Why I’m giving up flying – life as an “ex-pilot”

Youve got to know when to hold em
Know when to fold em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
from The Gambler, made famous singer Kenny Rogers

It was a good run, but it’s over. Today, I closed the door to hangar 508-7 for the last time, without my beloved Light Sport-eligible Aeronca Chief behind it, and there will be no airplane to replace it. The Chief has been sold to a fine officer-and-gentleman from North Carolina, who seems as passionate about the airplane as I have been.

Water cannon salute
Not all pilots go out in style like this, but it’s always a significant event.

We all know the day will come when we will fly as PIC no more, whether because we keel over dead, get too sick to pass the medical, feel that our skills have deteriorated irreversibly, burn out on aviation, or simply run out of money. For me, a combination of factors added up to an important question. That is, if I had a friend, my age, who had all my various issues, would I let him take my grandsons up in his old airplane? And sadly, reluctantly, I came to the answer: no. Any other answer would be selfish and hypocritical.

Non-aviation types I’ve told of this decision respond flippantly: oh, too bad, no big deal. They have no idea how big a deal this is. As I’ve written before, I only hold a private license, SEL/I, and never made a dime from flying. I will never even hit 1,000 hours, a long-time goal. Yet aviation has filled a huge space in my life, beginning with all those balsa quick-builds of grade school days, the ukies later on, the family airport visits, the endless reading of aviation books and magazines, and finally the decision in midlife to take up flying and aircraft ownership. I am startled now to face how much of my mental and emotional life and energy have been tied up in all facets of aviation, and how much of my time: there is a big hole to fill. (Fortunately, the monetary hole of aircraft ownership will now begin to refill itself!)

After getting used to being an “ex-pilot,” I expect that I will look back on nearly 35 years of holding an airman certificate with gratitude and many warm memories. It is an incredible privilege to have owned and enjoyed two old airplanes, to have met and known so many fine airmen and -women, both famous and ordinary, to have served the general aviation community through my work with the EAA and my writing, to have seen what only airmen see from our mobile perches. Surely, however, the most important thing of all is the many bonds of friendship formed through our common interest in Things That Fly. “Airplane people” really do seem special to me. Maybe aficionados of hot rods or old British roadsters, or pre-WWII tractors or antique dolls have a similar kinship, but somehow the brother- and sisterhood of aviators feels unique.

Hunter Heath at age 13
Hunter Heath at 13. An enthusiast from the start.

How or if I will be involved in aviation from now on is uncertain. Losing my identity as a pilot may suck much of the joy from the activity; hangar flying is fun, especially when one has an airplane and is making new adventures. But perhaps now talking about flying will seem a bit like talking about having sex. Worse still, maybe it will be like talking about having sex with a condom on! I’ll give it time. There are some obligations to fulfill around my EAA chapter’s annual summer fly-in event. Maybe interest in radio-controlled models will offer a new avenue. Maybe I’ll buy or build an ultralight and fly free of regulation; after all, just being airborne has always been a joy. Give it time. Give it time.

Now, I am thinking about the readers of this journal. From direct statements and hints, I suspect that many of you are no longer flying, or not much. For those of you who are still active, I beg of you: if you have a plane, and don’t fly it much, shame on you. Don’t let it rot, fly it! Split the cost of fuel or take in a partner, do whatever you have to do to make it possible to fly (that excludes felonious activity!). If you’re a renter, find a plane you like and fly as much has you can afford; maybe you can get a discount if you commit to a certain amount of time. If you are going to fly “someday,” let that someday be soon. You just never know how much time is left in which to do it.

I have some regrets about my involvement in aviation. Some people I knew have died in airplanes when it didn’t have to happen. I didn’t give as much back to aviation as it gave to me. I didn’t become as skilled a pilot as I wished, and I never took any aerobatic training. My tailwheel skills never came up to my standards, much less those of my instructors. But more than anything, I regret that I didn’t take up flying sooner (especially missing the chance to get my license very cheaply in the Army), and that I had such a long hiatus from flying due to job demands and moves. But enough of the view through the Retrospectoscope: the good vastly outweighs the bad and the regrettable.

I hope those of you with some gray hair (or simply some hair!) who are still flying will spend some time thinking about your future, even as you enjoy the present. Richard Collins has set us a good example. Your time will come, and you need to think about how and when you will draw the line, and how you will handle being an “ex.” Ask yourself the question I posed in the second paragraph. Please do not be one of those pilots long past his sell-by date who fudges his medical application, or flies without a medical when one is required, or foolishly flies beyond his or her own mental, physical, training, or health limitations. If you are going to be only looking up at airplanes, let it be from the green side of the grass.

