Low-time pilots often have an easier time psychologically getting back into flying than high-time pilots, who may underestimate how much the passing years have eroded their skills. However, old instincts will return to high-time pilots much more quickly.
Yeah, I got my license, but then I got married, had a couple of kids and got engrossed in building my career, so I didn’t fly for a long time. Then I decided to get back into it.
The foregoing should be put on a rubber stamp. It’s such a common tale of aerial woe that a quick stamp in their logbook would relieve pilots of having to continually explain why they stopped flying for so long. The next chapter of their flying life is also super common: knocking rust off of skills left dormant for far too long.
Back In The Saddle
Rick Martin, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, has a slightly different version of the just-married thing, which is also painfully common, but with the same result.
“I didn’t fly for 10 years after I got divorced because I sold my plane. Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. However, getting back into it was hard and one of the scariest things I have ever done. My mind knew exactly what to do, but the physical reactions were all wrong. It was worse than learning to fly the first time,” Martin explains.
The reaction of those getting back in the saddle after having laid off flying for years varies from Martin’s tale of personal agony to those like Glenn Session’s comment: “After 20 years, I’d forgotten how much fun it can be. And how challenging! It was far from being easy, but I felt as if I had discovered flying all over again, and I loved it.”
It’s hard to reconcile the different feelings pilots have after deciding to jump back into flying, but almost 100% of the time, the motivation behind making that leap is the same. Pilots say, “There was something missing. Something I knew wasn’t complete about my life at that moment, and it didn’t take much to figure out what that was. I’d be constantly watching airplanes and stopped at every airport I drove past.”
What To Expect
The big question for anyone who has decided, “Enough! I’m getting current again,” is how to go about it, and what kinds of problems/difficulties they can expect.
First, if the motivation to get back into flying is the result of retiring and having both the time and money, this automatically means the pilot is a so-called “senior citizen.” That being the case, whether they like to admit it or not, in the back of their minds, they’re asking, “Am I too old to be doing this?” That’s actually a quite easy question to answer, “No, you’re not too old.”
Most flight instructors who have flown senior citizens find that there’s little to no correlation between age and difficulties in bringing old skills up to snuff. However, every single instructor in that situation agrees that the biggest obstacle seniors have in getting back into flying is their own self doubt—not their ability to learn. Their real enemy isn’t the passage of the years, but the rust that accumulated during those years, and rust removal can be frustrating regardless of a person’s age.
If someone stops doing anything for a number of years, 10 or 20 being pretty common periods of layoff within aviation, they have to come back into it knowing that their memory banks are going to be clogged with rust. The old axiom, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” could have been penned specifically for aviation because it fits so well. So when climbing back into the aerial saddle, the mind-set has to be one of being prepared to start over again, although that’s seldom what’s required.
If you come back in expecting your skills to be even remotely what they were when you stopped, there will be a tendency during the first few hours to get really discouraged. This is especially true if you’re one of the many who got their license, then almost immediately stopped flying. The original skills didn’t have time to work their way into your subconscious, so they disappear quite quickly. Low-timers, however, generally come into being retrained with a more malleable mind-set. They expect it to be hard. This can’t be said about high-timers.
Quite often, high-timers have a more difficult time psychologically because they underestimate how much the passing years have eroded their skills. They often expect an hour or two to have them ready to rock-and-roll. They’re more easily disappointed than a low-time pilot because they have higher expectations of themselves. However, they should also know that the old instincts will come back much more quickly for them than for other folks. They just have to be patient.
And speaking of high-timers, Wayne Massey, an airline pilot still practicing that skill, illustrates that just because you’re flying doesn’t mean you won’t have trouble getting back to your roots. He says, “I flew little airplanes for over 10 years before getting into the airlines but, as I got deeper into my career, I stopped flying GA. Then, after flying 85 hours a month for 10 years, the ‘flying bug’ hit me again.”
Massey continues, “My rust was fully exposed when my very patient flight instructor had to talk me down to get the C172 onto the runway. There was a long stream of reddish-brown dust trailing behind that airplane.
“When my instructor jumped out of the plane and said, ‘Okay you’re good to go,’ I felt like I was making my first solo flight all over again,” Massey adds.
“Getting back into GA has brought back all the memories of why I started flying in the first place. I really feel that I let myself down and temporarily lost my dream with those missing 10 years. Now, sitting in my ‘office’ at FL350, I find myself daydreaming of flying my Aeronca Chief,” Massey says.
When the decision is made to visit your local CFI and to get your wings rehabilitated, there are some simple rules that, if followed, will make the process more effective and enjoyable.
RULE ONE: It will take as long as it takes. Simply getting a traditional BFR isn’t enough. Not unless the instructor thoroughly understands the situation and goes far past the minimums required for the BFR: one hour of airtime and an hour of knowledge ground school isn’t going to cut it. Neither you nor the instructor should be thinking in terms of minimums. The goal should be to do as much as is necessary to return you to being a safe, comfortable pilot. However, the definition of “…as much as is necessary…” is going to vary greatly from case to case and depends on what you bring to the table in terms of residual skills.
RULE TWO: Commit to it, don’t just pick at it. You’ll progress more quickly and save money if you push every other extracurricular activity aside and really get your head into re-learning to fly. Once a week is a bare minimum, with twice being much more productive. If you just “kinda” do it, it will take much longer, cost more and be more frustrating.
RULE THREE: Don’t hesitate to revisit your CFI. Once you’re back in the saddle, make a mental note that for the first few months, you’ll get another CFI ride or two to double-check what you’re doing.
RULE FOUR: Log some CFI time in nasty crosswinds. After the CFI says you’re ready to go and you’ve soloed, book at least one more hour (two are preferable) that will be flown in the nastiest crosswinds you can find. Even when you were current, that was probably your most worrisome skill, so attack it head-on and lose your fear of crosswinds right from the get-go.
RULE FIVE: Do a short dual cross-country. Flying the airplane is one thing, planning and doing cross-countries is something else entirely. So, work with your CFI to plan and fly one that’s about two hours long. That’s just enough to get your cross-country skills back. It’s a whole lot more fun to get lost when a CFI is aboard.
RULE SIX: After the checkout, fly your socks off. Once you’re a birdman again, promise yourself that you’re going to fly as much as you can possibly afford for the next couple of months. It’s critical that you exercise what you’ve learned so it’s more than just a skin-deep skill. The more you do it, the deeper it will settle into your brain until it becomes instinctual, which is our ultimate goal.
So, if you’ve been doing nothing but reading about flying, make up your mind to pull the trigger and get back into it. It’s guaranteed that the second time around you’ll enjoy it even more.