Java Jive


It was a cool morning at the airport, and I had just exited the FBO lounge to walk onto the ramp. My left hand held the keys to my hangar’s door, and my right hand cradled a three-quarter-full cup of airport coffee—the communion drink of drowsy pilots.

There is a certain squint that experienced pilots put on their faces as they put the cup to their lips for the first sip of the day. Kind of a furrowed brow look with pursed lips that says, “I am not sure if this coffee is cold, hot, horrible, or OK.” 

My coffee squint was tight, and my eyes were almost closed because the sun was directly on my aging face. Because I had not yet donned my prescription bifocal sunglasses, my peepers were too overwhelmed by the light to give me a chance to avoid Frank, who approached quickly, like an adept fighter pilot—high and out of the sun.

Every airport has a Frank. They are a lifeform, much like creeping basement wall mold or those little salamanders that run out of the wet places in your yard. They are probably necessary in the web of life, but you can’t figure out why and don’t want to interact with them.

They have a few easily recognizable traits that include bragging about how much their airplane cost, denigrating other pilots whether they know them or not, playing irritating talk radio opinion shows way too loud in their hangars, and not being kind to the line crew and other team members at the airport. 

Oh, and did I mention that your average airport Frank knows everything about flying and is eager to show off their knowledge by haranguing innocent pilots like me who only want to drink their damn coffee in peace?

During the past few interactions I had with Frank, I had to endure his discussion of how much he, his insufferable wife and bratty kid spent last month during their flying vacation to the Bahamas, along with an even more uncomfortable series of comments denigrating all air traffic controllers from here to Bimini for their oafishness and stupidity.

I decided to mount a talkative counteroffensive by grabbing the discussion by the ankles and metaphorically flipping it on its head.

Frank began with a quick and loud “Hey,” and I cut him off at the conversational pass. 

Is there anything more vital to the world of aviation than airport coffee? I began.

Frank shifted uncomfortably but wanted to hang in there to overwhelm me and get his point across eventually. 

I would not allow it. Not today.

Yes, I continued, coffee has been an integral part of airport life ever since Wilbur and Orville hand-tossed some ground beans into a big pot of boiling water on a beach bonfire in North Carolina. 

Rumor has it that, as the history books say, they did not really have to flip a coin to see who would fly first. Orville went first because Wilbur had drunk six cups of coffee and was off behind the dunes, draining the main.

You can have any kind of aviation coffee, I said. They all have different traits, but each kind makes up the mosaic of hot, stimulating beverages for aviation.

Frank looked at his very expensive watch and shifted his weight, looking uncomfortable.

The first, of course, is the coffee from vending machines you can find at almost any flight school or training center. This brew can be identified by the small uninsulated paper cups, which often have a poker hand pictured on them. This coffee is watery and rank, but you drink it anyway because you have a checkride that day and want to stay alert.

Next up on the scale of aviation java is the do-it-yourself coffee brewer you find in your layover hotel room when you are an airline pilot. The machine will turn out a cup of hot liquid that resembles coffee, but only in that it is dark and bitter. 

You really want a decent cup to start your day, but pickup is at 4 a.m., and real coffee is unavailable until you fire up the galley in your bird and brew.

Frank was about to answer my question and opened his mouth to speak, but I got there first. 

Galley coffee, son. I’m talking about galley coffee. This is the stuff made in those metal pot machines that suck potable water out of your plane’s festering water tank and combine it with the cheapest coffee filter pack your airline thinks it can get away with.

The key to galley coffee, I say, is to put two pillow packs of coffee in the filter drawer. The stuff isn’t any better, but it is too strong to argue with and will give you the mental energy jolt you need to begin the before-start checklist.

Frank was walking away, but I wanted to add a few coffee facts to ensure he would never, ever approach me on a ramp again.

Yes, I almost shouted. The funny thing about galley coffee is the flat-ended stirrers they give you for your cream and sugar. They were first used in the 1980s, and the spoon end was flat to keep us from snorting cocaine—you know, Bolivian marching powder, Florida snow, devil’s dandruff. 