As Paul Poberezny famously said many times, “I came to aviation for the airplanes, and stayed for the people.” Still… three-niner-six-seven-Lima and three-one-five-four-Echo, I’ll never forget you. Thanks for the ride.

41 Comments

  • Birthday was on the 27th…i wonder if at 35, having built up almost enough to get my commercial license debt free, is really too late for me to become any sort of career pilot? At this point, as long as I get to fly and get paid for it I would be quite happy (i hope)

    • Sasha,
      How about a 30-40 year career? Steve Wittman and Paul Poberezny flew into their 90s, and the examiner where I got my license worked into his 80s. The CFI who whipped me through a tailwheel endorsement was in his late 70s and had the reflexes of a 25 year old. Airline pilots in the US and EU can fly to age 65, and can move after airline retirement into corporate work, instructing, etc. On the strictly private pilot side, my former partner in a C-172 is still flying quite competently at 83. The key, of course, is having and maintaining good health: to paraphrase an ancient country music song, cigareets, whusky, and wild, wild wimmen can shorten a career! (Oh, and do keep that waistline slender.)

    • I started flying at age 15. soloed at 16 . Have always had a Pilots Certificate. I am now age 66. The most fun I ever had was working as a Flight Instructor at Fort Lauderdale Exceutuve Airport in Florida , I was 35 years old at that time., working with a bunch of young kids who only wanted to be airline pilots. Some of them made it , some got killed. They laughed at me all the time because of my age , I laughed on the inside , knowing that they were having the time of their lives , but just din’t know it.

      I say , Good Luck age 35 ! God Speed ! And if you realize that you are having the time of your life you will be way ahead of most people , never mind just Pilots.

      Paul Levasseur

      • I’ve learned to always aim for Capt on a 787, and let the journey take me where it takes me. I fly for myself and not letting anyone else’s expectations of me stop me, not anymore.

  • Well said. And your comment about still flying after our “sell by date” is a good reason to keep the medical.

  • That just made my eyes water. As a late starter I too wish i had done this sooner. With only 5 flying years behind me I can’t imagine leaving aviation. And by the way, it’s not too late to try aerobatics with a good instructor!

  • Hunter – it’s up to you of course, but there are quite a few ways for you to keep flying absent your former airplane and your medical.

    As you already mentioned, you can buy or build an ultralight or weight shift (which is a whole ‘nother kind of flying fun, closer to the Wright Brothers kind of flight than to modern technology) and stick to solo flying.

    There are likely pilots out there who would like to own and fly an experimental aircraft, but because they’re not yet retired, don’t have the time to build one (which is why it seems that most homebuilts are built and flown by old codgers). If you don’t need to get paid a lot for your labor, and the owner trusts your work, you can have the joy of building one, and have a handshake agreement that the owner will take you up from time to time and let you take the controls even as he/she remains PIC.

    Or just lend a hand to someone else working on a project aircraft.

    Joining EAA and getting involved in your local chapter would keep you around aircraft and pilots, and you should be able to get the opportunity to ride and,once in awhile, even take the controls momentarily. There may be other social options too, like type clubs or groups like RAF (the Recreational Aviation Foundation) who do fly-ins, fly-outs, backcountry airstrip work parties, and such, who would appreciate your company and your elbow grease.

    You don’t need to give up flying … you’re only entering a new phase in your aviator’s life.

    Best of luck!

    • Duane,
      Thanks for the encouraging words. I mentioned in the article some of the possibilities you offered, but with the proviso that I would “give it time” before deciding what comes next. That said, after owning and flying my own aircraft, being a passenger or quasi-student just to get some stick time are only pale imitations of “the real thing.” As for joining the EAA, my member no. is 37,802, and I’m a member of two Indy-area chapters.

  • Very wise.
    You can speak to an instructor in your area and ask to fly dual.
    Doing a refresher training costs less than owning an airplane.
    That keeps you legal and safe without being the PIC.
    I encourage pilots to fly with me if they lost their medical or currency.
    It is a very simple solution to the current limitations and you always learn something new as you enjoy some stalls, steep turns and landings.
    I do respect your decision for not violating the rules.It speaks volumes about your integrity.
    Thank you !!!!

    • Chris,
      Thanks for the encouraging thoughts; see my response to Duane for my current thinking on the possible substitutes for being PIC.

  • I’m going to encourage you to continue to fly. Maybe not even airplanes: take up hang gliding, ballooning, Hell base jumping.

