High Jackers
14 min read

As I walked through the FBO at a small airport, which will remain unnamed, but I noticed that many people call it “The Fargo Jet Center,” I smiled at the attractive young lady behind the desk and said “Good morning!”  As I continued walking, I’m pretty sure I heard her turn toward her co-worker and say in a low voice “He’s below my personal minimums.”

I stopped, almost out the door to the ramp, and caught myself, and looked to my right.  WHY was I passing up the banana muffins and apples and coffee?!  Fool!  Rookie mistake!  I smacked myself on the forehead for being dumb, which hurt, because I was holding a ball point pen.  My point is, a good pilot never passes up free food in an FBO.

FBO employee

I’m pretty sure I heard her turn toward her co-worker and say in a low voice “He’s below my personal minimums.”

Of the FAA’s “five hazardous attitudes,” I think the worst two, when approaching free food at an FBO are “impulsivity” and “macho.”  If a pilot quickly puts something in his mouth and it tastes terrible, why, what are you gonna do, spit it out?  No, you are not, you’re gonna eat that darn cookie, in a macho manner, is what you’re gonna do. Which reminds me of a cookie I bit into and pulled the rest of the cookie away from my mouth, like you do.  The cookie somehow stayed attached to the bite in my mouth, as I pulled it away, on account of what turned out to be a long, tough hair or hairs baked right into the cookie.  I know—gross.  Why did I share this with you? I was impulsive, I’m sorry, another FAA hazardous attitude.  Did this hair-cookie stop me from chucking that one and picking up another?  Of course it did not, due to my invulnerability.  Where was this FBO, you ask?  Read on.

Any pilot who flies for more than 15 hours knows where the best FBOs are.  We pilots, winged gods of the air, studied long and hard to get our wings, and we’re not gonna waste them going to, say, KJKJ, which is Moorhead, MN, even though it has an easy-to-remember airport identifier and cheap fuel.  Why go to that moonscape of an airport (in summer, too, which is July 4-18 every year) to get cheap gas, when you can go to KBWP, Harry Stern field in Wahpeton, just down the road a ways?  Why there you can get cheap gas (potato chips and Diet Coke) and cheap fuel!  Think, man, think!

Speaking of food, KCBE, Greater Cumberland Regional Airport, in Maryland, has the Hummingbird Cafe.  While technically not an FBO, they get the “Best Call-Out To Mom” award.  You park right out front, and ideally chock your aircraft to keep it from rolling away and then you have to chase it and chock it anyway.  They have a great BLT at the Hummingbird Cafe, approximately 11 inches thick. (The BLT, I mean.)  The server who yelled my order back to the kitchen was like an actor playing a server in a movie.

High Jackers

Chock your aircraft to keep it from rolling away while at the Hummingbird Cafe.

I ordered two BLTs, one for me and one for my girlfriend, and the server yelled out over her shoulder, “TWO BLTS, HOLD THE PIG ON ONE, PICKLE ON THE SIDE!!”

I laughed, and later asked the server, whose name was Flo or should have been, “Who is that in the kitchen?”  The kitchen was up some steep steps almost like a ladder,  and behind a wall, and the little serving window where the cook pushed the food through was about head-high on the cafe floor.  A weird setup, like a submarine or something.  The server said “That’s my mom.”  Of course it was, of course.

crown victoria

KOMH does have a Crown Vic Police Interceptor for a courtesy car.

Also, we pilots know what the fastest cars in the world are.  These are “courtesy cars,” cars that pilots can borrow at airports, on the honor system.  Like the one at KOMH, Orange County, Virginia.  The airport name sounds cooler than it is—this Orange County is in the boondocks, Virginia, right by Gordonsville, KGVE. (Trivia: the word “boondocks” comes from the Tagalog (Filipino) word “bundok,” which means, of course,  “Gordonsville, Virginia.)

There is very little oceanfront property in this Orange County, and in fact none.  But KOMH does have a Crown Vic Police Interceptor for a courtesy car, and let me just say when you stomp on the accelerator at about sixty miles an hour and the engine hits the “passing gear,” why, you do indeed pass anything in front of you—including a police car one time, but I just waved, like he’s my co-worker.

We pilots, we defiers-of-gravity—humble heros, really—know which FBOs have the best courtesy cars, the best restaurants, the best Lazy Boy chairs in the pilot’s lounge—and other crucial aviation-related things like “Is there a Wal-Mart or McDonalds nearby? Oh, how long is the runway, by the way?   And we pilots blab all this info to each other, between political rants and really good off-color jokes.

