Two aircraft parked for a hamburger run.
My first real hundred dollar hamburger adventure back in 2014

Probably one of the most popular axioms of the American general aviator: The Hundred Dollar Hamburger. A phrase often cited for being behind the times for the true cost of this lunch driven adventure, but still catchy enough to linger on. 

The premise is a simple one: have airplane, fly to another airfield, consume food in the vicinity of that airfield. Often the popularity of the airfield is directly related to the geographic proximity of the food to the transient parking tie-downs; bonus points for being able to sit and look at the airplanes that brought you there while you consume your meal. After the food consumption has completed, the majority shuffle back to their plane, punch home into the GPS, and fly their filled bellies along the magenta road home. 

Sadly, it’s killing General Aviation. 

Most of have gone and gotten one. And many of us will continue to go get them. And no, they’re not really killing this form of airborne transportation that we love, but those flights are symbolic of a key paradigm shift of the General Aviation pilots in America that is indeed hurting this industry. It’s the shift away from serious purpose to an entirely apathetically recreational purpose in our flying.

As the debate on maintaining the infrastructure that supports our flying machines ever continues to thrash over the cresting wave of user fees, airport closures, controlled airspace growth, and the menagerie of other threats to our flying ways, we need to look around and see what purpose we bring to this infrastructure. Look back to the days of the 1950’s, when Cessna was convinced that every breadwinner in the family was a traveling salesman, who’s sales could double, no triple, if he owned a Cessna. And Piper who hawked the family of four piling out of a band new Tri-Pacer (bags and all) as they arrived at grandmas for the holiday, 3 states away from home. While sure, these are contrived bits of advertising flourish, they are endemic of the real drive behind the General Aviation pilots of previous generations. These planes, and the infrastructure to support them, served a purpose in their lifestyles. 

Look around at the aviators at your airfield. How many have a real purpose to their flying? How many have fallen to the wayside, not current, plane sitting idle? There’s certainly a great health benefit to having fun in your flying. And those that can reap that reward of enjoyment in quantities that justify the expense of aviation will always exist. But for many, that luster wears off quick, and for many more, the pressure of those around them for whom the luster was always a bit dull, drives them away from this amazing skill and capability. 

How many times have you used your airplane as the sole means of taking you on a trip? To rely on the plane to get you to where you need to be. Our lives now are certainly busier and the pressure of “having to be there” is perhaps higher. But should we allow this to drive us away from using this amazing network of infrastructure for real pragmatic transportation? Or should we re-structure our lives and the expectations of those around us to better incorporate using this skillset and infrastructure. 

I fly a lot. 400 hours or so a year. Mostly in a Cessna 120 all over the western US. I rarely take road trips and I almost never fly the airlines. Holidays with my parents and relatives are at minimum 100 miles from where I live, so I fly to them. Vacations, weddings, adventures with friends, and all the other things that drive you to spend time away from home, I fly to. Those around me know this, and many are aware of the additional uncertainty that relying on General Aviation casts upon my attendance. It’s a lifestyle choice. 

One of the key observations I have made in these travels is the near total lack of other people flying for similar purposes to me. Land at a big-city urban General Aviation airfield (not one serving corporate aviation) for a major holiday, and the transient parking will have one, maybe two other planes in it; likely an RV, Cirrus, or Bonanza. That makes it real obvious how many people chose General Aviation as their means of seeing grandma for Christmas. We have an amazing network of infrastructure and we as an aviation community hardly use it. 

Now I am aware I have swung my aviation lifestyle pendulum far to the “all airplanes all the time” side of the house. But it seems many never even try to make this happen. Many are happy and content to make their hamburger runs on weekends, fly their local sorties, brave the wilds of the airport in the next town over; but when it comes time to defend the airport from the opinions of the community at large, these purely recreation reasons for having an airport don’t ring well with the rest of society. Society needs better reasons to support this infrastructure.

The purpose of this discussion is not to downplay the many fun recreational parts of flying. It’s to highlight the need to expand our purpose-driven use of General Aviation. This ability to fly across the country at-will with the confidence of safe, dependable, infrastructure in all corners of the nation is something to guard, nurture, and grow. But for it to continue to exist we need to continue to use it, to give it justification for existing. It’s time to go beyond the hundred dollar hamburger. 