    You don’t have to endanger anyone’s grand kids to sport fly; just stay away from populated areas. there’s always Quadcopter racing with FPV goggles— that’s as exhilarating as any flight I’ve taken… and if you come to the stage of being bed ridden some long day in the future you can fly virtually in games like Warbirds 2015 with pilots from all over the world…

    Change, don’t abandon. Write, don’t forget. Get Involved, help protect the glories of Flight! You still matter to all pilots.

  • That’s a painful subject for me, actually. I’m about losing my recency and can’t help that, cause I’m unemployed now for almost two years and can’t even easily get back into my career, so likely I need to switch one and that’s another headache.
    So now I dare to say, that I really regret I have been involved into aviation once. Cause I have invested a lot of time, money, energy and nerve, and now I’m giving up. When I realized, I can’t afford even ocassional flying any longer, I started lose my motivation rapidly (obviously it’s sort of subconscious mental self-defence to prevent one from getting into depression).
    So I’m puzzled. I go crazy thinking I need to quit (heck, no!), but basically I’ve done that already. All I need is to get my MOTIVATION back, and that’s the hardest part. Cause if I’m not motivated to keep flying, I have no desire to look for the new well-paid job as I had before, and thus can’t afford rental costs even on the sharing base. So now I’m ok with my low income, and my only regret is my aviation experience, like I said. Wish I never knew what is that… 🙁

    • Dora,
      My heart goes out to you– what a difficult situation. For many, money or the lack thereof is the dead weight that keeps them on the ground. I hope you find that high-paying job soon and can start to think about getting current and flying again.

  • My heart goes out to you. I haven’t yet begun my adventure in aviation because of money money money but I am working toward it actively. My heart breaks for you but also I highly respect your assessment of self and having the honesty to be responsible with your gift of flying.

    It sounds like you have some regrets, as we all do, but try to focus on the happiness it brought you. At the time you wrote this, the wound was still very fresh. I hope you heal and find happiness, and learn to put your energy toward something else that makes you happy. Thanks for the great article and best wishes.

  • Hunter,

    Just wanted to thank you. That was a sad read for me.

    When I was a newbie I would jump at the opportunity to go flying, even touch n’ goes would be sufficient to make me happy, but as I progress in my flying and in life, I find myself pulling my baby out of the hanger only for XC trips, or in other words, that beautiful machine is now reduced to a transportation vehicle. shame on me.

    So thank you for reminding me how privileged I am to be young(ish), healthy, and have the means to own and fly an airplane, I will do my best to never again take it for granted.

  • Thanks very much for your words of wisdom.

    I wouldn’t worry about referring to yourself as an ‘ex-pilot’ (unless your certificate gets pulled by the FAA!).
    Whether you have the opportunity to fly as a PIC again or not, you’ve already earned your way into the ranks; once a pilot…always a pilot.

  • Hunter, I know this might seem blunt but you are going through a period of self pity and that is very understandable given the skills and independence you developed over all those years flying. I think you are doing yourself a bit of injustice in your thinking, however. You are doing the right thing “giving it time” during this transition period but don’t let aviation slip away just because you can’t do what you could before ! I will never have as many years flying that you did, will never acquire your skills and may not be able to afford my own aircraft. Heck, I got my PPL at 60 and now working on my instrument. I want to get a multi- engine, tail wheel and fly gliders. Cost is extremely prohibitive but I am “finding a way” because it is so much fun. I figure I might only have ten good years left to fly (hopefully more) but that’s not stopping me from enjoying the journey. I agree with one of the previous comments, you are just entering another “phase” of your flying experience ! So, after your period of contemplation, stop feeling sorry for yourself, don’t reflect too much on the past and enjoy another chapter adding more memories, because the time you stop creating memories is when you no longer walk the earth….

    • Rob,
      My goodness, did my article sound self-pitying? That is certainly not how I feel about things. Life is busy (too busy, as retirement life often feels) and rich, and I have little to complain about. Today we took down 6 massive emerald ash borer-killed ash trees, and that will take one’s mind off other problems!
      Seriously, as the Bible says, to everything there is a season, and my flying season is over. That is neither good, nor bad; it just is. As for an aviation future, time will tell.

  • Hunter,

    I found your article by chance today. I am saddened that this part of aviation has come to an end for you. We’ve met at a couple of EAA meetings. I feel fortunate to have had that opportunity. I was hoping that we could have enjoyed a few flights together in your Chief. I see my own health declining and know that eventually I’ll have to give up being PIC. I lost my older brother to leukemia a year ago. He was my flight instructor. I had retired only the November before and looked forward to at least a few years of further flying with him. Flying has been a part of our family since WWII. Even had a grass strip on our family farm back in the late 50’s and into the 60’s where a lot of local guys got their wings. I even have 3 nephews that are pilots. One is a captain for Mesa Airlines. I have been away from flying for over a year except for keeping my medical current and attendIng a few EAA events. Still plan on visiting Oshkosh once again. That will always be on my calendar each year. Sad that we who are captivated by aviation finally have to exit the thrill of flying ourselves in light planes. I have on my checks the phrase “The sky is waiting for those that have the passion to fly with Eagles”. I plan to be involved in aviation for a long time. It is life changing!

