An excuse to fly: thrill, freedom, burgers

Langley resident Aaron Simpson leaning on his Cessna 150 Aerobat

For many Whidbey Islanders, the trip to Port Townsend involves waiting in grueling lines and on the ferry, but for pilots it’s just another chance to grab a “$100 burger” in 15 minutes.

One hundred dollar burger is aviation slang for any excuse to take to the sky and another town or, for Whidbey Islanders, another island or landmass. Excuses are always welcome to local pilots like Langley resident Aaron Simpson, who flies about five times a week for thrills and a different perspective. Once off the ground and high enough to see the entire Puget Sound, he says, “Welcome to my home.”

“Flying is an amazing feeling,” Simpson said. “The blend of utility, freedom and wonderment can’t be matched.”

On any given day at Whidbey Airpark, the strip in Langley off Crawford Road, Simpson can be seen pulling his red, two seat Cessna 150 Aerobat out of the hanger to go flying or do maintenance work. He co-owns the plane, named “Scarlett” after the plane’s color, with Langley resident and Music for the Eyes owner Fred Lundahl, considered one of the flight gurus by Simpson and other young pilots on South Whidbey. Simpson says the plane is one of the most ubiquitous models, but has “beefed up” wings for aerobatics like barrel rolls or loops in case they’re feeling bold.

It takes a certain kind of adventurous person to be a pilot. South Whidbey’s more seasoned aviators have a litany of interesting backgrounds as former air force pilots, adventure seekers and in Lundahl’s case, diplomats to Central Asian countries. Lundahl has now been flying for 45 years. Upon coming home from Vietnam in 1970, Lundahl used the G.I. Bill to learn to fly since he’d already earned a college degree. He’s never looked back, and has spread his knowledge as an instructor to young aviators like Simpson and Langley resident Cygne LaChaussee.

“I love our pilot community,” LaChaussee said. “We have a lot of people that support each other and there are a lot of incredible pilots and people who have done amazing things in their lives.”

South Whidbey’s close-knit aviation community calls Whidbey Airpark home. It’s the only place on the South End able to house an airstrip, since the land it sits on is the only place open to light industrial operations. The air park isn’t much — a single strip, which is short by many people’s standards, a couple of hangers and towering trees lining the strip that make landing and take-off tricky. Landing involves skimming over the trees, seemingly stalling above the last row and dropping to the pavement. For first timers, holding your stomach may also be part of the landing process. But that’s all part of the charm of Whidbey Airpark.

“I really love our airstrip,” LaChaussee said. “It has its complications that make it a little more difficult, but you become a really good pilot knowing that the wind is pushing you and you have to drop fast to land on the small strip.”

Simpson and LaChaussee are two of the youngest faces of South Whidbey’s small but passionate pilot community. It’s estimated that there are roughly 20 active pilots who use Whidbey Airpark. Simpson took his first flying lesson when he was five years old, and has been flying ever since for the past 25 years. LaChaussee has held her pilot’s license for two months after learning from Lundahl, and became interested in flying when Simpson continued to talk planes to her.

“I never gave flying much of a thought until I became friends with Aaron, but I quickly grew interested by talking about it and looking at maps,” LaChaussee said. “Once you step into a smaller plane, it’s so much more fun. You can really explore.”

In search of adventure and the best $100 burger around, pilots across the Sound inevitably run into familiar faces on the runway and at nearby pilot hangout spots. It’s led to a niche community forming from the peninsula to Bellingham, as well as a Facebook page called Flights Above the Pacific Northwest that is nearly 5,000 members strong.

“You tend to run into people across the Sound,” Lundahl said. “Those of us in the flying community are always looking for an excuse to grab a $100 hamburger, so you run into people from all over who are doing the same thing.”

Whether pilots across Western Washington are in it for the thrills, the convenience of flying over the water or the sense of freedom, it’s a big community. And with strong numbers on the Facebook page and older pilots eager to teach younger generations how to fly, it doesn’t seem like there will be fewer planes gliding over Whidbey anytime soon.

“America is the one place where the sky is for the people,” Simpson said. “The vast majority of air space is open to all, and there’s a huge sense of freedom in the sky. Flying is the reason I wake up every morning.”