Pasmore has owned this propeller-driven RV-6 for about a year. It’s an “experimental” – i.e. not professionally manufactured – aircraft, the 3TV morning anchor tells me. “I bought [the plane] from a doctor back east. He builds them from a kit, flies them for a while, and sells them. It’s his hobby.”
Despite the newsman’s obvious piloting aptitude, it’s hard not to entertain worst-case scenarios while sitting in the snug cockpit of his hand-built airplane. It becomes even harder after reading the disclaimer bolted into the passenger-side instrument panel: “Warning. Amateur-built aircraft. May not meet FAA safety guidelines.”
But safety is the last thing on Pasmore’s mind – or mine – as we swoop past Sedona’s Cathedral Rock not 25 minutes after takeoff. Seeing the red rock giants eye-to-eye is a wholly different experience than viewing them from below. The panorama is enormously beautiful and empowering. “It’s almost like you could reach out and touch them, isn’t it?” the pilot says.
Sedona’s lone general-aviation airport sits atop a mesa – a short, bow-to-stern strip of asphalt with sheer drops on either side, like the deck of an aircraft carrier. Tucked to the side of the runway is the aptly-named Mesa Grill, an upscale Southwestern-cuisine dining spot that shares the airport’s astonishing views of the cathedral-like Sedona red rock formations. The food here is very good, but that fact alone does not explain why Pasmore and I have flown to Sedona on a Tuesday evening. After all, one can find a first-rate filet of sea bass with just the right amount of brown-butter caramelizing in the Valley, too.
What ultimately spurs Pasmore into the air is flying itself. He’s part of the so-called “$100 Hamburger” crowd – food-loving flyboys who gladly brave the dangers of small-aircraft piloting to enjoy some fantastic scenery and, yes, wolf down a plate of greasy-good diner fare in the bargain. In doing so, they help sustain a true pearl of Americana – the small airport diner, dozens of which operate in Arizona cities and towns, and some of which serve surprisingly polished food.
People are sometimes surprised to learn that Arizona leads the nation in per capita boat ownership; perhaps less surprisingly, the state ranks in the top five in airborne pleasure craft, too. According to figures provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, Arizona’s rate of one registered aircraft per 665 residents outstrips California (one per 1,046) and Texas (one per 795) – both considered major aviation states. (Alaska, with its robust backcountry economy, leads the nation with one plane per 66 residents.)
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor credits the popularity of private aviation in Arizona to the state’s stable weather, “uncomplicated airspace” and comparatively low population density. “You look at a place like California with all that urban sprawl – those flight corridors can be really problematic,” he says. “But when you get out of the Phoenix area, you’re essentially flying over open land. That’s un-towered airspace, and it’s really good for training.”
Maricopa County is home to six so-called “reliever” airports that divert small-aircraft traffic from the primary commercial airports of Sky Harbor and Mesa-Gateway. These reliever airports – which include Mesa’s Falcon Field and Deer Valley Airport, among others – are where most Valley-based private pilots train and hangar their Cessnas, Pipers, Beechcrafts and other personal-use flying machines. The flying experience is more hands-on than the bulk-rate bus travel of Sky Harbor and Mesa-Gateway, and so is the food culture. You won’t find Cinnabons or Burger King outlets at small general aviation airports, but sit-down diners tailored to an owner-operator culture. Hearty fare. Truck-stop food for the discriminating palate. And eating at these short-order palaces is something of a rite of passage for novice pilots as they explore the Valley’s aviation scene.
“I love these old-style diners,” Pasmore says between bites of strawberry-cheesecake pie at Deer Valley Airport Restaurant. “They have the comfort food. It’s like taking a time machine back to Mayberry.”
Pasmore got well acquainted with this family-owned restaurant while earning his pilot’s certificate at Deer Valley, which according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is the busiest general-aviation airport in the nation. Novice pilots from around the world come here to become fluent in the complex procedural language of piloting – including many future Chinese airline pilots, whose halting English sometimes clogs the airport’s air-control chatter, much to the amusement – or irritation – of the hundreds of local pilots who frequent the airstrip.
If Deer Valley is where many international pilots first learn to pull out of a graveyard spiral, it’s also where they first taste that cornerstone of Middle American cuisine: the chicken-fried steak, here presented kiln-hot under a blanket of gravy ($10.99). “We get a lot of trainees in here, and a lot of locals, too,” owner Dmitri Papamatheakis says. “Especially for breakfast. They like to watch the planes land while they eat. Good way to start the day.”
