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.