    • Mike, thanks for the kind words. Like you, I found aviation to be life-changing. The list of wonderful experiences I had and people I met through aviation is long and gratifying. But to everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn.

  • Hunter,
    I’m sorry to hear you decided to hang up your wings, but I hope it was your decision, not some face less burocrate in Oklahoma who doesn’t know you, or your capabilities.
    This B/S of private pilot medicals must go.
    Good luck.

    • Ian, I am a retired physician with considerable experience in aeromedical certification issues. In my medical and aeronautical self-assessment, I decided it was time to stop flying, even under the Sport Pilot rule.

      • Hunter,

        I respect your self-assessment and your decision to stop flying.
        Everyone of us can learn from you.
        Part of being a safe pilot is the art of ADM/ORM and personal minimums.
        You set your personal minimums wisely, ” your way”.
        Thanks again for being such a great example !!!!!

  • Congratulations, Hunter, on a decision that may be quite wise. As for me, I’ve averaged about 1-hour per day FOR SIXTY YEARS, 22,000 hours. At 84, I still fly a bit, and even squeeze in a few hours of aerobatics now and again, just to maintain a few of my former skills. But the majority of my hours came through 36-years of flying the Alaska bush. One loses his sharp edge, however, when he cannot fly almost every day of the week. After that, flying seems but a selfish matter of point-to-point travel convenience. I’ll always miss flying the Alaska outback, and now temper that loss in writing about flying the edge. That helps, but as you now know, there can be no substitute for the real thing . . .

    • Mort, thanks for the kind words. The only pilot I’ve known who beat your hours was my pilot examiner back in Rochester, MN, who after Flying P-38s in WWII made his living instructing, examining, and flying air taxi. He had as I recall 36,000 hours plus. As a strictly amateur pilot, I felt that if I got in one hour/week, I could keep sharp enough to be safe in the kind of flying I did. But in recent years, that amount of flying was not possible, and the consequent loss of the “sharp edge” was one reason to hang up the headset.

  • Hunter~

    Outstanding article. Just wish you would expand it into a book. You’ve certainly had an illustrious and enviable career. I’m a whopping 70 years old with the spirit a 3rd my age and in relatively good health. Like you, my interest in aviation began early, but for one reason or another (mostly responsibilities to others) I was unable to get beyond my first flying lesson back in the 1970s. Now that I recently became very financially independent, I’m considering ordering a spanking new Bonanza to take a shot at getting a late start. I doubt that I’ll make it into the Guinness Book, but it’ll be a helluva ride.

    • Mick, a book?? No, no. It’s hard enough for me to tell coherent short tales; it would be a short book if I wrote one. I am glad you may be able to buy a NEW Bonanza. Wow. Yes, it will be one hell of a ride. Best wishes for many hours of safe and enjoyable flying.

  • I too am thinking of hanging it up. I am a retired TWA pilot with some 25000 hrs. & @ 76 still in pretty good shape, but money is still tough to come by @ paying more than 150/hour to stay current is hard to justify. Good luck with your decision.

    • Capt. Mooney: How does the old joke go? Q: what is it that holds an airplane up in the air? A: The laminar flow of dollar bills over the top of the wings.
      The arguments about the cost of flying go on and on, but I must say, current rental and fuel costs give me sticker shock. I recall with amusement Andy Anderson of Rochester, MN, from whom I rented the Musketeer for my primary training, being so apologetic when he had to increase the wet rental rate for the Musky from $19/hr to $21/hr! More recently, I bought an old Chief, hoping to fly on the cheap, only to re-discover that cheap airplanes can cost a lot of money when you maintain them to a high standard.

  • Hunter,

    Making a decision as you did based on safety concerns is a characteristic of true airmanship. I purposely delayed this response to your article because I’m sure that, by now, you are seeing the benefits of hanging up your wings. Benefits like more cash on hand to save or to spend for other necessities in life, freedom from pressure to stay current in your skills, more time for other fun activities, increased contact with family and friends, not having to worry how every activity or visit to the doctor may ultimately contribute to the loss of your medical, and the list goes on.