Fresh cookies at the FBO is critical information for pilots to pass along.

“I heard DuPage (KDPA) has a gym and shower and free pens and nice reusable shopping bags!” “I heard the Marriot in Sterling, VA, has really good cookies!”  Never mind the fact that we’re not staying at the Marriot—the lobby is kind of a no-man’s land, a demilitarized zone.  “I heard they bring out the fresh Otis Spunkmeyer cookies at 5:30 p.m. daily.”  This is the crucial aviation information pilots pass on to one another.

I heard of a guy—what a dummy!—who once flew to Valley City, North Dakota (KBAC), but his thinking was clouded by tales of their FBO having pancakes. He failed to look at the airport layout prior to arrival.  Therefore, he was surprised to find that the airport had no taxiways, and he had to back-taxi on the runway.  Ha ha!. OK, that guy was me. But come on, what kind of self-respecting airport has the word “City” in the name, and no taxiways? And, it turns out, no pancakes?

Opposite-wise, out “Colorado way,” you have your KPUB, “Pueblo Memorial,” not to be mistaken for a hospital.  Oh, it’s memorial, all right.

Sitting on a high, desolate, windswept plain in Colorado, KPUB is nowhere near anything “cool,” like mountains and stuff. No “Rocky Mountain High” here—that John Denver really was full of, uh, well he was just wrong as far as KPUB goes.

KPUB lures in pilots like me with free hot dogs, free chips and salsa. The salsa has its very own refrigerator!  Good heavens!   They have free Haagen Daz ice cream and cookies and water and tea and coffee.  All this food is in a restaurant-type room with no server staff–just tables, chairs, and your standard wall decorations, like propellers.

Drawback—it’s in Colorado, between roughly six hundred and two thousand miles from wherever you are right now.  Another drawback is their fuel prices, which are about $2.00 higher per gallon for 100LL than the FBO next door, on the same field, which has only a lonely fuel pump and that’s it.

Can a pilot hypothecally refuel at the cheap FBO next door, called “Sibran,” then walk over and eat everything in sight at Freeman Jet Center?  Yes, but it’s kind of a long walk.  They may ask you, at Freeman Jet Center “Who walks into an FBO, from the runway side, without an airplane visible nearby?” so you would have to have a “story” for that. Hypothetically.

Speaking of “personal minimums” what are mine as they pertain to an FBO?  First of all, it has to have a bathroom.  I didn’t fly, land, and taxi just to have to use “the weeds,” “my jug,” or, and this is pretty much the opposite of nice, an adult diaper.  I went to one FBO and their bathroom was out of order, so they had a green plastic porta potty outside.  I thought, “Where am I, Woodstock?”, dating myself somewhat (but I am used to dating myself, so no biggee.)

Another wretched, windblown FBO near, I think,  Tumbleweed, New Mexico, had the feeling of my grandparent’s barn near Scranton, North Dakota about it—birds and all.  I used the super-secret CTAF frequency numbers to unlock the combination lock on the entrance door to the building, and the building’s inside ambiance blasted me in the face like an old, silent, black-and-white movie.  If an old silent movie black-and-white movie could blast you in the face, is what I’m saying.

There were old magazines, old VFR charts on the wall probably from when JFK was still in the Navy or at least from when he was a Senator, dusty video cassettes and a dusty VCR, an old flight simulator powered by I think a wood stove—and no food or drink. I looked out the old window in its old frame and saw a large, strange bird—a road runner. It stuck out its tongue and laughed at me as it ran across the  40-foot-wide runway.  “Bleep bleep!  Sucka!”

Some non-pilot, not savvy in the ways of the air, may innocently ask “Does popcorn qualify as food?”  Well, duh. Of course it qualifies as food, just like Goldfish do, cookies do, candy does—unless we’re talking candy canes, then no—and anything in a glass bowl.  Caution: I once accidentally popped a business card into my mouth because it was in a glass bowl.  I was too proud to stop chewing and admit I ate it by mistake—I’m a pilot, for heaven’s sake, and there were people near.  I washed it down like a real pilot does—with the day-old coffee they had.

I don’t want to say where this was at, but with their 100 LL at $5.34 a gallon, KDHT, Dalhart Muni (TX) does deserve a shoutout.  To get there turn left at KPUB, If you see KAMA, Amarillo, TX, you went too far.  Which brings me to hazardous attitudes and stuff—like “get there itis.”  Or “Get-There-And-Eat-Itis.”

