, a flying car, the Bell X-1, and military planes both new and old. It also has images of famous fliers. And sexy stewardesses.

But no other plane had two pictures, much less three. I suspected someone at The Airplane had a special fondness for Ercoupes, and this turned out to be true. More on that after dessert. Actually, let’s back up to the appetizer for a moment.

Now there’s no shortage of airplane-themed restaurants at or near airports. Most are decorated with aviation art, and many have dozens of model planes hanging from the ceiling. But the Airplane ups the ante: The restaurant is in a plane. Well part of it, anyway. And part of the plane is in the restaurant, as well, much the way old railroad cars were used for roadside diners back in the day. And the merging of plane and restaurant is a work of architectural art.

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Yep, The Airplane Restaurant is the proud owner of a Boeing KC-97, one of the largest and most powerful piston planes ever built. The KC-97 was sort of like a double-decker B-29. It had four engines, each with 28 pistons generating 3,500 horsepower per engine. In civilian clothes Pan Am flew them as Stratocruisers on the San Fran-Honolulu run. It was the first pressurized passenger plane, and reverse of a 747, had seats for 100 on the top deck and a lounge on the lower deck at the bottom of a spiral staircase.

Well, The Airplane’s airplane is a retired military job, so there’s no spiral staircase. But they’ve done a marvelous job of turning the plane into any pilot’s dream lounge.

The port wing and outermost engine are actually inside the main restaurant. I’m not sure if they built the building around the plane, or crashed the plane into the building, but the effect is wonderful. Under the wing are tables and booths. Behind it is a bar. Two sets of stairs lead up into the fuselage of the giant plane. In the back, they’ve left the refueling hardware intact (this plane served as an aerial tanker) and it’s fully visible behind a glass door. In the front, the spacious cockpit is intact and open for all takers.

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I “flew” the beast for a bit, with Rio behind me serving as the flight engineer. A precocious three-year old girl was busy flying right seat and Rio was too much of a gentleman to boot her out. By far, it is the most spacious cockpit I’ve even been in. I think it’s bigger than my office back home. Behind the cockpit, booths line both sides of the fuselage.

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And the tables are topped with shellaced sectional charts. Ironically, our table had the Albuquerque sectional on it.

I guess they were expecting us.

Downstairs, in the rest of the restaurant, the owners have taken aviation décor to the extreme the same way we have with our hangar. There are airplane models hanging from the ceilings, in display cabinets, and on every horizontal surface. Giant cockpit posters grace some walls, while other walls feature “nose art” or pictures of famous planes, famous aviators, and famous aviatrixes.

Any pilot will feel immediately at home with—if not a hair jealous of—the collection.

The staff all wear pilot shirts and mix aviation humor into their spiel. Hell, even the bathrooms have an airplane theme. Oh, not to worry, they are full-sized, but motion sensors trigger jet-plane take off noises when you open the door to enter the bathroom.

After our dinner, managing partner and pilot in command Steve Kanatzar made his way through the cabin checking on his passengers. He spied the Ercoupe logos on the sleeves of our summer flight jackets and ran to fetch a menu. “Did you see we have an Ercoupe on the menu?” he asked.

“I saw you had three,” I replied, “who’s the lady standing on the wing of the plane next to the Flying Chicken Florentine?”

It turns out the woman on the wing was his grandmother. In another photo, the two men leaning comfortably against the rear fuselage were his uncles. Kanatzar was recently able to track down his grandfather’s old Ercoupe, now residing in California, and now for sale. Sadly, he reported, the plane was suffering from corrosion. “I just can’t take on a project airplane,” he told me.

Thinking back on how much we’ve spent to get Tessie in good condition, despite the fact that our pre-buy mechanic assured us all was well, I let him in on the secret: “All Ercoupes are project airplanes.”

But maybe a restaurant in a plane is project enough for one man. But I must say, it was a project brilliantly executed.

Oh. The food. How was the food? you ask.

First Class.

Why Angels have wings

We pilots need an excuse to fly. I don’t know why, flying is fun. We should just be able to say, “Hey I’m going flying because it brings me joy,” but instead we always make up “reasons” to take wing.

Don’t believe me? Look no further than the infamous $100 hamburger. Everyone in aviation knows what a $100 hamburger is. It’s an excuse to fly. In this case, the excuse is that you have to take your friends to a neighboring airport for a “great” meal you just can’t get at home. Of course, it’s nonsense. The burger is generally no better—and sometimes far worse—than you can get down the street, and the commuting cost really adds to the price (hence the name).

It’s just an excuse to fly.

But during the last few years a new kind of excuse to fly has blossomed, and it’s one that benefits society at the same time that it serves our need for an excuse to fly. Volunteer pilots, flying general aviation airplanes at their own expense, have flown thousands of mercy missions. Now, I’m not talking about flying vaccines in the African bush to help out mankind (although I’d jump on that bandwagon in two seconds, if I could). Instead, every day, all kinds of domestic mercy missions are flown right here at home. In our own backyard.

Through dozens of organizations, general aviation pilots have saved baby sea turtles, prevented pound pups from being euthanized by transporting them to new owners in other states, mapped environmental changes, and more. But dearest to my heart, even though I’ve never worked with them (for reasons I’ll share in a moment), is Angel Flight. Our home state, New Mexico, is served by two overlapping “chapters” of the loose Angel Flight network. We have Angel Flight West and Angel Flight South Central, but they work together on a single mission: Helping sick people who have transportation issues get to where they need to go to receive medical treatment. Or, as their promotional refrigerator magnet more elegantly puts it: “Half the cure is getting there.”

That’s no joke.

Most people don’t know this, but transportation to medical treatment is a huge barrier right here in the US of A. Health insurance might cover chemo treatments, but many times won’t help get the patient to the cancer center. That’s where Angel Flight comes in, and the Angel Flight mission is dear to my heart because I have a secret: I’m not just an aviation journalist. I also work three days a week in a clinical role for a non-profit community health center in a very poor part of my state. I’ve seen first-hand how a lack of transportation impacts health. People die, right here in this great country, because they can’t “get there.” I once trained a young medical student who wanted to serve in the Third World. I told her she didn’t need a Passport. There are third-world countries right here in New Mexico, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama…

So you can see why I’d be eager to fly Angel flights. So how come I’m not doing it? Because, ironically, I myself am too “sick” to combine my love of flight, my family airplane, and my not inconsiderable knowledge of medicine. The various Angel Flights require their volunteer pilots to have a medical certificate, and I don’t have one, for two reasons.

First, the Plane Tales Plane is a Legacy Light Sport plane. She doesn’t require a medical to fly, just a pilot’s license and a valid driver’s license. And second, as I got older I developed one of those medical conditions that—while it’s still perfectly possible to get a medical with—ends up adding cost and time to the process. So bottom line, as it’s a hassle to get a medical and I don’t need one to fly the family plane, I simply haven’t bothered with it.

Still, while I can’t fly missions of mercy for Angel Flight, when I read about Angel Flight’s second annual fly-in in Albuquerque, it got me thinking that there might be some other role for me to play to help their cause. I thought maybe I could put my pen to work in their service. So that was my excuse for flying to the Big City. Yeah. According to my logbook, I flew a three-point-four-hour round trip to do what a 30-second email could have accomplished.

Or maybe not.

Because something unexpected happened at the airport.

While the chief meteorologist from the local Center was showing slides of microbursts, I sought out Angel Flight West executive director Josh Olson, who’d come out from California for the fly-in. I outlined my situation, and during our brief chat he told me that Angel Flight was actually good on pilots, and also good on publicity. But he bemoaned the fact that the real weak link was on the medical side, where the organization seemed to be having a hard time getting the word out to doctors about the availability of the service and the volunteer pilots.

Now, what’s odd about Josh’s comment is that I was in my secret identity mode. Past experience has taught me that while there are lots of pilots with all kinds of health challenges, it’s not something that we pilots will collectively admit to. Macho pilot “culture” prohibits it, and when it sometimes gets out that I don’t have the “Right Stuff” medically, I’ve found that I’m treated like a leper. The actual fact is that, because I have a chronic health condition that requires some attention, I’m actually healthier than I was back in the day when I had a top-of-the line 1st Class Medical Certificate. In fact, I bet that I’m in waaaaaaay better health than the guys who treat me like a leper. Still, I don’t enjoy being treated that way, so I’ve learned to keep a low profile and try to separate my two worlds. I never let on about my health condition or my healthcare profession in flying circles, and I don’t generally talk about flying in my health circles. So Josh had no clue that I work in medicine when he shared his problem with me.

I can only assume that an Angel whispered in his ear.