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DEER VALLEY AIRPORT (DVT)
DEER VALLEY AIRPORT RESTAURANT
Newly refurbished and laboratory-clean, this family-owned eatery in the Valley’s northernmost airport is like a ’50s small-town diner brought to life – pie carousel and all. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it boasts an appropriately massive menu that hits all the expected beats – e.g. corned-beef hash ($7.99), chicken-fried steak ($10.99) – along with a smattering of Mediterranean offerings that reflect the Papamatheakis family’s Greek heritage, like the dinner-size Gyro Plate ($12.99). And you gotta love that spectacular view of the runway. 702 W. Deer Valley Rd., Deer Valley, 623-582-5454, deervalleyairportrestaurant.com
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Pasmore notes that Deer Valley Airport Restaurant’s decor follows the standard airport-diner script, with scaled-down models of vintage aircraft hanging from the ceiling and aviation-themed photos on the walls. The dining room also offers a commanding view of the runway – a de rigeur feature of any self-respecting airport restaurant.
For a bona fide pilot’s-eye perspective of an airstrip – and a truly worthwhile bite of French toast – it’s hard to beat the revered Hangar Café at Chandler Airport. Located next door to the airport’s maintenance hangar, and accessible only by stepping onto the tarmac itself, the café has an excitingly exposed feel to it. Just inches from the entrance, a yellow warning strip forbids non-pilots from wandering onto the taxiway, and on the other side of that line, a pair of 60-year-old Piper Cubs sits in the sun, like handsome old roosters flaunting their plumage.
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CHANDLER MUNICIPAL AIRPORT (CHD)
THE HANGAR CAFÉ
Beloved by pilots and non-flying Valley folk alike, this breakfast-oriented diner right off the tarmac in Chandler is thick with can-do energy and the appetizing aroma of diner grub done right. Clobber your morning hunger with the Dutch Fry house specialty ($6.95) – country-fried potatoes with scrambled eggs, onions and green peppers, draped in cheddar and Jack cheese – or rib into one of their eight breakfast burritos, including the Ultimate Hangar sausage, ham and bacon tri-pork-fecta ($7.95). 1725 E. Ryan Rd., Chandler, 480-899-6965
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Inside, a platoon of friendly waitresses tend to the late-morning crowd, dropping “huns” and “sweeties” like packets of Sweet ‘N Low. It’s the quintessential flyboy hang – laid-back vibe, unimpeded view of the runway, and meaty breakfast grub that will stick your ribs just as surely as it will rape your cholesterol panels.
Such diner-style food is the norm at general aviation airports, but it’s not strictly the rule. Case in point: Anzio Landing at Falcon Field in Mesa. Founded in 1989 by a former executive at Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden, the restaurant is a surprising hybrid of airport café and middlebrow Tuscan-style family restaurant. It has the airplane pictures on the walls, but chicken-fried steak? Naw. Think Veal Parmigiana and Sole Piccata.
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FALCON FIELD (FFZ)
Arizona’s only Italian airport eatery is actually a bit more garden-oriented than its Olive Garden roots might lead you to believe – the menu features such fruit-forward dishes as Strawberry Salsa Trout ($19), and the house salad, amusingly, includes Craisins. Still, Anzio’s comfort-food classics are your best bets. The fragrant, mouth-filling Parmesan-Encrusted Trout ($19) is just the thing to sooth turbulence-frayed nerves, and the Baked Lasagna ($16) is exactly like your Piper-flying grandmother used to make. Most importantly: Try the fried spinach side dish. It’s like an addictive bowl of spinach Doritos. 2613 N. Thunderbird Circle, Mesa, 480-832-1188, anziolanding.com
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Current owner Rich Cutshall says Anzio Landing used to get “10 to 15 pilots a night” who would park their planes next to the restaurant and have dinner, but the recession curtailed such fancies. “But we still get the local diners,” he says. “People will grab their neighbors, come in here to watch the sunset and see the [air] traffic.”
The name of the restaurant reflects the colorful history of Falcon Field itself. Back in the early 1940s, the newly-built airport was one of three facilities in the Valley where novice Allied pilots trained for World War II flight missions; the others were Thunderbird Field I (later razed and replaced by the Thunderbird School of Management) and Thunderbird Field II (now Scottsdale Airport). Originally designated Thunderbird Field III, the air facility was rechristened Falcon Field in deference to the British pilots who trained there. “The Brits had no idea what a Thunderbird was,” Cutshall says. “But they have a rich falconry tradition, so that’s how the airport got its name.”
When he started the restaurant, the former Olive Garden exec paid homage to the airport’s World War II history by naming the eatery after an Italian resort town near Rome that served as a key Allied landing site. Ergo, Anzio Landing.
Colorful histories or no, the Valley’s half-dozen reliever-airports will not satisfy an enterprising private pilot for long. Most would rather open the throttle over Arizona’s backcountry than stay yoked to the Valley sprawl. And that’s how a $10 hamburger balloons into a $100 hamburger.
