The first thing I did was introduce myself to her. I did it quietly as I touched her spinner and as my flight instructor ambled off to untie the right wing. The last thing I needed was my instructor thinking I was crazy for talking to a machine. This was, after all, a machine—a complex assembly of aluminum, cables, spars and wires. There could be no life in this 2,000-pound craft of the air, but I knew better.
I spoke, instead, to the part of this airplane that had shared adventures with her pilots in the past. The part that responded with engine-backfire anger to ham-fisted airplane drivers and rewarded a student’s kind sloppiness with an occasional cloud-puff of a landing. I took my best shot.
“Hello, Seven Sierra Papa. My name is Marc and I’m going to be flying you,” I half-whispered. “It’s been a long time, so please be gentle and good and I will do the same in return.” My instructor was waiting impatiently now by the right cabin door in that crouching position that tall instructors have to assume under a high-wing Cessna. I reached for the cockpit door handle.
It had been 24 years since I’d piloted an aircraft. I had walked away shortly after earning my private certificate for a variety of reasons—most of which had to do with the dismal state of aviation careers in the 1980s. Still, 24 years later, the clatter of a Continental or a Lycoming at cruise power always pulled my eyes upward. I missed flying so much that I decided it was time to come back.
Flying is unique in that it takes considerable preparation and two kinds of learning to do safely: knowledge of navigation, regulations and all the elements related to aviation, and then the physical ability to control the aircraft. While the latter can only be learned in the cockpit, knowledge can—and should—be gained before stepping near an airplane. I started with an inventory of everything I had forgotten about airplanes and flying.
Anyone considering recurrency should begin with an honest self-assessment of where they are in terms of aviation knowledge. Regulations, procedures and techniques have rapidly changed, and relying on a passed written exam from long ago isn’t enough. Start with a good training manual or any of the popular multimedia courses. Take the practice exams and dig into the different chapters, especially the ones about airspace. Any instructor will tell you that a prepared student will be far more successful in the cockpit than an unprepared one.
One key thing is to get your paperwork in order. You’ll have to update the FAA with your current address and you’ll need a current medical certificate. Medical conditions that can ground you may have crept up with no warning; get the medical out of the way so you can relax.
My medical was fresh in my pocket, the ink smeared from my perspiring hands. Right next to it was my crisply gleaming, plastic pilot certificate. The FAA now issues pilot certificates that look like neat little credit cards, which you can obtain through the FAA Website (www.FAA.gov), though you’ll have to surrender your old paper certificate. Armed with the proper paperwork, I was ready.
I was finally standing next to a Cessna 172SP—24 years after I had last sat in the left seat of any airplane—ready for my first flight. My instructor, David Tappan, was also my good friend and the model of a patient and encouraging instructor. At this point in my life, I could also better afford flying. The stars were aligned.
I pulled the little D-handle on the cabin door and it hit me—the smell. Smells can instantly take you back in time, and at that moment, I was 16 and soloing again. It was the familiar aroma of a cockpit.
There’s a very peculiar smell to a cockpit. It’s a combination of sun-baked plastic, burned oil, fuel and leather seasoned with sweat. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s a very specific one, and it’s the same in every airplane from a P-51 to a Learjet. I breathed it in deep like a magic ether that would disappear in seconds. I pulled myself up into the crinkled left seat, adjusted it and put my hand on the worn, black yoke. My eyes scanned the once-familiar instruments as my instructor’s voice broke the spell.
“Okay, let’s go through the before-start checklist and then we’ll go over the GPS and intercom system.”
Intercom system? Oh yeah, we have headsets now. Last time I flew, we yelled at each other and used hand signals. The genteel feel of the headset seemed almost decadent in comparison, and I slipped them over my ears.
While preparing for my return to the cockpit, I learned that there are two essential items you can’t live without: headsets and home computers. Headsets will save your hearing, and having a computer will make your learning easier. I used mine to join online groups and talk with other pilots about training and techniques, and to feel like part of the aviation community. Associations like AOPA and EAA have vast arrays of free tools for pilots—from flight-planning software to airport directories. The Air Safety Foundation also has excellent articles and courses on all aspects of flying.
Back in the cockpit, my instructor went through everything, my mind working to catch up. I set the throttle, turned the key and that old familiar engine sound enveloped my senses like a warm blanket. I let go a little laugh and felt like I was at Disneyland holding one of those giant lollipops that your parents never let you have. My drunk taxiing got us to the edge of the runway, and David asked me what I was going to say to the tower.
Tower? Oh yeah, the tower. We reviewed what I’d say, I clicked the little button taunting my sweaty left index finger and…froze. I said the plane’s number wrong. I said something stupid about “VFR-something-or-other” and just stopped. It sounded like a fast food drive-through order. My hands shook like a teenager reaching for his first girlfriend’s bra.
The high overcast morning was quiet and the tower understood the failings of a new student. I suddenly felt very unworthy of the little plastic card in my wallet that said I was a pilot. We finally made it through the calls and checklists, lined up on the runway and pushed the throttle. We were going flying.
In that instant, I was reborn; it was like a pillow was lifted off my head and I could breathe again. The ground fell away as the sun’s rays flickered like strobes on the shiny surfaces of this grand machine. I wanted to shout, to scream and tell the world what they were missing. I smiled through each bank and climb, watching the horizon in its angled beauty.
My patterns were awful. I had no feet. What is this? What? No, I don’t see the traffic ahead of us, I’m just trying to keep this friggin’ airspeed right. What flaps? No, I didn’t hear the tower. The airplane was ahead of me. I was like the guy in the back of the car who goes along for the ride but nobody talks to. I felt hopeless. My instructor rattled off instructions and I didn’t retain one bit of them. “RIGHT RUDDER!” My armpits were pools and my lower back was sticking to the seat. My legs ached from pushing who-knows-what rudders. I was a mess.
My instructor suggested we call it a day, and I looked at my watch. More than two hours had gone by! I was drained as we made our final approach. My landing was decent only because we survived it. I bounced and swerved and generally flew like my grandmother. But I flew.
I taxied the Cessna back to the FBO, pulled the throttle and mixture and sat as the prop clicked to a stop. It was like I had been untied from the tail of a tiger. My instructor climbed out, asked me to do the paperwork and said, “Good job. See ya inside.” I took a deep, intoxicating breath as he walked away, and both cockpit doors wallowed in the slight breeze like a saloon in an abandoned ghost town. The gyros whirred down.
I had done it. Seven Sierra Papa had treated me well, but had made it clear that this was no game. I was rusty, and there would be many more flights before I could earn that magic logbook endorsement.
Most of all, those two hours brought me back to life. My eyes took in the sunlight and the sky in a new way. Everything looked and smelled different. I ambled back to the FBO with a new swagger to my gait. I would no longer be tied to the ground and—unless some act of God prevented it—I would never, ever give up this amazing thing called flight. I know where I belong now, and my home is the sky.
Prepare Yourself First
Your climb back into the cockpit can be greatly simplified by doing a little homework.
• Renew records: Make sure the FAA has your current address. Paper pilot certificates should be exchanged for the new plastic ones at www.faa.gov.
• Renew medical: You’ll need a current medical before you’ll be legal to fly solo or carry passengers again; www.faa.gov offers a list of medical examiners in your area.
• Training materials: Get a good training manual or multimedia pilot course (ASA, King Schools and Sporty’s are good resources). The name of the game is relearning what you’ve forgotten and learning what’s new since you last flew.
• Current AIM: Even browsing through the Airman’s Information Manual will teach you a great deal. It’s all here, from radio phraseology to airport markings and more.
• Safety information: AOPA’s Air Safety Foundation offers a goldmine of interactive courses and articles on vital safety topics. They’re free, so take advantage of this amazing resource.
• Online forums: There are a number of online aviation forums offering vast amounts of information and advice. Search the Web for “pilot forums.”
• Magazines: Subscribing to a monthly publication like Plane & Pilot will keep you current on technology, techniques and the latest in aircraft and avionics.
• Organizations: Join AOPA or EAA. Each has its strengths and differences, but both have many benefits for members.
• Flight review: (Previously known as the biennial flight review.) This is your ticket back to flying legally. It’s a proficiency evaluation with a CFI. FARs say it must consist of a minimum of one hour of ground instruction and one of flight instruction, but your instructor will tailor it to your proficiency level.
Useful Resources On The Web
FAA Airmen Certification: www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/airmen_certification
Update your address, get a replacement certificate and download forms.
AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association): www.aopa.org
A vast resource of articles, forums, statistics, software and advice.
Air Safety Foundation: www.aopa.org/asf
Interactive courses, safety reports, accident analysis and downloads.
EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association): www.eaa.org
Loads of pilot services, resources and youth programs.
Radio Work: www.liveatc.net
Depending on how long you’ve been out of the cockpit, you should brush up on your radio skills. Live ATC feeds let you listen to the busiest environments in aviation on your computer’s speakers. (Comm1, www.comm1radio.com, offers CD-ROMs designed to help aviators communicate effectively with ATC.)