I was flying with a buddy to KJEF, Jefferson City, Missouri. “Jeff City Traffic” on the radio.  We were flying along in formation to go to the widely-known and talked-about weekly Sunday all-you-can eat chicken lunch in the KJEF airport cafe, but when we got near Jeff City, we couldn’t see the runways or parking ramp.  We could see what looked a lot like a brown ocean, though.

This was the year 2018, and there was a big huge flood. The airport was there, all right, but was about ten feet under the surface of the Missouri River, except for about 100 feet or so of what could have been dry runway.  This 100 feet patch was either a hump in the runway, or the back of a sea serpent.  There were six airplanes all scrunched up, parked nose-to-nose on the sea-monster’s hump, looking forlorn.  A friend of mine who wisely didn’t come with us said we “should have checked the NOTAMs.”  He said that the NOTAMs would likely have explained why there was no ATIS, ASOS, tower controller, or dry land.  We had the dangerous “get there and eat-itis,” is what we had.

So one day we flew back to Jeff City after the floodwaters receded and the Ark had left, and landed on the sea serpent, parked on one of its flippers, and got to the restaurant—four minutes late.  They closed the chicken feed at 1400 sharp, and this was 1404.  “We have rules,” the man behind the counter said.  He had a nametag, so obviously there was nothing we could do, what he said was official.  But I tried.

I couldn’t wheedle my way in. I even tried the old “Zulu time” trick, but that made us even “later,” like night time, so that didn’t work.  I started to get angry, and thought of asking “What did you do with all the chicken, throw it down the garbage disposal at 1401!?”  But I didn’t, because what if he said “Yes?”  Would I then be happy? No, I would not, and I’d still be hungry.  Plus I realized they probably saved it for next week, and I didn’t want them to spit in it.  Never did make it—yet—to the Jeff City chicken feed.

Another FBO that can rot in heck, speaking of the Yelp review rating “RIH,” is one I went to near Boston.  I parked, went in, and found out the fuel price was approximately a thousand dollars per gallon higher than the place next door, and there was also a tie-down fee of like one million dollars.  They said they’d waive the fee if I bought a certain amount of fuel, I think it was a million dollars worth.  I think the FBO was called Million Air, so that makes sense.

I said to the lady at the FBO front desk, after hearing the prices, “I think I’ll go move my airplane,” and she said “Too late.”  She wasn’t kidding—I had to pay the daily parking fee.  My little airplane was all alone out there on big ramp, but it was “too late” to move it.  I tried wheedling again, though it’s never worked—yet. I heard wheedling is “a numbers game.” I tried patriotism, and said “What about Paul Revere and freedom and ‘the British are coming’ and all that stuff?!”  This is America, this is Boston, ma’am!”

She said, in what was definitely a snooty British accent “No, it isn’t.  This is Laurence G. Hanscom Field. KBED. That will be $314.54, you scruffy colonist.”

I silently cursed whoever Laurence Hanscom was, and imagined him to be a British officer in the year 1773, flying around in a biplane in a big white wig and a red coat with brass buttons, his musket strapped to a wing strut to strafe Colonists with.  I imagined reloading would be a problem.  Later I found out he was actually a pilot and was doing loops right over Saugus, Massachusetts in a biplane right up until he spun and crashed in 1941, RIP Mr. Hanscom. (Note: this was the FBO with the hair cookie.  And you thought I forgot.)

Later I found out, through exhaustive research on the Interweb, that there were very few airplanes in the year 1773.

“Any port in a storm,” is a saying that describes my friend’s view on dating and my views on FBOs— sometimes.

I was flying down the east coast one evening, and looked ahead and saw on Foreflight a massive wall of thunderstorms.  I could see the massive storm out the front windscreen, and the sky was getting dark.  I saw lightning, and heard static in my radio when it flashed.  Ocean to the left, thunderstorm wall ahead.  I was just south of Atlantic City, and didn’t think I’d have time to make a 180 and land back there ahead of the storm, so I landed under darkening skies at Ocean City, Maryland, KOXB, 4000 feet by 75 feet runway, $7.00 per gallon fuel—who cares?  Who cares what kind of snacks or coffee or pilot’s lounge they have? The rain hit about four minutes after we landed, and it was a deluge.  A gully washer.

The FBO was just closing, and the staff nicely let us have the courtesy car overnight, and we drove to a nearby McDonalds.  I felt like I was Bill Gates or something, and had flown here in a private jet, as the rain hammered down on the roof of the 20-year-old courtesy car as we ate hamburgers in the parking lot of McDonalds.  I was just SO glad to be down on the ground.  If a pilot isn’t scared of thunderstorms, well, nice knowing ya.

