Gassing Up, Then and Now

by Allen Penticoff
Published in Midwest Flyer – February/March 2020 issue

Recently, my plane partner and I undertook a fun flight on a beautiful warm Sunday afternoon across southern Wisconsin from our home base in Freeport, Illinois, to dine at the “Piccadilly Lilly Cafe,” a good old airport cafe at Tri-County Regional Airport (KLNR)*, Lone Rock, Wisconsin. Because we had an intermediate stop at Brodhead, Wisconsin on the way and a headwind to KLNR, we had to contemplate a refueling before returning by the same route. Our vintage 1966 Cessna 150 has about three hours of endurance and our fuel gauges were bouncing around just above half full. We were not going to make it all the way home on that. Besides, I get anxious with fuel tanks below a half.

Finishing lunch before the café closed at 2:00 p.m., and preparing for departure, we contemplated refueling at KLNR before departing or refueling somewhere else along the way. We chose elsewhere. Elsewhere, in this case, was the municipal airport at Monroe, Wisconsin (KEFT), where 100LL in late December 2019 was $3.77 per gallon – self serve. Taxiing up to the pump, we were third in line behind a Mooney and an RV. Soon the Mooney was gone, but a gorgeous, polished 1949 Cessna 140 pulled in behind us, and then along came a Bonanza. The Bonanza could only fit in line by pulling the C-150 and C-140 up tight behind the RV. That’s four. Being in line for fuel at Monroe is not uncommon. In fact, by weird coincidence, this is the second time the same C-140 has been behind us at the pump.

Self-serve avgas is increasing in popularity. I’ve been flying 50-plus years and for most of those years, getting avgas meant taxiing up to the pump at most small airports, then trying to find someone to fuel your aircraft. On occasion, this turned into quite a search or even a fruitless one, especially after 5:00 p.m. We often wondered why we could not have self-serve fuel the same as automobiles, so we could get fuel when we needed it, and hopefully at a discount.

Since then, we got our wish fulfilled. But it is not all peaches and cream. While most small municipal airports now have self-serve avgas, we are also missing out on what was once a great aviation interaction – the line person. I was once a “line boy” myself, and I was indeed a boy at the time.

The pilot would double check to make sure the line person was actually putting the  correct fuel in the tanks (there used to be more choices), filled the tank and put the cap on properly, then followed the line person into the fixed base operation to pay the bill — chatting them up a bit the entire time.

The line person was often an aspiring pilot, and still often is when you come across one. Usually a high school kid working part-time, who is also a student pilot. We would bestow flying wisdom on them, and asked them what their career plans were. Many, including myself, worked for flight time and the privilege of being around airplanes – and get paid for it. I rather miss that connection today.

Now we have two realms: The self-serve, any-time-of-the-day pump, and the adult line technician who drives a fuel truck up to your plane for refueling. Line technician is the right term, as refueling jets is no simple matter.

The days of the line person seem to be, sadly, an anachronism of the past, except at busy metropolitan airports of course. With this change and finding many airports essentially unattended most of the time (can’t blame them… there is little money to be made), you now have these situations where there is nobody to call at the airport to confirm that there will be fuel when you arrive. “ForeFlight” and online searches show us where fuel can be found and at what cost, and facility directories may say there is fuel, but they may not accurately reflect what is currently going on.

The facility may be out of fuel (airports don’t get their tanks filled as often as gas stations), and there is the chance that the pumps themselves may not be working. Power out? No fuel. Internet connection out? No fuel. Pump broke? No fuel. We fell victim to the latter once and had to scramble on very low fuel to another airport 15 miles away, near sunset, then return to tie down at the first airport. Not comfortable with that.

With the Internet, we can now easily search and find lower priced fuel, providing the information is up to date. That saves us some money, but in the overall scheme of things, the cost of fuel is a small percentage of the expense of aircraft ownership for most of us. To that end, we will usually pay our local fixed base operator more for fuel than go “elsewhere,” as they would not be able to stay in business without our financial support. Yet, there is that Yankee thing that says if you find a bargain, you better take it. So, a little of that now and then, is no harm done.

It won’t be long before we will be shopping around for cheap electricity for our airplanes. No need for a line person to help us plug in. Heck, we won’t even need to punch in all that information into a strange self-serve pump terminal; the charger will recognize the airplane and bill us directly without so much as a “howdy-do!” Progress, I suppose, but us old-timers will miss those times spent yacking with those kids who have served us diligently and may well soon take our place.

*As of late December 2019, Tri-County Regional Airport in Lone Rock/Spring Green, Wis. (KLNR), has been experiencing flooding that has intermittently affected runways and taxiways, as well as the airport restaurant. Check NOTAMS and call ahead before departing.

EDITORS NOTE: Allen Penticoff lives in New Milford, Illinois, is a long-time aviator, airframe and powerplant mechanic, former aircraft insurance adjuster, and now just a plain old airplane nut.

This entry was posted in Airports, All Features, Features, Feb/March 2020 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply