Let's say you've got a yen to go cruising for burgers, but your car's in the shop and all you've got left is your Cessna 210. There's not enough room to land at Jack-in-the-Box and the wings won't fit through the carport at In-N-Out Burger.
Fortunately for the airborne and hungry, there's Meadowlark Airport, one of the last "little" airports in Southern California. The Huntington Beach airstrip is a kind of roadside diner for private pilots, with the conversational overtones of a general store or a fraternity house.
Meadowlark is where pilots go to talk with other pilots about flying, generally over breakfast or a lunchtime hamburger at the Meadowlark Airport Cafe, a tiny eatery situated just off the end of the runway. They are the pilots who like the freedom to swoop in for a meal and a chat anytime they feel like it, who enjoy "There I was..." stories, who like to be able to bring the family down to look at the planes, kick the tires, maybe check out a vintage biplane or two.
"It's different than other airports in that it's more like it was in the '40s," said Art Wold, a pilot and aircraft mechanic who's been repairing planes at Meadowlark for the past 15 years. "With other airports, it's mostly business. They expect you to fly in, get your business done and get out. Here, people come by to just shoot the breeze. Some of them almost live here. It's like their backyard. That's exactly the way they treat it."
Most of the pilots who fly into and out of Meadowlark "know each other on a casual type of deal," Wold said. "Most of them don't just come out here and get in their planes and take off."
What most do, he said, is hold court at one of the picnic benches in the small grass area in front of the cafe, sip coffee or a soft drink (no beer if they're flying), order up a little food and do some "hangar flying"--aviation's equivalent of sea stories, tall tales, close calls and derring-do.
For the general aviation enthusiast, or for the non-pilot who loves to watch a steady stream of private air traffic in a relaxed setting, Meadowlark provides the atmosphere. For those non-fliers who want to go further, there is a small flight school, Sunset Aviation, next to the cafe.
"I've done a lot of airport hopping," said Bill Kutz, a pilot from Huntington Beach and the owner of a plumbing company. "And it's hard to find one like this anymore. You can come and look at the planes and bring the kids. And everyone likes the cafe. That's one of a pilot's favorite pastimes, to fly to different airports and eat at the restaurants. Sometimes, we do more flying on the ground than we do in the air."
The future of Meadowlark, however, is uncertain. The owners of the 41-year-old airport for the last 35 years, Dick and Art Nerio, have said they would like to close the facility and build a shopping center and homes on the 65-acre property where about 150 planes are tied down. The proposal was approved by the city's Planning Commission Tuesday. Other plans also have been advanced, including one in which the City of Huntington Beach would buy the land and operate the airport. Any plan would probably not go into effect for two years after its adoption.
Still, the regulars doggedly return for meals and good talk.
"One thing I've always noticed out here," said Jack Harrison, an eight-year pilot and sprinkler fitter from Huntington Beach, "is that you get all types. You see contractors and lawyers and dentists and, unless you knew them, you could never tell from looking at them what they did for a living. And no one cares. You can get a lot of hangar flying done talking to the people out here."
MEADOWLARK AIRPORT AT A GLANCE
Where: Off Warner Avenue just east of Bolsa Chica Street, Huntington Beach.
Hours: Daylight hours, seven days a week. (No control tower; pilots announce their intentions to land on a common radio band.)
Businesses on the property: Meadowlark Airport Cafe (breakfast and lunch served), various aircraft mechanics, and a flight school (Sunset Aviation, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week).
Tie-downs: About 150.
Best times to see air traffic: Weekends, from early morning through afternoon hours.
Parking: Next to the flight school.