Becoming a Pilot Again

The thrill of returning to the cockpit after a multiyear hiatus.

Illustrations by Chris Gall|

“Why don’t you just go to the airport and go flying?” Those were my lovely wife’s exact words. I should have them memorized; I’ve heard her say them, oh, 5,000 times over the past 12 years. Not that she’s nagging in any way (all pilot husbands should be so lucky). She just knew how much I missed being up in the air.

So why did I stop doing something I loved? That’s a darn good question. I wish I had an equally good answer. I honestly don’t know why I stopped. I don’t like to say that I quit flying, because my aim was never to quit — I was always going to get back into it someday. That day just never came.

I’ll bet there’s a good chance a lot of you are in the same boat. We invested a lot of time, effort and money into earning our pilot’s license. And when it was new we flew, and flew, and flew. And then, for any of a number of reasons, we stopped. Now, being a pilot has become just a point of conversation. “Yes, I’m a pilot … ” My wife’s response to that? “You’re not a pilot if you don’t fly … ” Truer words have never been spoken.

Re-Earning My Wings

With the passing of the new year came my firm resolution to get back in the cockpit. I’d said that before, but this year was different. We hadn’t moved since I’d last updated my certificate, so I didn’t have to worry about contacting Oklahoma for a new one. Check that step off the list. Step two was to go online to the FAA’s MedXPress system and fill out the forms to get my third-class FAA Medical. No sense in getting all pumped up about flying if I turned out to be medically unfit.

When I last did this, I filled out the forms in the doctor’s office. Now it’s all done electronically. Once you fill out the forms, you’re given a registration number, which you take with you to the aviation medical examiner’s (AME) office. They use it to complete the form and register it with the FAA.

According to my AME, the third-class physical itself hasn’t changed. I met all the FAA’s criteria and was given my third-class medical certificate, which I immediately placed in my wallet.

Taming TAA Anxiety

I decided that I was going to do my flight review in a Cessna 172 with Garmin G1000 glass-panel avionics. If you’re going to jump in, might as well be in the deep end. Was this a good decision or a bad one? We’ll see. Out of curiosity, I contacted my friend Eric Radtke, president and chief pilot for Sporty’s Academy, and asked him about the academy’s experience with long-out-of-the-cockpit pilots getting recurrent in an airplane with a glass panel or, as the FAA defines it, a technically advanced aircraft (TAA). His short answer: It isn’t for everyone.

“We do get students who are hesitant about these new avionics. If you’ve been away from something for a long time and you get back and see something familiar [e.g., analog instruments], that can do a lot to put you at ease,” he said. “Seeing something completely different, like a panel full of the G1000 screens, can be quite intimidating. It’s the same information, just presented in a totally different way.” Amen to that, brother.

Radtke suggested that before actually flying, I spend some time with either video tutorials or online courses on the G1000. So I did. I got Sporty’s Garmin G1000 Checkout DVD and I signed up on Garmin’s website for the “e-learning G1000 VFR” tutorial training. Both were wonderful and provided step-by-step tips. Even for sunny-day VFR, there are a lot of G1000 techniques to get familiar with. I lost count of how many hours I spent with the materials.

I also knew that because it had been a decade since I had last flown as PIC, the G1000 wasn’t the only thing I would have to learn or relearn. There have been a lot of changes in airspace, regulations, weather and many additional areas required to fulfill the flight review requirements. I’ve always been a fan of Martha and John King’s friendly training style, so I signed up for the school’s online Return to VFR Flying Kit. It was like spending time with old friends and was a great overall refresher.


No Plane, but Gain

Another stroke of luck in my favor is that I’m friends with the Malone family, owners of Sterling Flight Training, located at Jacksonville’s Craig Airport. That eliminated what I, and others, believe is another major roadblock to private pilots returning to the cockpit: finding the right instructor. It was an easy match for them to put me with Samantha (Sam) Harrison, CFI, CFI-I and AGI.

She impressed me right away by taking the time to dust off my logbook and learn a bit about my flying history and what I was planning to do now. Harrison is a professional instructor — she’s not building time for her dream job. Her goal is to train good, safe pilots — no matter what their skill level.

She suggested we begin my flight review with an hour in the school’s Redbird simulator, which is equipped with a G1000 panel. At $85 an hour, including instruction, it’s money well spent. I liked “flying” the Redbird — once I got it off the “ground.” Harrison warned me that the rudders were a bit sensitive, which turned out to be an understatement.

Once airborne, though, it was surprisingly 172-like. It was the perfect tool for both G1000 training and getting back a feel for the airplane. After an hour, the three of us were on speaking terms, but we weren’t friends yet.


First Flight

Harrison said that, based on my long hiatus, it would take at least three to five hours of flight time to get me comfortable and confident in the cockpit again. No problem. I wanted to do it right.

After a short pre-briefing, we went out to preflight the 172. I had gotten a copy of the 172 POH and reviewed preflight and basic aircraft operations. Just like riding a bike…

The biggest difference was preflighting the G1000. There are a few more things to check both before and after starting the engine. The Sporty’s and Garmin training had covered this, so it wasn’t unfamiliar, but it was still a new procedure.

In the spirit of total disclosure, I have to say that I’m not a big fan of talking on the radio, so to eliminate that bit of stress I asked Harrison to handle the calls during this first flight. Taxiing came back pretty quickly (after I remembered to release the parking brake). Run-up was standard 172. It did take me a couple of minutes to tune the G1000, but eventually I managed to get it all sorted out.