Published by theflyingfiddler

General Aviation pilot trying to make the world of flying a better experience for all.

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21 Comments

  1. The reasons for this lack of purpose are the same ones that have afflicted general aviation (“GA”) since the 80’s: cost, the media hype over airplane crashes, and the loss of the “glamour” of flying. You mention the 1950’s. That was a time when people flew in suits; when airline pilots were only a step below astronauts in public admiration. Aviation was new, jets were just invented, and the future was a colorful, optimistic wonder filled with everyday space travel and cars with rocket fins. Today, air travel is drudgery, and – until about 2 years ago- was a low paid job with crappy hours. The airline shortages are making that better, but it will be difficult to restore the luster that once shone from GA. The few of us who know it’s hidden treasures and pleasures can’t fathom NOT flying. If we could expose more people to it, bring back the “neighborhood” feel of airports, and convince the public that GA is not a death sentence, that would be a good start.

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    1. Agreed on all points Marc. The appeal of flying really fell off the public’s radar over the past few decades. I am optimistic about the pilot shortage and the boon it can be for GA as the career path of aviation once again is pulling people into the GA spectrum. And the upturn I see (real or just filtered by Social Media, I am not sure) in young people buying aircraft is a real positive for the future of personal flying.

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    2. The EAA Young Eagles program is one of the best ways to do this. It is being done almost everywhere in the country; I can’t say that every single one-stoplight town in the middle of the country has these events, but in Florida, they happen several times a year in just about every city. Everybody loves it.

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  2. We need to find a way to control and reduce costs. Hangar rent, taxation, insurance, fuel, regulations are all playing a part trying to kill GA. I did a study. My kids have to work about double the number of hours at a good job in order to get a private license (a benchmark summarizing the costs of GA including aircraft fixed and variable costs, instructor wages, profit and tax.

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  3. So many ways to start! Make planes with slats that can cruise at 120 but land at 35. Make them affordable and run on auto fuel. This is all technically possible. Integrate airports into better land use. Make new and smaller airports. Lots of them. Sell the environmentally friendly aspects of aviation. Stop treating aviation like an ugly untouchable and embrace it back into society.

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  4. Cannot afford to fly for anything more than occasional recreation. Even as my salary increased nicely over the years, the cost of renting that ragged out high time trainer went up much faster.

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  5. All good points but seems to ingore the fact that over regulation of GA by the FAA keeps many people from flying. Regulation has resulted in the hight cost of GA aircraft. The fact that if a GA pilot takes a dime in compensation for a flight he lives in mortal fear of running afoul of the FARs. We could also go into scalping by FBOs but that is another issue.

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  6. Allow lower costs opportunities, many things are keeping aviation behind. Some of them good and some are bad, I wouldn’t trust my plane to a mechanic on an fbo last couple of times I’ve taken them there it’s highly priced and lots of life threatening mistakes are made. Why not doo away with the cost of avionics as well Adsb is coming yet many people haven’t installed because it costs just as much to add adsb as it is to buy a decent used car.

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  7. Couldn’t agree more Dustin. Why fly for a hamburger when you can practice spot landing, visit a relative, or help keep traffic down on the 5. My Tri Pacer is often greeted by “you flew…how far?!” when I’ve shown up at locations more than 100NM from home. Nobody, from Key West Florida, to Glacier Montana, expects something other than an SR22, RV7, or Bonanza pilot to have gone from a home base like SoCal to those spots. Putting 200+ hours a year on the plane, my hourly op cost is a surprisingly small % above that for my Jeep (which gets the same MPG as the aircraft) – and living in SoCal there has only been one day in the last year when coastal overcast completely prevented us from making a trip, rather than just being flexible by an hour or two waiting for weather to pass.

    To Rob Bremmer’s point, my Tri Pacer (without slats, but with extended tips and VGs) lands at 39, cruises at 120, runs mogas, and can be purchased all day long for $30k. Four 170# adults, full fuel, and 50# of baggage fit just fine, and we have made this little airplane our alternative to ever sitting in traffic again, for less than the cost of most of the Mercedes or BMWs running around LA.

