I had always heard about “the dip.”
Private plane pilots have bragged about it as kind of a macho daredevil thing and used it to scare rookie passengers like me.
So as I was flying into the so-called “Airport In The Sky” on Catalina Island in Southern California, I was naturally a bit apprehensive about it. After all, the airport was constructed on the top of a hill with nothing but drop-offs below it. From all I’ve heard, “the dip” was a sudden drop in the runway that for first-timers, caused the illusion that you were at the end of the landing strip and the plane was about to plunge over a steep cliff.
The reward for this sensation was the sensational items at the airport’s restaurant unique to Catalina: the island’s signature Buffalo Burger and Buffalo Milk cocktail.
When private pilot Rob Devers suggested we take up his plane and go for what local pilots refer to as “the hundred dollar burger,” Midlife Road Trip video partner Ashley Semosh and myself strapped ourselves into his red, white and blue Cessna called “Captain America” and cleared ourselves for takeoff.
Devers keeps his plane at South Bay Aviation in Torrance, which stores planes and has pilots like Devers to fly lucky passengers like myself and Ashley up and over Los Angeles and to destinations such as Catalina.
Ashley and I are quite used to commercial aircraft – she’s a flight attendant and I’m a frequent traveler – but I can tell you a getting into private plane is hardly the same as walking down the aisle of an Airbus.
For starters, there’s no aisle. You hoist yourself into the aerial equivalent of a sports car. Rob’s plane is a two-door and it holds four people – including him – with a passenger seat in the front and bench seat in the back.
The takeoff proved to be much the same as in a commercial aircraft and the flight was much more beautiful. Devers’ flight path took us over the King Harbor Marina and the Redondo Beach Pier – which, quite frankly, looks a lot better from the air than it does from the ground – up the coastline, around the Hermosa Beach Pier and then onto Catalina.
We flew at an altitude of about 4,000 feet, which was high enough to be, well, “up there,” but low enough to get great views of the coast, the Pacific Ocean and, as we neared the island, Catalina.
If you don’t know Catalina, it’s a rugged, largely uninhabited body of land 26 miles almost due west of Long Beach. It has cliffs, sheer drop-offs, dirt roads and buffalo. Yes, buffalo. They were brought there by chewing gum king William Wrigley, Jr., who visited and eventually bought a part of the island. Over time, the buffalo burgers and a frothy alcoholic drink called the Buffalo Milk became Catalina’s two biggest consumable attractions. (The meat for the buffalo burgers, I’ve been told, actually come from bison in South Dakota.)
As we approached the airport, I could see the runway. Man, did it look scary! In my vision, it was basically a small strip of asphalt on a cliff. Suddenly, it wasn’t “the dip” that was causing my concern but the entire runway. Devers – who flew the huge refueling aircraft in the Air Force – described it as “landing on an aircraft carrier.”
Devers expertly maneuvered Captain America into position, we touched down and – nothing! I did not feel the dip and never thought we would go careening off the side of the hill. Bummer! (Well not really.) Turns out, the runway is some 3,000 feet long and Devers simply – and intentionally – overshot “the dip.” Good pilots can do that, I guess.
With my stomach calm instead of in knots as a result, I was all ready for my Buffalo Burger and especially the Buffalo Milk. Ashely was too; we had been talking about these two things so much that had she not been strapped into her seat, she may have gone charging to the restaurant the second the wheels hit the ground.
So guess what happened – the grill wasn’t working that day (it needed some replacement part, which on slow-paced Catalina could take a week or more to get fixed), meaning there were no Buffalo Burgers. Plus, the Airport in the Sky no longer serves Buffalo Milks!
We had flown over there for two specific things, neither which was available. But what can you do – we certainly were not about to fly back to Torrance and eat at McDonald’s. So we did what one does when things don’t go exactly right when you travel: we improvised. And with Ashley, that meant one thing: have champagne!
We did order a very average tri-tip sandwich, enjoyed our time at this unique place and on the way back, Rob took us on a scenic journey over Southern California. We flew over the huge ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the historic Queen Mary and a modern-day cruise ship tied up to a dock in Long Beach, over gorgeous Palos Verdes, back over the Redondo Beach marina and again around the Hermosa pier.
That part was so exhilarating that by the time we landed, Ashely and I had pretty much let the disappointment of the burgers and cocktails roll off our shoulders.
As I’ve learned about travel, the journey sometimes can be even better than the destination, and that was certainly the case on this day.
Kevin Wilkerson is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer who also publishes his own blog, PubClub.com. He lives in Hermosa Beach, CA, and usually considers himself to be a pretty grounded person but now with this flying experience, he doesn’t mind getting up in the air on occasion.