Turns out sometimes any FBO is fine, I walk it all back.

I fly with a sleeping bag and a little pillow, so if an FBO has a Lazy Boy, maybe some Goldfish or cookies and coffee?  Five star rating.

Matt Johnson
Latest posts by Matt Johnson (see all)
25 replies
  1. mike harper
    mike harper says:

    My wife and her pilot friend flew to the Sea Ranch Air Strip and used the crew car. Wow!!! They were glad it was a short drive to the beach. The mouse dropping were many and urine smell very odoriffic. The car was free and full of gas. The coast is beautiful there and the upscale houses unique.

    Reply
  2. Mark Scardino
    Mark Scardino says:

    Enjoyed the article Matt and so true. Coolest crew car I used once was a ‘62 Chevy Impala convertible, in the late 80s. When I flew for an airline our quest was a free copy of USA Today, or whatever the hotel had. Reading material you know.

    Reply
  3. Holly Wik
    Holly Wik says:

    I fly out of KCBE and love the Hummingbird Café, and am pleased at your shout-out to our humble airport and restaurant. But unless it has changed locations since I was there last month, you cannot taxi right up to it. It is a short walk across the parking lot though. Plus the picture you post is not of the Hummingbird, but of the Landing Strip Tavern (formerly Highjackers Restaurant) out of Flagler Executive Airport (KFIN) in Palm Coast, Florida. Perhaps the Hummingbird Café was once located somewhere else before my time here, or perhaps you are getting your $100 BLTs confused – an understandable mistake when you’ve visited as many FBOs as you clearly have. I enjoyed your stories and your writing style, I look forward to more!

    Reply
  4. Kevin F
    Kevin F says:

    A FUN read Matt!
    Had my share of goods and bads of course.
    Million Air at KIND has free all sorts of things – granola bars, fruit, microwave popcorn, etc., though a ramp fee which can be waived with 20 gallons I think and almost new BMW & Merc crew cars and a near by McD’s if you’re so inclined.

    But places like Signature and Atlantic FBOs have “free” Mentos (I think Atlantic has some hard single candies) in exchange for outlandish ramp and security fees if you don’t get more gas than your Piper Arrow can hold.
    When I flew a Part 135 Caravan, they charge the operator $220 for sending a line guy out to park me, clear customs and use the rest room at KDTW. What a rip off, I’ll stay as far away from Signature and Atlantic if I have the option.
    Of course the big boys don’t care and they probably keep them in business.
    But Corporate Wings in KSBN next door to Atlantic is by far the better option, with free chips, soda & water the last time I was there in maybe 2021.
    Another great FBO is in KLUK ENE of Cincinnati. Waypoint Aviation, free snacks and free Ice-cream they didn’t mind me taking a couple home for my wife and daughter.

    You’d think some of these places management would catch on, but some of them just don’t care to make a last impression on young pilots who might (or might not) be back when they’re flying a Citation or the like.

    Reply
  5. Phil Soucy
    Phil Soucy says:

    Essex County AP (KXSA) has a former Essex County police car as a crew car. Bars in the rear windows and you can’t get out of the back seat. Vinyl signage removed, but uneven faded pant yields markings of “Sex County Police”

    Reply
  6. Mallory Fuller
    Mallory Fuller says:

    What an absolutely wonderful way to spend a few minutes on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee….thanks Matt. Have you ever driven a Chevy VEGA?

    Reply
  7. Raymond Nickels
    Raymond Nickels says:

    Nice writing, Matt. I too spent an eternity at Vance AFB in Enid, Oklahoma one year. Enid is “dine” spelled backwards, by the way. The best place to eat when I was there, by the way, was the combination Mexican restaurant and sheep auction. They wanted me to stay and be a T-37 IP, but I said no and was exiled to Grand Forks, ND, just north of you, as punishment. I too ended up at Beale refueling the sled, but by that time I was no longer eligible for ACE, having spent nearly 1000 hours in the T-38 escaping “the Forks” almost every weekend. Oh, and New Richmond, Wisconsin (KRNH) is probably the best run small airport in the country. Unfortunately there is no on-field restaurant, but they do have not one, but three ex-police cruiser crew cars. Happy hunting!

    Reply
  8. Charles Poskey
    Charles Poskey says:

    Great writing, very entertaining. Landed in Alabama for a baseball tournament. FBO gave me the courtesy car for the afternoon. As we left the airport my son was jumping around yelling words a sailor wouldn’t use in the back seat. We quickly pulled over to find a wasp nest in the trunk. Fun times

    Reply
  9. Gary Mulligan
    Gary Mulligan says:

    A pilot buddy forwarded this to me, great story and I enjoyed your writing style. Hope to see more of it. “get-there-and-eat-Itis”, I love it!

