The $100 Hamburger Club

Off they go, into the wild blue yonder—to meet up for Thursday lunch. By Kim Hackett

Pictured: ROMEOS Bill Blake, Dave Cook, Wayne Connor, John McBride, Gary McBride, Paul Cellecz, Berte Brady and Horace Greeley.

They look like an invading force—sometimes as many as 18 planes soaring in sequence over Venice with military precision. But rather than scouring the land for enemy forces, they’re looking for the best “$100 burger”—so named because of the cost of aviation fuel—within a two-hour fly.

“We call ourselves the Romeos,” says Gary McBride, adding that it’s an acronym for “Really Old Men Eating Out.”

McBride, 71, is the concierge of the group of mostly retired pilots, who lunch together on Thursdays. During summer, some snowbirds will fly in from Connecticut or other places just to join their buddies for lunch.

McBride calls mom-and-pop diners at small airports in Okeechobee, Lakeland and a half-dozen other favorite spots, most of them in Florida, and asks, “Can you handle us?” Wayne Connor, whose Venice airport hangar is the meet-up spot, scopes out the weather and decides where the group will go.

They leave around 10 a.m. and try to be back by 2 p.m. “Most of us have long ‘honey-do’ lists to deal with in the afternoon,” McBride says.

The informal group of retired military pilots, commercial pilots, a former FedEx pilot, and recreational flyers are mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s. They started meeting at the Venice airport more than a decade ago.  Attendance ranges from a half dozen men in the summer to groups as large as 30. But rather than “plane pool,” most take their own craft.

“That’s the fun of the thing,” says McBride, a naval aviator who earned his wings in 1967 and once chased Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic. “There’s a lot of experience in this group. We have an air frequency; we don’t take chances and we make sure there is proper distance between us. At any given time we know where everyone is.”

They know each other’s habits so well, they could order for one another. While many of the group opt for the burgers, Mik Cave, a British snowbird, always orders a bacon-lettuce-tomato, regardless of the airport; McBride favors Winter Haven’s “pancakes so big they fall off the plate” and the ham and cheese at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg.

“The guys like it,” McBride says. And they also appreciate the informal, unstructured nature of the group. “If they don’t show up one week, we don’t give them a hard time,” he says. |||




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