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    1. Yes, your Tri-Pacer can do that. Wonderful aircraft, and the sibling, the tailwheel Pacer. I taught a 79 year old man to fly a Pacer – he loved it and flew it for years. What I mean is, we need a NEW airplane like that. What if Cessna, Piper, and Beechcraft made a commitment to a shared joint venture for an interesting new affordable plane, with performance specs at least like a Pacer? What if the FAA agreed to work with this consortium to expedite the design through production pathway? What if they had shrouded propellers and or mufflers to be quieter? Al Mooney designed a plane like that in the 60s for General Dynamics, I saw the photos – it flew nicely too. Never made it to production though. If you want younger people to want to buy planes we have to make them newer and more interesting, and provide easier access to them. A small airport, say 2,000-2,300 foot runways and serving just smaller planes, does not need to be locked up like a super-ma prison site. Safety protocols can still apply but its a different situation then when you can fly larger aircraft and jets. We need a Pilots Alliance, or something like that. AOPA, maybe, if it became more flexible and expanded its true presence beyond the eastern seaboard.

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      1. Sorry, the “new planes we need” are not gonna happen commercially. Even the lowest end airplane now costs well over $100K, and no company can afford to build anything less with the numbers they can sell. Antiques & Homebuilts are just about the only saving grace for GA flying now. Understand that even C-182’s are antiques now.
        Speaking as a 65-year pilot, (75 years old, currently own 5 planes, including a Debonair and a Christen Eagle), lover of aviation since I was old enough to know what a plane was.

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  8. I am 80 years old, been flying for 55 years, still rent a 172 with an instructor (lost my medical). What I notice most is lack of light planes flying over my house, I live 4 miles from PWK. When I was a kid light aircraft flew overhead daily. A trip to Palwaukee in the 50’s and 60’s would find 5 or 6 Cubs in the pattern today it’s a rare sight to see a single engine plane from my house.

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  9. Simple single engine airplanes are not practical for traveling. It is always cheaper to fly commercial or drive. Although you can accept the unreliability of this type of transportation most people and their families cannot. Also, flying somewhere when you or your passengers are strongly motivated to complete the trip adds unsafe pressures on the decision making process that have in many cases proved fatal. I always tell my students these facts before beginning lessons. The best reason to fly is that you love it. That’s enough. If it isn’t, then I suggest another pursuit. I also don;t think the median wage earner can afford 400 hrs of flying if they aren’t being paid for the flying. Asking pilots to just ignore all this and go bankrupt because general aviation needs more gravitas is a bit disconnected from the realities faced by most people. There are solid reasons why most pilots don’t routinely use airplanes for serious trips. Cheer leading is not going to alter those reasons.

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    1. Bill, thanks for your reply. Conversion is the goal here!

      A clarification: I’m not asking people to fly 400 hours a year; the sacrifices needed in lifestyle to achieve that are extreme and not justifiable to the majority (watch for future articles on that). I was stating that to provide some credit to the amount observational data I have collected on a yearly basis of the state and tends of GA in the western US. It’s my GA advocacy adventure, and this website is the start of trying to rally a future for GA. The thoughts and opinions are mine, but I welcome feedback, discourse, discussion, and rebuttal.

      While I agree with you there are solid reasons, such as the ones you stated, as to why many do not use this system as means of transportation, and I find it wonderful that those who fly for the love of flying continue to do so as that is just as an important of a use of this system, I have observed many for whom it would seem do have the means (example: spend $10’s of thousands on avionics and upgrades to a plane they fly VFR 50 hours a year), but have built a lifestyle that prevents it. But I also advocate for the cheap plane and the low-key travel style that GA can still offer. For me traveling, a C120 and a tent is darn cheap, not terribly slow, and immensely rewarding. But it has taken a personal paradigm shift to get there. There are no absolutes.