    Reply
  10. mike fitch
    mike fitch says:

    So very glad to see the Hummingbird Cafe noted. Very great food and people and a great place to stop by. I have known them for years, am based at CBE and think they are great.
    Drop in.

    Reply
  11. Larry K Austin
    Larry K Austin says:

    I really enjoyed the article. It brought back many memories. As a KY Army National Guard and a KY State Pilot flying airplanes and helicopters, I have been in every airport FBO in KY in my many years of flying. I have a quick statement about a FBO in Eastern KY that is thriving because of the leadership of Jeff Hilton as manager of the Hazard airport. Jeff provides many flying services at the Wendell Ford Airport Hazard, KY KCPF (formerly K20) which is on a remote area on a mountaintop airport that at one time was a coal strip mine.
    During the summer around lunch time, if you were flying over the airport, you might think it was having a fly in. There would be parked Black Hawks, Hueys, Jet and Long Ranger helicopters, Civil Air Patrol Cessna’s, State aircraft and local and transit aircraft. What is going on? Jeff is providing free lunch to aircrews. A great selection of various lunch meats, cheeses, chips; pies, drinks, etc. were available for most tastes.
    If you wanted a hamburger or another type meal the courtesy car was always available to use and Ben’s restaurant was at the bottom of the hill and always packed by locals. Be advised danger was always present driving up and down on that two lane road as coal trucks also used the road and did not consider cars as welcome on their road. Go over the side and you probably will not survive.
    I rode down the road locked in the back seat with an undercover narc State police officer who scared the heck out of me. We went down the hill at a higher rate of speed than I approved of. He was not going to let a coal truck get the best of the road with him. Locked in the car I knew I was dead if we went over the side. Bouncing around the seat with me was a half qt. full of whiskey. Since I knew my end was near maybe I should have my last drink?
    As low man on the VIP totem pole I usually got locked in the back seat of the police car while we were waiting in some field or remote area during the winter for our VIP or Gov. to return from a small town. I could not open the door from the rear seat. This time we were picked up by a Trooper who was taking us to a State Park for lunch that had great food. He parked us in a law enforcement spot right at the main front doors.
    The Trooper and my PIC got out and were walking away. I yelled for them to open my door, but they did not hear me. For VIP flights, we had airline type uniforms with stripes, etc. that ID us as a pilot. Dozens of people walked by me and I am asking them to open the door for me. Try that in a marked State Police car. People just shook their heads no way and walked away.
    The waitress came to take the guys’ orders. Where is Larry my wonderful PIC asked? The Trooper said I believe he went to the restroom. PIC, you are probably right. When their food arrived a second question was asked did you let him out of the back seat. Oops! Nope thought you did! About twenty minutes and a hundred or so people later who I was begging to open my door; I was released from captivity by my PIC. During my new guy time period, I believe that I spent more time locked up in a State Police car than most criminals.

    Reply
  12. Chris M
    Chris M says:

    Most interesting Courtesy car – KHEI (Hetinger, ND) was a aged pickup truck at the Ag operation – the driver side door did not work and it had to be hot-wired to start up. Only restaurant in town was a road house. Best courtesy car – a brand new Lexus at KIOB (Mt. Sterling, KY) an excellent airport and FBO…

    Reply
  13. Mike G
    Mike G says:

    Great article, love your sense of humor, I seldom laugh out loud while reading and this made me! I was a firefighter and you would have fit right in, in the firehouse. I live and fly in western Montana and Idaho, most places I fly in to don’t have much, so this was fun to read.
    Thanks!

    Reply
  14. Peter T
    Peter T says:

    Wonderful article, thanks Matt! Keep writing ’em!

    Not all the “big” FBO’s are rip offs. Once I flew into OAK to pick up a buddy. After eating all their popcorn, cookies, drinking all their coke, while one of their guys picked my buddy up at the passenger terminal and ferried him over to the FBO, I asked the lady at the counter how much it will set us back. She looked at her price list for what seemed like an eternity, looked out the window at our lowly Archer, and said with a wink “well I don’t see anything on this list for a plane that small”. We high tailed it out of there before she changed her mind :-)

    Reply
  15. Peter N. Steinmetz
    Peter N. Steinmetz says:

    When were you at KDHT? The main FBO is quite nice now that the cheap fuel is around the corner. Did their used to be an FBO associated with that pump?

    Reply

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