I was going to finish my harangue by asking Frank if he was up to date on his contributions to the coffee fund donation box in the FBO lounge. Feeling like a jerk for verbally attacking him that way, I was going to ask him if he was interested in coming over to my humble T-hangar for a cuppa.

It was too late. He swooped in on another sun-blinded ramp dweller and was, even now, weaving a soul-killing web of talk about his new robot tug and how stupid the line crew is.

Kevin Garrison
Kevin Garrison is a former airline captain who continues to spread his wisdom of the ages as an airport bum. He shares his thoughts twice a month.


  1. Fascinating fact. Caffeine is water soluble, so weak coffee made with a few ground beans and boiled for 10 minutes, contains more caffeine than a shot of strong expresso, with more ground beans but where less the water and steam is in contact with the coffee for less than an minute.
    And the tanin from tea means the caffeine in it, is absorbed much more slowly than that in coffee and Coke a Cola….
    Finally, somewhere there is a list of in flight incidents caused by coffee spilt on aircraft electronics.

  2. The -10 DC-9s I used to fly had the WORST tasting coffee I’ve ever had; but we drank it anyway. Kind of a cross between bilge-water and battery acid. The rest of the DC-9 fleet had coffee makers which turned out quite a decent cuppa; I dunno what the difference was.

    • I flew a lot on my airline’s DC-9/32s, and they had what was basically a hot water heater that the FAs dumped a jar of instant coffee into. It was horrible, but like you, I drank it anyway.

  3. Anyone that knows me, knows that I have always lived my life fast and furious- one of my mottos has been-“if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess”. In my pilot days in the Air Force was one such event- it had nothing to do with combat this time but flying a great airplane- the Lockheed C-141. We were in Yokota Japan, preflighting the plane and my flight engineer discovered the flap motor leaking hydraulic fluid (another liquid, I don’t drink). He said to me and the officers- go to the “O” club and get a cup of coffee and we will have it fixed in about 2 hours. We walked over to the Yokota Officer’s Club and everyone ordered coffee- I never liked the taste of coffee and I ordered water. The other guys said- try it, put some sugar in it and you will like it- well, it was tolerable and ten cups of high octane coffee, sweetened with real sugar later, the flap motor was fixed. It was my 10 hour leg, back to McChord AFB, in Tacoma, Washington and I hummed and shook and definitely stayed awake for that flight. It was the last time I ever drank coffee, I have had a little Mil- 5606 hydraulic fluid but never intentionally—

  4. Brilliant stuff Captain Kevin. As a line boy in college working at a Cessna dealer I met a few of those Franks. The worst one was some fat old guy in a Civil Air Patrol flight suit. He had a self important sense of urgency that I found very tiresome. The FBO I worked at had “not bad” coffee and real coke in real coke bottles. I survived on that stuff and peanut butter crackers. Most of the pilots I met back in the late 60s were great folks who gave me excellent advice about an aviation career and where to get good coffee.

    • When I was a lineboy in LAL at Robert’s Flying Service, we had a coke machine that sold those tiny glass cokes. It was a red machine, and it cost a dime. The Cokes were so cold that they froze a little when you opened them. Best ever on those 95-degree Florida August days.

  5. Good morning Cap’n Garrison,
    To be frank about it: Ya had me at “plane’s festering water tank” Likely revert to canned beverages henceforth.

  6. I quit drinking coffee when I was finishing my tour of duty in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. As an SF Infantry officer, my access to decent coffee was limited (that is to say, non-existent). What they issued us were little packets of ersatz stuff mostly made from chicory – but apparently it had enough caffeine in it to keep us from falling asleep whilst “hiking” through the jungle…After 16-1/2 months, I had had it – no more “coffee.” As to the “Franks” of the ramp, I like your diversion style!

  7. Capt. Garrison–MORE PLEASE on the “Frank Eradication Program! We can live with or without coffee, but there are too many “Franks” in the aviation world.

