Gear Up: Getting Rusty

A few weeks away from the cockpit makes for not only a rusty pilot, but a rusty airplane.

Dick Karl in the Learjet

Dick Karl in the Learjet

** Running the after-shutdown checklist in
Pickens, South Carolina (KLQK).**

If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” So said Jascha Heifetz, the legendary violinist. Lately, I can relate. Last spring our Cheyenne turboprop sat, lonely and forlorn, in the hangar at Landmark Aviation in Tampa, Florida (our home base), for six weeks without so much as an engine start. The airplane was not down for maintenance. Its idleness was occasioned by other distractions in life and the price of fuel.

Concurrently, my Learjet career was subjected to similar disuse. First typed in the type almost a year prior, I'd managed to accumulate only 33 hours in Elite Air's Lear 31As. Elite Air, an aircraft management and charter company, has changed my life by giving me the opportunity to learn the Lear. The reasons for the paucity of hours were other commitments on my part and the sudden appearance of a new first officer; young, handsome (I am told) and hungry. I'd had spates of Lear experience, but they were grouped in sudden bursts separated by months of inactivity. In the Cheyenne this is less of a problem than it is in the jet. There are two reasons. I have 1,600 hours in the Cheyenne and am familiar with its every noise, quirk and stunning attribute. The other reason is even more simple: The jet is twice as fast. Where I've got a few dropped steps in the taxi checklist in the turboprop, I've really been slow to relearn what I once knew in the jet. Add to that my years of auditory acclimation. For 13 years I've listened for ATC communications ending in "58 Whiskey." Now I have to be alert for "Juliet Hotel" and "Fox Fox." It is a slow process.

In my day job as a cancer surgeon, the same rules generally apply. If I’ve been gone for a week, I have more anticipatory anxiety about a big surgical procedure the next day. Once in the OR, I can feel the little tiny things that signal that I’ve had a layoff. My hands reach for the instruments with slightly less authority, and instruments don’t feel quite as much like an extension of my hand. Though I’ve been doing this kind of work for more than 40 years, there is still a price to pay for inactivity. This is when I am more likely to hurt someone by sticking a finger with a needle or, rarely, having my own hand nicked with a knife. (By the way, I have never heard the word scalpel spoken in an operating room. It is always called a “knife,” unless some neophyte has been watching too much TV.)

What’s interesting is that most people in the OR can’t tell. I work with a marvelous surgical tech named Cindy and she swears she can’t tell that I’ve lost a step. Same with the Cheyenne. My wife, Cathy, swears she can’t tell when I complain of inelegant power management after a layoff.

There are some happy consequences for all this inactivity. For one, I am way more focused on performance. For another, I savor it more. No second in either airplane is taken for granted. I relive the last flight as I fall asleep in greater detail than I would if my memory bank were full of recent activity.

My last Lear trip was a vivid example of this concept and my hagridden state of mind. It was my leg (no passengers on board!) to Pickens, South Carolina (KLQK), from St. Petersburg, Florida. It had been several weeks since I'd been in a Lear. The runway is 5,000 feet …ish. My captain, Jason Hepner, cautioned that the runway isn't all that long and that a solid arrival and aggressive use of brakes and thrust reversers were superior to a finessed landing in every way. From the left seat it looked like things were lining up nicely. A two-light PAPI arrangement was there to help me with glidepath, and the speed was stable at Vref plus 10.
The touchdown was sweet, I do think. With spoilers out and the thrust reversers modestly powered, Jason was soon calling out 60 knots. We made the turnoff in front of the FBO about halfway down the runway. Damn, that was fine. After he finished mock applause, Jason snapped the accompanying photo of the happy pilot as he ran the after-shutdown checklist.

Pickens is a getaway home to an old friend of mine, JC Hanks, a retired 747 driver. I asked the lineman if his Cessna 310 was in the hangar. He didn’t know, so we both went to the adjacent hangar to see.

“Nope, he’s not here,” said the young man. “But that there is his vehicle [pronounced VEE-hickle].”

I left a note on the windshield.

Our owner arrived and we were soon en route to New Orleans (KNEW) at Flight Level 410. Our plans for direct Greene County were waylaid by the instructions to join the SLIDD arrival, but that only added a minute or two. Jason greased us on at KNEW and we were in a cab in time for lunch.

I couldn’t resist taking Jason to Galatoire’s for dinner and introducing him to some friends of mine. It was a late night for an old first officer. The next morning I was shocked awake by a phone call just before 7 a.m. It was JC. He had arrived at KLQK about 30 minutes after we had departed. We chatted for almost an hour. This is just one more savory occurrence that can happen when you go flying. You’ve got to make yourself available. If you are not flying, these things just don’t happen.

The ultimate rust period in my own logbook occurred early on, probably the worst part of one's flying career in which to have a prolonged layoff. As a medical student in New York City in the mid-1960s I had neither money nor time. Though I had a Private certificate, I had, maybe, 60 hours of flying experience. So, renting an airplane at Teterboro required celestial alignment of huge proportions. I had to have a Saturday or Sunday free. I had to have VFR conditions. I needed at least 25 dollars and I needed the courage or insanity, depending on how you look at it, to entertain the possibility of flying a Cessna 172 after several months of inactivity.

I remember the all-day ritual to accomplish the rust debridement. It began with a call to Flight Service Station; the current weather and forecast had to be unassailable VFR. If that obstacle was out of the way, I would try to round up an accomplice. Not every one of my classmates thought such a death-defying caper was in their best interest. Undeterred, I’d take the subway to Grand Central Station, take the shuttle to the west side, and take another subway to the Port Authority building. There I’d board a bus to New Jersey. An hour after the beginning of this trek, I’d come out of the Lincoln Tunnel and have my first personal assessment as to whether the forecast was correct. It wasn’t always.

Once deposited at the northwest corner of the airport, I had a short three-quarters of a mile walk to the FBO. “Are you current?” was the question I dreaded most. Once through the thicket of rental fees, insurance and preflight, I’d fire up and try to find my way to the active. Sometimes this simple task revealed the abyss of my ignorance. Sometimes I’d need help with the concept of a straight-out departure. Most times I would head down the Hudson River; that landmark I could find.

The hardest part was finding the airport on return. I knew that Teterboro was hard to find, especially in haze, especially as the sun began to set. My aggressiveness about heading for the airport was not prompted by fuel considerations; it was purely motivated by concerns that the rental period would be only one hour total. That was definitely a bad way to fly.

Now, these many years later, it had been six weeks since I’d been at the controls of the Cheyenne. Thanks to Jason, though, I got a leg in the Lear to Sanford, Florida, a grand total of 93 nautical miles. In my mind were my friend Rob’s words of wisdom. When I asked him — a pilot for Southwest with a very enviable seniority number — about his six-week hiatus, he reported that his first leg, from Orlando to Fort Lauderdale, was a perfect re-entry: “I had to get in the game quickly on a trip that short.”

Finally, as any airplane owner, renter, mechanic or lover knows, six weeks of idleness isn't just bad for the pilot; it is bad for the airplane. Sure enough, as I brought the power up on a short trip to Key West, Florida, the Cheyenne swerved to the right, then to the left. The torque gauges told the story: The right engine was lagging the left as the power came up. By the time I got symmetrical power up, we were about to rotate. Good thing the runway at Tampa is wide and the training at SimCom for just such a nuisance is good.

Every good airplane deserves to fly. So do you and I. It is good for all of us.