Food -- and Fun! -- to Fly For

Roz Winegrad of Darnestown and son Aaron, 4, take in the flights at Montgomery County Airpark's Airport Cafe in Gaithersburg.
Roz Winegrad of Darnestown and son Aaron, 4, take in the flights at Montgomery County Airpark's Airport Cafe in Gaithersburg. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

Gripping the controls of my flight school's single-engine propeller plane a few thousand feet above the Eastern Shore, I'm thinking about just two things: preventing a death spiral and the huge stack of blueberry pancakes waiting for me on the ground.

I hadn't eaten the night before so I could savor my first "$100 hamburger run" -- an aviation phenomenon that gets its name from the cost of flying to a far-flung airport restaurant for a meal. In my case, I'm heading to brunch in Georgetown, Del.

At first, I thought such adventures were confined to pilots of small planes seeking an excuse to fly. But I was wrong. Every spring and summer, scores of families flock to local airports for the same reasons that pilots fly hundreds of miles: inexpensive food, camaraderie and airplane watching.

Jeff Wilken, 36, often brings his two young sons to the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg to eat and to ogle airplanes. When the weather is warm, the restaurant -- the Airport Cafe -- is packed with families, and the grounds are crowded with children, eating greasy food and looking skyward.

"They just love to watch them take off and land," Wilken says as his 4-year-old son, Matthew, marvels at a small plane speeding down the runway. "In the summer, planes are taking off every 30 seconds. It is quite a show."

Amy Klemetson, her husband, J.M. Carrillo, and their two tots munch on veggie burgers and grilled cheese sandwiches on the outdoor deck of the cafe. As they eat, 16-month-old Adriana looks into the sky and points excitedly at a Piper single-engine plane taking off. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," she says.

"It's free entertainment," Klemetson says. "How can you beat it?"

At College Park Airport, the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant has a window that overlooks the airfield. Federal security rules have dampened air travel into the airport, but the restaurant has the feel of an old French farmhouse with life-size replica fighter planes displayed on the lawn. Next door is the College Park Airport Museum, which offers kids a wealth of activities.

Another airport that attracts pilots and families: Frederick Municipal Airport and its Airways Inn. The restaurant received a four hamburger rating (out of five) from reviewers at, a site that grew out of John F. Purner's book "The $100 Hamburger."

"It's a slice of Americana," Purner says, describing the airport dining experience. "It's a good family thing because it's safe, it's an outing, it's outdoors and you get to see airplanes. It's like your own private air show. What little child doesn't like to watch an airplane and watch it go up in the sky?"

Ted Chambers, a 59-year-old pilot of a single-engine Cessna Cardinal, regularly samples food at airport restaurants as far away as Charlottesville and Lancaster, Pa. He often visits the Hangar Cafe at Easton's airport because it's not too far from his home airport in the Bowie area.

He is a particular fan of the cafe's $3.75 "Inverted Spin" breakfast, which includes two eggs, toast and sausage or bacon.

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