    I, too, vacated the left seat a year ago. It wasn’t due to concerns about my health, nor to any gradual deterioration of my skills. I obtained my Private in 2006, became Instrument rated 5 years ago, and flew for the Civil Air Patrol. I am proud to have accomplished something that is achieved by only a tiny fraction of the population. Every minute of it was great fun.

    An elderly mother with numerous age-related problems and a sibling in failing health were demanding too much of my time and mental energy for me to feel like a totally safe, competent flyer. The other factor was the crushing expense of flying that is ever-increasing, even though I belonged to a flying club that helped make my love of aviation somewhat less expensive. A major reason for my learning to fly was the freedom to travel long distances without dealing with the hassles of airlines or vehicular traffic. Unfortunately the cost of flying cross-country on my own to a location 500 miles away can easily exceed a thousand dollars round trip. The same trek in my economy car will run a little over 100 dollars. Factor in the time to preflight and driving to the airport, the time savings to fly is only around 30 to 40 percent. That’s a no-brainer decision right there.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my flying days but have no regrets about leaving them behind as fond memories. Hunter, I hope you feel the same way after that door has closed and other opportunities present themselves to you. A full, joyful life is one filled with many varied experiences. Flying was one such great experience for us. Allow yourself to embrace and enjoy the ones you have yet to meet. Good luck and have a happy life, you deserve it!

    • Larry, thanks for the thoughtful response to my article. It’s my good fortune to have many interests in aviation, including writing about it, and leaving flying is not a cause for depression and regret. As I said in my article, it was a great ride, and I’m grateful for it. Your situation represents one of GA’s core problems: relative to other pleasures, it is very expensive. Even a simple old airplane like my Chief can drink a lot of money if one keeps it at a high standard of fitment and maintenance. The declining number of active pilots is only making things worse, as prices rise to compensate (or so the merchants hope) for selling fewer/less of everything. Man, I wish I had the answers….

  • Hunter….I recently came across your well written article. I got my PPL when I was 25 and because of family and job demands I stopped but knowing that some day would come where I could afford the time and money to go back to it. Well here I am some 40 years later and finally through encouragement of my family recertified and started flying again. For a while I said to friends and family I wish I had gone back to flying sooner but I came to realize I’m so glad I didn’t wait longer and 10 or 20 years from now looked back and said I should have done it but didn’t. I don’t know how long I will have left before I have to make that decision of “time to stop flying” but in the meantime I’m enjoying every minute of being back in the air. I agree with one of the earlier comments. Take an instructor with you and keep flying. You can still sit in the left seat and have fun at it. Don’t give it up.

  • Ole,
    It’s great to find that an old article still finds a reader now and then! I am very happy that you went back to flying. Your story recalls what my father did, getting his license in the early 1940s but quitting flying soon after, only resuming flying in the ’70s. Sadly, Dad died at 61 and had relatively few flying years in that second phase. As for taking an instructor and continuing to fly from the left seat, man, it just isn’t the same. There are also practical issues: owning and insuring an airplane one is not qualified to fly is hard to defend, esp. to a spouse! Subsequent to writing the article, health issues have progressed, and it would not be in anyone’s best interest for me to continue flying with the stick in hand. My flying days are over, but as I said in the article and in responses above, it was a great ride, no regrets.

  • I hope when it comes time for me to stop I can be as graceful as you Hunter. I looked at going into a quarter share of owing a C-172 but at my age I find it better to rent and when the time comes to stop being the PIC I know I can still rent from my Flying Club…sit in the left seat but knowing I have to have one of the Clubs instructor in the right seat. At this point in my life I am okay with that…but I’ll see if I still feel that way 20 years from now. For now I go up as long as the pocket book allows. Thanks for getting back to me. Take care.

  • Ole,
    As I understand it, recreational aviation survives in Europe through flying clubs, which spread cost of ownership over many individuals, and allows a bit more clout with airports, etc. than one person can exert. You are fortunate to have access to a club. What you need tho is a flying club with 2 or 3 spiffy LSAs– mega fun on 3-4 gallons/hr of auto gas, just can’t be beat!

  • You are so right Hunter…I am fortunate that I have a flying club within driving distance of my home. It’s a training facility so they have a fleet of C-172’s available for rent. It would be nice to find a club with LSA’s but I live on an island in BC, Canada and finding a club nearby with other than C-172’s is near impossible. Right now I’m like a sponge soaking up every bit of knowledge I can find as things have changed in 40 years. Going back to flying has been so good for me. I feel like a young man learning new skills. My plan is to get a night and mountain rating as we have lots of mountains in BC.
    Sorry to hear your health is not good. As you said “good ride…no regrets”. That’s all one can ask for when looking at the big picture.

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