“Deer Valley Ground, Cessna 66104... Romeo six northeast departure with a hotel,” Valley entrepreneur Barry Caraway says into his headset, followed by more impenetrable air-control jargon. He taxies into position on the far west end of Deer Valley’s 8,000-foot runway and waits for his go-ahead from the tower. Within a few minutes, we’re cruising placidly over north Scottsdale’s princely Troon neighborhood, where even from 6,000 feet, the houses look as big as hotels.
“I just like to do stuff,” Caraway says, explaining his newfound love of flying. “The truth is, flying opens up a whole new world to you. You can go more places, do more things, and do it quicker.” The 50-something Scottsdale resident eyes the GPS screen on his instrument panel, which provides him with a target elevation and offers a direct flight path to the morning’s destination: Payson.
A former stockbroker, Caraway peeled off on his own in the early 1990s, developing and marketing Hat Saver, a Scotchgard-like headwear protector. Around the same time, he started dabbling heavily in the Harley-Davidson culture, starting a website, cyclerides.com, that helps support his open-road-loving lifestyle. After that, flying seemed like a natural progression. Between bites of – what else? – chicken-fried steak at Payson Airport’s Crosswinds Restaurant, Caraway ticks off his favorite general-aviation airports. Last June, he and his wife made an impulse flight to Telluride Regional Airport (TEX) in Colorado. At 9,000 feet above sea level, Telluride’s is the highest-elevation commercial airport in the U.S. and infamously challenging for pilots. Mostly, Caraway just wanted to add the airport to his trophy belt – have a bite and leave. Instead, they ended up staying for the town’s annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival – a $100 hamburger with a John Fogerty show on the side.
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PAYSON AIRPORT (PAN)
Hailed for its invigorating views of the Tonto National Forest – and its hearty selection of omelets, pancakes and gravy-smothered breadstuffs – this hilltop eatery is an established fly-in favorite for Valley pilots. Go light with the veggie omelet ($6.39) or fulfill your recommended weekly allowance of sausage and carbohydrates with a monster-sized plate of biscuits and gravy ($3.69). Accept owner Darla Annabel’s offer of a post-meal airsick bag if you must, but it would a shame to lose your lunch after such a pleasant breakfast. 800 W. Airport Rd., Payson, 928-474-1613
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A classic airport diner, Crosswinds is nothing if not aptly named. Handsomely cut from a hilltop in the Tonto National Forest, Payson Airport sits just northeast of the Mazatzal Mountains, which kick up waves of turbulence that buffet small aircraft flying to and from Phoenix. For that reason, Crosswinds owner Darla Annabel is accustomed to dealing with airsick diners. “Some [customers] will ask for a bag before they leave,” she says good-naturedly. “Or they’ll ask for a bucket full of water to clean up the mess they made coming in. Those Mazatzals can be a little rough.”
By the FAA’s count, there are 87 public and private airports in Arizona, from the commercial hubs in greater Phoenix to the scrappiest B.F.E. operations in the Arizona bush. The town of Chinle in Apache Country has an airport. So does Bagdad in the Central Arizona no-man’s-land between Prescott and the Parker Strip. Even Ajo, Arizona – where the main industry, seemingly, is Mexican car insurance – has an airport.
Indeed, you can fly virtually anywhere in Arizona using FAA-sanctioned airports, but that’s not quite good enough for a specific sub-species of aviator. Known broadly as “backcountry pilots,” these high-flying bush adventurers seek out abandoned landing strips in Arizona’s most remote climes. Together, they’ll clear and recondition the strips, and fly back en masse for weekend-long barbecue campouts – creating their own airport pop-up restaurants, as it were. “Some [of the strips] are asphalt, some are dirt strips, so you have to be pretty up on your skills to land in these places,” backcountry aviator Mark Spencer says.
Their most recent conquest: the Grapevine strip near Roosevelt Lake. Last January, several dozen members of the Arizona Pilots Association spent a weekend clearing the strip, which the U.S. Forest Service closed in the summer of 1997. Then they flew back the following weekend, feasting on Frito pies and grilled hamburgers, while a member-pilot entertained his mates with fiddle tunes around a nearby fire pit.
According to Spencer, there are “probably 20 or so backcountry landing strips” in Arizona, but only a handful are currently in use. One of the most-frequented is the Pleasant Valley strip near the town of Young in the Tonto National Forest. “A local guy leaves his International pick-up for us near the strip,” Spencer says. “So we can drive into town and have lunch.” The private-pilot restaurant of choice in Young is Antlers Bar and Grill, a throwback eatery that makes a mean plate of liver and onions ($9).
