Plane & Pilot
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Back In The Saddle

Returning to the cockpit can be exhilarating and difficult, but worth every frustrating minute

Back In The SaddleThe 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.

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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 (, 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.


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