Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hundred Dollar Hamburger

One of the things I had always heard about when I started flying was the concept of the “hundred dollar hamburger”, or “cheeseburger”, or whatever-food you prefer. Why so expensive? Because you fly somewhere to eat it.

“Is a cheeseburger really worth that?” you might ask. Well, no. But that’s not the point. It’s just an excuse to fly.
A few years ago, while thinking of places to go and build flying time, my friends and I brought up the idea of getting a hundred dollar hamburger up at Grandma’s Restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. I had yet to fly northward from my home base, so I might as well check off that cardinal direction. The thought of flying around Lake Superior was another appeal.

I was going to fly up in the trusty Piper Warrior along with my friend Garrett who had started training recently. My other friend Alex was going to leave just before us in the Cessna 172. It was basically a straight shot north for 170 nautical miles, so would have been just under two hours if it wasn’t for the 40 knot headwind.

Alex stayed a few miles ahead of us the whole time, staying in plane-to-plane radio contact. In our plan to be sneaky we had decided on the code word “pickle barrel” to be said to let the other know we were on the same frequency. I don’t think we ever ended up using it, but while listening in on the major local channels I was fully expecting to hear a quick “pickle barrel” shout out from Alex, followed by a confused center controller.

Once getting close to Duluth I started hearing that Alex was having a bit of a directional disagreement with ATC. An aircraft comes with two direction indicating instruments; a magnetic compass, and a heading indicator. The heading indicator operates on a gyroscope, which maintains one directional orientation and is more stable and less susceptible to bumps than the magnetic compass. But the heading indicator only knows what direction it is when you adjust it to the magnetic compass (usually before takeoff). It is prone to drift in the long run, and after a while of flying it might drift off a few degrees, giving the pilot the perception that they are flying in the correct direction when in fact they are a few degrees off.

This must have happened to Alex, because air traffic control would tell him to fly a certain heading and notice that he was, in fact, not flying it, so they would tell him to “turn right 15 degrees” to adjust. Soon after they would give him a new heading, and again he would go off in a different direction, so air traffic control would again tell him to “turn right 15 degrees”. I could tell both Alex and the controller were getting a little flustered when the controller asked him what heading he was flying, Alex responded “I’m all over the place”.

Flying into the Duluth area was great. Clear skies above the North Shore, all the pine forests below. Because of the wind coming out of the west, we were directed to come in from the east, right over Lake Superior. I had never flown over a large body of water (ok, it wasn’t the ocean or anything). It was fun seeing the tanker ships from above, they looked so small, like toy boats in a bathtub.

Alex made it and landed just fine, but I was trailing behind. On final approach I was asked to go around because my little Piper was quickly getting overrun by an NWA airliner which was on a long final approach. I forgot this was a large airport. I made a traffic pattern to come back around and decided to land long to stay above any wake turbulence from the MD80 landing. I also noticed the halting cable at the front of the runway used for breaking fighter jets. Even aiming for the halfway point of the runway, I still had more remaining runway than I’m used to landing on (Duluth’s runway is about 2 miles long).

I taxied up to the FBO, past all the fancy Cirrus aircraft (this is their HQ) and the NWA airliner which I got out of the way for.

They gave us a courtesy car and we went to find Grandma’s Restaurant. I recall having been there before. The cheeseburger was good, but I almost choked on it while Alex was recounting his directional problems on the way in.

The whole trip was a 3-pointer. Instead of heading back to Winona directly we made a pit stop at Anoka airport just north of Minneapolis. We had taken a little more time than expected with our burgers, so we were in a little rush.

The headwind became a tailwind which pushed us quickly down to the Twin Cities region, leaving Duluth behind. Oh, the joys of dealing with Class B airspace, hoping I wasn’t poking up into somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, staying below the upside down wedding cake shaped airspace layering. On this leg of the trip, I got to Anoka before Alex, he had gotten stuck behind a few Cirrus aircraft. I was on the ramp shutting down when I heard Alex coming over the radio, for some reason feeling it important to state his intent to land, to “get a few drinks and leave”. We were both newby pilots. Sometimes weird things are unintentionally said to airway authorities. Because it was getting late, we decided not to get out, but got underway leaving so we would get back before sunset.

 Flying back to Winona from the Cities is always a breeze, following the Mississippi River the whole way down. It was getting into the twilight hours when we arrived, enough justification to turn on all the runway lights by clicking on the radio (it’s always fun doing that). Soonly afterward we saw a pair of red and green lights coming towards us on the horizon, Alex finally catching up. We were all safe on the ground and still full.

Total flight distance: 370 nautical miles, just to grab some lunch

Price of cheeseburger: way more than $100, but worth it!

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