Certainly, there are less risk-intensive ways to score a plate of liver and onions – a fact sadly underscored last July when Arriba Mexican Grill CEO Raymond Perry crashed his helicopter into the Verde River on the way back from breakfast in Sedona, killing all four people on board. Despite Arizona’s flight-friendly weather, crashes are somewhat more common here than in other states. According to an Arizona Republic article in 2010, Arizona has exceeded the national crash rate every year except for one since 2002. In 2008, the state’s rate of 2.76 crashes per 100,000 flight hours was about twice the mean. Experts speculate that Arizona’s high crash rate might have something to do with the unpredictable nature of its superheated summer air, or the large ratio of novice pilots here.
Still, such facts are unlikely to deter an aviation enthusiast once he gets a taste of flying, which Pasmore says is even more delicious and habit-forming than the pan-seared Mexican sea bass with fresh ginger-cucumber salsa that he just inhaled at Sedona’s Mesa Grill.
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SEDONA AIRPORT (SEZ)
Dapper naturalized Frenchman Marc Battistini mingles Southwestern cuisine with the traditions of his homeland at this fine-dining destination in the heart of red rock country. Nightly specials – like Maine lobster tail with garlic-herb butter ($25) or sea bass with ginger-cucumber salsa ($22) – gild the lily of appetizing menu mainstays, including ravioli with veal osso buco ($19.75) and chicken, avocado and mango salad ($16.50). Credit Battistini for knowing his flyboy clientele – the menu also features a roasted-chile $100 Airport Burger, priced to move at $13.25. Also open for breakfast and lunch. 1185 Airport Rd., Sedona, 928-282-2400, mesagrillsedona.com
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“Man, that was really good,” the newsman says, throwing his napkin down like a fullback spiking a football. An incorrigible adventure-hound, Pasmore raced cars semi-professionally in a Phoenix-based sprint-car circuit for seven years before shifting his focus to flying. “Now, that’s a truly dangerous hobby – racing. And I did it for all those years without getting hurt. So I figured it was better to quit while I was ahead.”
Flying isn’t as expensive as most people assume, Pasmore says. Small-airplane landing fees are negligible – as little as $6 in some general-aviation airports – and the RV-6’s four-cylinder engine only burns about $50 worth of fuel on a round-trip to Sedona, making that mythical $100 hamburger more like a $60 hamburger. “I get better gas mileage than an SUV in that thing,” says the 50-year-old, nodding in the direction of the sleek, periwinkle-trimmed aircraft, which cost him about the same as a flagship German sedan. “I burn about nine gallons an hour, but I’m going 200 miles an hour, so it’s pretty economical.”
Pasmore flies about once a week, sometimes to California for a weekend retreat with his girlfriend, sometimes merely to grab a bite in Payson, Sedona or wherever there’s a runway and a nice plate of diner grub.
Next to us, a trio of flight-suited serviceman take a seat, having just helicopter-commuted from Luke Air Force Base. Together, we admire the ruddy orange Sedona sunset as it tumbles over the side of the mesa.
“It’s the same with these guys,” Pasmore says, gesturing at the flight crew. “The food always tastes a little better when you have to fly somewhere to get it, you know what I mean?”
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GLENDALE MUNICIPAL AIRPORT (GEU)
LEFT SEAT WEST
Airport diners don’t get more diner-y than this longtime Sky Harbor hideout, which relocated to Glendale’s vacant restaurant space earlier this year. Staples like biscuits and gravy, and the $3.99 bacon-and-eggs “early bird breakfast special” (6 a.m.-7 a.m.) are cut right from the airport-eatery playbook, complemented by a stout menu of burgers and sandwiches, including a superlatively cheesy Mexican patty melt ($8.25). The menu here is so unapologetically throwback and carnivore-oriented, the appearance of an “Avocado Burger” ($8.25) looks positively avant garde. 6801 N. Glen Harbor Blvd., Glendale, 623-877-2208, leftseatrestaurant.com
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SCOTTSDALE AIRPORT (SDL)
Scottsdale Airport’s designated restaurant space was derelict for two years until this Euro-Med concept from Scottsdale caterers DeeDee Mazaand and Vicki Beaudoin took nest last January – and heart-healthy pilots should be glad it did. With its civilized mix of flatbreads, fruit-accented salads and piping-hot panini, the menu reads more like
Arcadia Farms than Mel’s Diner. Lunch-hungry land-lubbers in north Scottsdale could do worse than the summery Strawberry Salad ($8) with candied walnuts and local feta cheese, or the light-and-crunchy Zulu BLT ($8) with applewood bacon and basil mayo. The café also offers brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. 15000 N. Airport Dr., Scottsdale, 480-636-1634, zulucaffe.com
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