I debated internally for a moment, then the better angels of my nature took over and I “came out of the closet” about my connections in the world beyond the hangar, runway, and tower. My connections to hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies.

“Funny you should mention that, because being an aviation journalist is only part of what I do for a living…”

 

$100 Huevos Rancheros

Ree and I popped over to Tucumcari today to visit a pilot friend and take her to brunch. The morning was lovely, and we set out for SXU just as the sun was beginning to paint the sky a riot of pinks, reds, and oranges. A distant straggler from the previous night’s line of thunderstorms was retreating to the east, dragging a trail of virga over the mesa tops. High wispy cirrus clouds topped the dome of the sky.

We lifted off smooth as an elevator and turned due East… Straight into the sun.

Memo to self: Avoid early morning flights due East.

25 minutes of squinting and sunburn later, we finally caught up to the the straggler storm and stole some much-needed shade from it. Just shy of our destination we rolled off course and dropped down to the tree tops to search out a probable airmail beacon site, but came up dry. Based on our past finds (I don’t think I got around to blogging it yet, but farther west Rio and I found two more sites a few weeks ago), we knew the folks that built the beacon towers had a fondness for the high ground. Anyway, looking at the marked location of our current target on the old charts, and studying the terrain on our GPS, I was absolutely positive I could find this site in two seconds. The GPS showed a lone butte of the type the beacon service was fond of.

But when we got there, there was no lone butte. The land below our wings was a virtual village of buttes, cerittios, hills and hillocks. The damn thing is down there somewhere, but finding it would have to wait until we had more time. We had a brunch date. We peeled off and pointed our nose to Tucumcari, airport ID TCC.

I love TCC. It’s kinda long in the tooth now (like many New Mexico airports), but at one time it was a happenin’ place. They have two good runways, a large terminal, a lovely old-school beacon tower with the big rotating light, dozens of old hangars, shops, and hail sheds–mostly empty–and, my favorite feature, a fueling island.

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Back in the day, at busy airports, islands like this one made it possible to fill up a lot of planes quickly and easily. The pump is in the middle and a long hose can reach any point on the island. You don’t have to wait in line for the previous guy to leave before you get your plane filled up. Today, Tess was the only visitor, and the lineman was good natured about putting a gallon and a half in each wing. Hey, it wasn’t much, but we always try to support any airport we land at.

Over brunch our pal, whom I’ll call “Betty,” filled us in on her adventures at the big EAA fly-in at Oshkosh, and then we started talking about planes. She’s into both Ultralights and Light Sports and has built, five, I think. I asked her how she got into airplanes. “Oh, I started with RC planes,” she told me. For those of you who don’t know, RC stands for Radio Controlled, and while some folks might regard these as toys, nothing could be farther from the truth. RC planes are miniature planes that do everything their larger people-carrying cousins can do. Including crash. Trust me, I know about this, having four times crashed Rio’s RC helicopter

“I still have some, would you like to pop by my place on the way back to the airport and see them?” Betty asked.

I glanced at my watch and glanced at Rio, who bobbed his head up and down. OK, we got time and the boy wants to see the planes. Why not?

So we went. OMG, what a collection! Betty had nearly 50 RC planes hanging from the ceilings of every room of her house. Some were HUGE. All were beautiful. The detail was immaculate. She had a twin-engine Cessna 310 that must have a had a wing span of four feet. There was a Pitts. A Cub. A F4 Phantom. Float planes. An anphib. High wings. Low wings. Bi wings. Even a frickin’ airliner for crying out loud!

She built every one of them herself. Some from kits, some from plans, some from scratch. I was stunned. But my favorite was an amazing shiny silver Ercoupe, flying upside down from her living room ceiling (above a large HO scale electric train set that took up nearly every square foot of the room). At the controls was Barbie. Buggs bunny was the co-pilot.

Betty saw me gazing lovingly at the silver ‘Coupe. “That was the first plane I ever built,” she told me with pride. “I built it from scratch. No plans. No kit. It flies good too.” I was absolutely floored. Trust me on this, I spend a lot of time looking at Ercoupes. And Betty got every detail, every curve, every contour, every detail exactly perfect, right down the the spark plug covers. Her Ercoupe was a masterpiece.

That’s what’s great about the aviation world. It’s full of unexpected connections. Her first “plane” was an Ercoupe.

So was mine.