With all the anticipation and doubt surrounding that first time I took the runway and advanced the throttle, it all came back like I had last flown, well, a few months ago. I’m not saying that I wasn’t a bit uncoordinated or that I was able to peg the airspeeds on the numbers — I was still trying to get used to the G1000’s vertical airspeed and altimeter readouts — but the airplane sounded and felt right to me.

Since our goal was to make this more of a re-familiarization flight, we kept it simple: slow flight, turns and basic navigation. After about an hour, we headed back for a couple of touch-and-goes. My landings, while not exactly beautiful, weren’t too bad. Nothing we couldn’t walk away from. But, after nearly 1½ hours in the left seat, I was getting tired. I had forgotten just how much concentration this flying thing takes.

Live from the Left Seat

I guess I didn’t mess anything up during the first preflight, because Harrison let me do the next one myself. After strapping in, she told me that we were going to spend the lesson on pattern work and that I would have to handle the radios. It was 50 degrees outside, so why was I sweating?

I totally botched my first call to ground control. I had rehearsed this 100 times. Still, when I pushed the mike button, I disconnected my brain. “Craig Ground. This is Cessna Six Zero Two Two Quebec … ” (it should have been 6200Q) — and it got worse from there. I could hear the tower guys laughing a quarter-mile away. What was that about a pilot’s fragile ego? But you can’t fly if you can’t talk — at least not at Craig — so I sucked it up and tried again. This time we got clearance to taxi. My next call to the tower was even better. There’s nothing like a live audience.


We did seven approaches and six landings. I attempted a short-field landing, but it was getting a bit “unstable,” and I felt that a go-round was the better part of valor. I think that impressed my instructor. After landing, the tower controller took pity and just cleared us to taxi back to the ramp without my even asking. Thank you, whoever you are.

Becoming PIC

I had to postpone my third flight twice due to high winds. Getting comfortable with the airplane is hard enough without battling gusts up to 30 knots. I’m happy to report that my radio work was, at least in my opinion, a lot better this time. My only flub was calling Craig Ground when, unbeknown to me, they had changed the airport’s name to Executive Airport earlier in the week.

Although the winds were calmer, it was a very hazy day in northeastern Florida, and the G1000’s traffic advisory system paid for itself. Doing my flight review in the G1000-equipped Skyhawk was looking like the right decision after all.

Level at 3,500 feet, suddenly the cockpit became very quiet — simulated engine failure! This caught me a bit off guard, as engine failures tend to do. I had not really brushed up on the procedures, so I relied on past training. Emergency landing spot. Fuel valve. Fuel selector. Mixture. Throttle. Mags. Master switch. Check, check, check and, well, you get the idea. The only thing I forgot to do was call Mayday on 121.5.

We then climbed back to altitude and proceeded to do some more airwork before heading back for a few more touch-and-goes. I still tend to approach a little high and fast. Harrison said that being safe and consistent is a good thing. At least I have that going for me.

On downwind for our third and full-stop landing, the engine quit (simulated) again. What is it with these new Lycomings? My power-off 180 approach was OK. Still a little high and fast, but with the engine “out” and over 3,000 feet of runway in front of me, I wasn’t going for style points. Any landing you can walk away from … and all that stuff.

As we shut down, Harrison asked me if I felt safe in the left seat. After a minute or two, I had to honestly say yes. I felt comfortable flying the 172. Maybe not on a long cross country, but that will come with more familiarity with the G1000. She said that’s what she wanted to hear. She then endorsed my logbook. I had successfully completed my flight review.

What’s next? Well, I want to get checked out in the school’s Archer and Diamond DA40, and after that, maybe a seaplane rating. One thing is for sure: I won’t wait 12 years again.

How can I sum it all up? Well, with apologies to a major credit card company’s advertising agency — one hour of Redbird sim time, with instruction: $85; third-class FAA physical: $150; 2.6 hours of flight time, with instruction: $546; being able to call myself a pilot again: priceless.

The Importance of the Right Instructor

While there are a lot of reasons why student pilots quit, the failure of the student/instructor relationship is one of the big ones. Spending hours in a small cabin under very stressful conditions brings out the best, and worst, in people.

“It’s a very dynamic bond that the student/instructor relationship creates,” instructor Sam Harrison said. “They get very attached very quickly if the relationship is right. The school’s chief flight instructor or management needs to make sure there is a good personality match here or it’s going to fail.”

Like car dealerships, too many flight schools use the “next-up” methodology to match a new student with an instructor, and students are hesitant to question the selection. Don’t be.

“I don’t think anyone should feel bad about taking ownership of who is going to be delivering the training product they are paying for,” Sporty’s president and chief pilot Eric Radtke said. “You may not have a lot of options, based on scheduling, but certainly any reputable flight school is going to work with you to find a good match.”

Harrison and Radtke both suggested that a pilot wanting to return to flying start slowly. Go out to the airport and just spend time talking to the chief CFI about what you want to do. Ask questions. Schedule one or two introductory flights with different instructors and see who you feel most comfortable with and have the best communications with.

Finding the right instructor for your personality and experience will go a long way in reducing both the stress and time it will take to get you back in the left seat again.

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