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Pilotage: Checklist complete, what’s to eat?Pilotage: Checklist complete, what’s to eat?

The engine isn’t the only thing on an airplane that needs constant feeding. I’m hungry.

The engine isn’t the only thing on an airplane that needs constant feeding. I’m hungry. And why not? We’ve been in the air a good 30 minutes, the fun stuff—takeoff and climb—is over with, and someone else is flying the airplane. I have little to do but sit and contemplate my less-than-full stomach. On the other hand, we had lunch not too long ago so maybe it’s boredom rather than hunger that’s driving me to the snack basket.

I reach over and rummage through its contents. There’s a selection of euphemistically branded “energy” and “health” bars, a few individual-size containers of reconstituted potato chips, some traditional pilot food—imitation cheese-food crackers with imitation cheese-food filling—and one piece of chewing gum. Yeck! Nothing the least bit appetizing. No matter. I grab one of the plastic containers, rip off the foil cover, and chow down on perfectly formed and stacked fake potato chips.

So much for a balanced flying diet. Then again, healthy eating has never been mentioned in the same sentence with general aviation. If the Food Network did a segment on us, it would feature plenty of video of vending machines stocked with fat, salt, and sugar disguised as pre-packaged sandwiches, snacks, and treats; thin, stale coffee; airport restaurants with greasy breakfasts and even greasier lunches; and a basket of unappetizing snacks to consume in flight.

Then there was the pilot I flew with who took a very systematic approach to eating while flying. His wife had prepared lunch for the two of us that met his exacting specifications: two slices of bologna, a slice of Swiss, and a dab of mayo between two pieces of crusted white bread, all of it cut precisely in half diagonally. A can of soda completed the meal, which was neatly packaged in a regulation-size brown bag. No potato chips on the side, no cookie for dessert—they could break or crumble onto the leather-upholstered seats and nylon carpeting.

Per his briefing we ate in shifts. He flew the airplane while I ate. When I had finished we carefully and audibly switched roles. If nothing else the meal was...orderly.

That is not a word I would use to describe the lunch I had during a fuel stop at the Bartlesville, Oklahoma, municipal airport. We borrowed a pickup to drive the mile into town, and spotted a promising-looking place. The sign said “Murphy’s Steak House” which sounded pretty good, and the full parking lot meant it was the locals’ choice. But the tag line on the sign—“Gravy Over All”—was the clincher. We pulled in.

I ordered the hamburger with grilled onions and fries and—bring it on—gravy over all. A small, scolding voice in the back of my head that I had been ignoring got through when the waitress asked if I wanted cheese with my heaping pile of cholesterol. Like the guy who orders diet soda with his bacon and sour cream-filled baked potato that is half the size of Idaho, I felt a little better about myself for having declined the slice of cheese.

There were other culinary highlights on that trip. At Boeing Field/King County International in Seattle we lunched at Randy’s, just south of the Museum of Flight. (The Seattle Weekly called Randy’s “the Museum of Bite.”) Eating at Randy’s belongs in the same category as a flight review—it’s something every active pilot must do. The walls are covered with hundreds of airplane photographs, dozens of airplane models hang from the ceiling, the vinyl upholstery shouts out in pastel colors that have been outlawed for decades, the cooks wear American flag kerchiefs, and our waitress possessed all the necessary chutzpah and humor to handle seven hungry guys and two energetic little girls. The food wasn’t bad, either.

Across the runway, Galvin Flying Services had a basket of fresh Washington state apples for the taking, each of which sported the company logo. The clever advertisement is a sugar concoction that is sprayed onto the skin of the apple, according to the girl at the desk. Galvin also had excellent coffee brewed by the cup, and freshly made popcorn. If you’re going to pay big-city FBO prices for fuel, you might as well get good FBO freebie food.

Just down the street from Kalispell City Airport in Montana, Scotty’s Bar serves up the best $16.95 center-cut sirloin steak I’ve ever eaten. And in Kansas City, the 109-year-old Savoy Grill, just across the Missouri River from Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, serves up the best Kansas City strip I’ve had in memory, although it was a lot more than $16.95.

Back to the in-flight snack basket. After examining the nutritional report card on each health bar and package of crackers and chips and then taste-testing them (it was a long flight), we tossed the whole lot. The best you could say for the snacks was that they met the basic criteria for what food eaten inside a small tubular container hurtling through the atmosphere should not be: smelly, nor messy. Bland and firm are preferable. Think logoed apples, or a bologna and Swiss sandwich on highly processed, incapable-of-crumbling white bread. 

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