(October 2011) The concept of staying current always seemed an intellectual one to me. While I still had my Cessna Cardinal, I tried to fly it every week or so to keep its fluids — and mine — flowing. As a result, I was able to routinely check off most of the currency boxes without much special effort. But now, without the Cardinal, my time in the cockpit is curtailed, and though I’ve always felt flying an airplane was a lot like riding a bike — a skill that was easily resurrected after a layoff — I was wrong.
I recently flew a Cardinal for the first leg on a flight to Atlanta to attend the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators’ Pilot Training Reform Symposium. Doug Stewart, chairman of SAFE, let me ride with him in his Cardinal and offered me the left seat on the first leg. After owning a Cardinal for almost 25 years, I felt comfortable assuming command.
I chose to hand-fly the IFR flight to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and, for the most part, keeping the shiny side up wasn’t a problem. What I did have difficulty with was learning the instrumentation. The panel in Doug’s airplane had a number of avionics systems I wasn’t familiar with. The panel hosted an Aspen Avionics electronic flight display system, an electronic tachometer, an S-Tec 55X autopilot, a fuel totalizer and a Garmin 430 GPS navigator. If I’d been making the trip solo, I’d never have attempted the flight without transition training on the unfamiliar equipment.
I expected a learning curve with the instruments but not with the basics of flying the Cardinal. As we approached Mt. Airy in good VFR conditions, I canceled our instrument flight plan and proceeded inbound. Out of practice (read “not current”), I got behind the airplane. I was higher and faster than I should have been and, to correct, extended the gear, added flaps and lowered the nose.
“What are you trying to do,” Doug asked in a surprisingly gentle voice, “rip the gear and flaps off my airplane?”
I’d completely ignored the speed limits on the gear and flap extensions and gone right through them. In the past, I’d always been very careful about raising the nose to bleed off speed before lowering the gear, but because of my lack of recent experience I’d embarrassed myself in front of my mentor.
A glutton for punishment, Doug let me again fly a leg on the trip back north after the symposium. I did much better about holding heading and eliminating uncomfortable vertical excursions. I was feeling pretty good about myself. Everything went well until I turned final, realized I was still too high, checked my speed and added full flaps. Out of practice — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it — I misjudged my height above the runway, hit hard and bounced. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t one of my better landings. No damage to the airplane, but my ego suffered.
Flying an airplane is not like riding a bicycle. It’s possible that your cycling skills don’t atrophy, but take it from me: Your aviating skills, like old soldiers, do fade away. And it happens to the best of us. I remember the glut of mail from readers who felt Dick Collins should have been immune and complained when he once confessed about the diminution of his skills after a short hiatus.