      The goal is to stimulate conversation and reflection on what we can do with this flying skill (Recreational and beyond). The title and the premise of the post do that (had to make something controversial out the gate to get this ball rolling). The secondary goal is bring up the point that preserving this infrastructure against the popular will of removing it is rapidly approaching with the dawn of autonomous flight (drones and “Urban Air Mobility”) and we need to work now to expand our justifications (both recreational and practical) for our existence in the air if we want to keep this freedom. Maybe it’s impossible and will slowly continue to wither, but I’d rather be not that easily deterred.

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      1. GFF, love your rebuttal above, wish we could all go back to “Those times”, but few of us can. and for me, now at 75, travel is done in my motorhome. Only when I am going long distances, 400 miles plus, and time limited, would I use my plane for transportation. The difficulties when I get there pretty well preclude any more usage.

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  10. A lot of interesting points for sure. Another thing to add is the amount of GA aircraft wasting away in some field or hanger. I think this has pushed the price of ownership up artificially as supply has dwindled over the years. I’m in this boat as I’m trying to work up enough savings to buy my own aircraft. Time and again I see aircraft that haven’t been used in years at the airports I explore in my area and it drives me crazy seeing such waste when there are so many people like myself who love flying but have a hard time with the initial cost.

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  11. Hi Fiddler. Coming from CA to OR was a culture shock. My 1st home base was at a beautiful little airport ala Meadowlark, except for one major thing; The A/C based there NEVER got flown; NOT an exaggeration! For my 1st year I was at the airport every day and I saw closed hangar doors that were never opened and parked permanent based A/C that never moved in one year. So weird that I can not explain it. One day a visiting friend and myself decided to explore Pearson airport in Vancouver where there are very big lines of hangars; maybe several hundred? We found ONE single hangar door open! And the same thing existed when I was based at Cottage Grove for a year. Many hangars and many A\C parked outside, but never flown. I still don’t get it? Well, with the price of Avgas I can see a somewhat of a motivation, but to own an A/C and never open the hangar door? I dunno? Must be a status thingy here in OR.

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  12. This is now an old discussion, but I thought I would add a little comment. I fly part 135 charter operations for a living. One GIANT problem that has affected GA more and more over the last decades, and that has literally STOPPED many pilots from using GA as “real” transportation, is the advent of FBOs. In my charter job, I often shudder at the riDICulous fees charged to GA pilots for nothing. As I was paying my $1200 ramp and 40-gallons of JET-A fees (completely obscene), a guy in a 182 walked up to the counter. He was just picking up his college-age daughter and a friend. He was there for 15 minutes; enough to hit the restroom and load up his 2 passengers. They charged him $45. For a 15 minute stop that didnt require ONE OUNCE of effort from the FBO. I see this all the time; especially at “premium” destinations like Sedona or Mammoth Lakes.

    It has affected GA horribly. One quick example is Burbank. You can’t land there- even in a Piper Cub- without shelling out $60 (AT LEAST) to just stop on the ramp for 5 minutes. It’s horrible, and tantamount to thievery. If GA is to re-establish itself as viable transportation, then FBOs at these destinations need to back off and make real exceptions for GA aircraft and pilots. I’ll pay $10 or mayyyyyybe $20 to park on a ramp. But more than that is robbery. GA is NOT King Airs and Falcons. The FBO has become the “protection money to the mob” of general aviation. You want to park, pay up, buddy. And many of us can’t afford that. Until then, we have to limit ourselves to rural destinations (like you do, Dustin), or face ridiculous costs.

    This was not the case up until the 1990’s.

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    1. Very true for the big airports, and certainly a major deterrent to using those facilities at all. I know I avoid them…I can show myself on and off the airport on my own; I don’t need someone to show me a door and charge me for it.

      But many municipal airports that are convenient to lots of things (and lack any FBO fees) see very little for-transportation flying as well. I use Fullerton and Corona frequently for family gatherings on big holiday weekends and rarely see more than 1 or 2 other aircraft doing the same (interestingly over the years it has often been the same planes) . The FBO fees are a part, but I still think there’s a general cultural shift away from it (for a myriad of reasons) and without deliberate effort from within to change that, we will ultimately see GA in the US end up like Europe where it is not respected at all on the national scale and pigeon holed into purely an overtly expensive hobby.

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