    The REAL “experienced aviators” don’t talk much about their experiences–unless asked. Every General Aviation airport has their “Franks”–usually someone that may or may not have received their Private License 40 or more years ago–or perhaps belonged to the Civil Air Patrol. These “Would-be Aviators” (or alternately, “Used-to-Was” aviators) hold court on every person that actually DOES take to the air (in the absence of the person being discussed, of course). As a 50-year (“plus) FBO–I welcome former aviators–the airport is rightfully their HOME–but not the know-it-alls that haven’t flown since the advent of tricycle landing gear–or have never ventured more than 75 miles from home–or have never seen the inside of a cloud.


    • Maybe a little “over the top” but O.K. Up here in the northern wastes a live pilot is a good pilot. To start the day you’ll want to avoid the acid sludge as previously mentioned and delight in what the fictional captain Jean Luc Picard orders as ” tea, Earl Grey, hot” and not from the “replicator” but loose leaf and infused in hot water that was just now at a “rolling boil”. After the second cup and as the sun nears it’s zenith perhaps a “cuppa Jo” can be tolerated with a hopefully two day old ham & cheese sammich before the next charter. It takes time to deliver the fresh goods up here and frozen can be quite popular.

  8. “The spoon end was flat to keep us from snorting cocaine—you know, Bolivian marching powder.” Remember when McDonalds changed in the ’70’s from the white stirrers with the spoon at the end due to the cocaine users because they didn’t want that notoriety.

  9. Mr. G.

    Thank you for the article. As much as I hate and avoid coffee, I do realize it makes me an aviation outlier. The coffee bit of the piece was mildly entertaining – not new – not innovating – but diverting. Nicely written as well – not that my opinion counts for much.

    Unfortunately I agree with you about airport “Franks.” Also unfortunately I am saddened by your choice to become one in order to attempt to quell one. I feel so badly for you. But I do respect you for having the let’s say fortitude to admit it in public. I know I’ll take heat for this opinion, but the way to stop any unpleasant or offensive thing is NOT more of that thing. I find myself unable to refrain from mentioning affirmative action and DEI at this point. I guess it wouldn’t be a comments section if someone didn’t.

    I hope that going forward you’ll give maybe just the tiniest bit more thought to challenging situations. Perhaps you might consider actually discussing the problem directly with the offender. It’s just a suggestion of course.

    Rekabr52 – flattening the spoons actually only made them more efficient at the task the druggies used them for – at least that’s what my less mainstream friends told me back then. Then they couldn’t change them back because the public would think they were aiding drug culture. After the change they went silent on the subject. You’ll notice no one ever put out a press release saying how effective the change was and how much they helped – because it wasn’t and they didn’t. Mind you – not from personal experience, but I did have some friends when I was younger that challenged ones tolerance.

    • the CEO is a fictional character, but I’ll tell him to be more loving and forgiving in the future.

  10. This was the perfect read after my first cup. Truly enjoyable and perhaps the best thing I’ll read on my laptop today. Thanks.

  11. There are more than six Franks at my airport. The # one Frank has a PHD in Aviation? If the conversation was about airport coffee he would claim that he engineered and had the coffee maker built to his specifications and grew the coffee beans which he genetically reserached.

  12. One day we got a charter on the Navajo to fly a local politician and his 2 staff to a meeting. We had a portable commissary with some water and juice, a coffee thermos and associated fixings.

    We would invite the passengers to help themselves when we were settled in cruise flight. The arrogant SOB demanded he and his staff be served. Since we were VFR and it was smooth I reluctantly sent the young female FO to cater to them. She served them smiling even though they made several tasteless sexists remarks.

    When she returned I apologized for subjecting her to that but she gave me a big smile and said when she was turned away from the pax she hocked a big goober into the boss man’s coffee cup.

    Startled I turned around to see if he noticed just as the guy takes a sip and gives me a big thumbs up. We decided to keep the story between ourselves but I still smile when I think about it.

  13. I thoroughly enjoyed your optimally integrated “Franks” & Coffee post. To this day (having left VQ-4 in 1984) I still miss the ever so slight tinge of the various JP blends.