Rusty pilot
6 min read

“What kind of a fuel system needs 13 sumps?” I asked myself. Years ago, the Cessna 172 I flew had one in each wing and a t-handle under the belly that shot a stream of fuel onto the pavement when I pulled it.

It turns out that this was just the one of many changes that had slipped by me since I last preflighted an airplane. A look at my logbook would tell you that I’ve been a student pilot for 33 years. Most of my 63 hours were earned during the early years, with major gaps since soloing in 1988. Shifting priorities, such as a home, a job and a growing family had led me away from flying. It’s a common theme: all it takes is money.

Cessna fuel sump

There are how many fuel sumps on a new 172?!

Now, however, the kids are grown and I’m a retired grandpa. It was finally time to do this for myself. The problem was that I hadn’t sat in the left seat for 11 years. I registered for a ground school course, re-passed the knowledge test and got myself a shiny, new third-class medical.

When I tried to find a flight instructor, I ran up against one of the fundamental realities of flight schools: instructors are plentiful until the airlines need pilots. Apparently, the majority of CFIs in my area were building hours, looking forward to the day that they could fly airplanes with bathrooms. After being on a waiting list for several months, I was fortunate to meet Jim, a top-notch instructor, retired from another profession, who instructs simply because he likes it.

But, back to my preflight. While I wasn’t looking, Cessna had obviously made several changes to the venerable 172. How different could it be? That’s what checklists are for. The local FBO had created its own checklist, tailored to the way they prefer you handle their aircraft. It’s a clunky flip-book thing that’s hard to keep track of once you’re in the cockpit. Just my opinion, of course.

Jim and I climbed into the aircraft. It felt good to be in the left seat again. Yes, there were some additions to the panel, but the basic six-pack was there. I could do this.

I adjusted the seat and fastened my seatbelt. And we sat there. Finally, Jim turned to me and asked, “Do I need to wear a seatbelt?” I looked at him, thinking, “Hey, you’re the CFI. You’re supposed to know this stuff.” He gave me a blank look and said, “I’m just a passenger here, you’re the pilot.”

Ok. I get it.

Using the clunky checklist, I got the engine started and watched as the instruments climbed into their green arcs. We taxied toward the runway. Turning got interesting when I pushed the left rudder pedal to its stop, but the airplane just thought about turning as it headed toward the grass. Oh… left brake, add left brake!

I knew that, but somehow, it slipped my mind.

Once we went through the runup procedures, Jim said I should announce my intentions to anyone flying in the vicinity. I pressed the mic button… and my mind went blank. Odd, how that works. If Jim had asked me my name at that moment, I wouldn’t have known it. He mimed “two-six” to tell me what runway I was at, but minutes seemed to trickle by as I tried to make coherent sounds.

This is starting to get embarrassing.

Finally, we were ready to go. I applied full power. Exhilarating! Then, suddenly, everything seemed to go into double-speed. There were too many things to keep track of! This Cessna rocket was moving much faster than I could think! As I tried to maintain correct climb speed, I forgot about the heading. Was it left or right rudder to counter P-factor?

All the while I kept thinking, “Hey, I know this stuff!”

We intended to stay in the pattern, but I was 200 feet above pattern altitude in what seemed like a heartbeat. Jim told me to level off, make a left turn to crosswind and announce my intention to enter the downwind for runway 26.

Again with the radio!

Rusty pilot

I know this stuff, but I’m rusty.

Shouldn’t I slow this thing down first, look for other traffic and keep my head on a swivel? Check the panel! Is the ball is centered?

Really, I know all this stuff!

Jim reminded me that it was time to go through the landing checklist, but I had no idea where the slippery thing had disappeared to. He retrieved it from the floor.

Unrelated snippets of knowledge swirled through my mind like so much confetti as I entered the downwind, reduced the rpm and added the first notch of flaps. I’m missing something… carb heat! I glanced around, demanding, “Where’s the carb heat?” (I’m afraid I may have been yelling by this time.) Jim calmly said, “You’ve never flown a fuel-injected airplane before, have you.” It wasn’t a question.

What does that have to do with…? Oh.

When you read about someone falling behind what’s happening in the cockpit, they’re describing me. My thought processes lagged so badly that I’d swear my brain was back in the parking lot thinking, “Oooo… airplanes!”

Jim instructed me to prepare for the base leg turn. At that point, I realized that I had completely lost track of the airport. Jim pointed out that the runway was over my left shoulder.

I looked. It was.

Aaargh! I knew that!

Another fumbled radio pronouncement followed by a sloppy turn to base. Add another notch of flaps and reduce speed. Jim assumed command of the checklist.

Bless you, sir.

Turning to final, I spotted PAPI lights to the right of the runway. They hadn’t been there when I flew into that airstrip years ago. For that matter, none of those hangars had been there either… or that road. I recovered a teeny bit of self-respect by making a decent landing. Thanks, PAPI.

To his credit, Jim allowed me make my mistakes without leaving his fingernail marks in the vinyl. To my own chagrin, this pitiful performance was an eye-opener. Getting back into an airplane after time away isn’t anything like getting back on a bicycle. I seriously thought that I could clamber into the left seat and demonstrate just how much I knowledge I had retained. Instead, what I discovered was the importance of practice… something that I was woefully short of.

Knowledge plus practice… one reinforces the other.

Ah ha!

I got the airplane parked without incident and my logbook got its first entry in 11 years. I expect many more entries in the coming months.

I can do this.

Walking across the parking lot, I whistled for my brain. Together, we climbed into the car, relieved not to need a checklist.

Jerry Thomas
14 replies
  1. CK
    CK says:

    Ah, yes…how this resonates. I started flying in 1990 and earned about 30 hours, including 10 solo, in a trusty C152. Like so many of us, I ran out of money and time. Last fall, after a 27 year break, I decided it was time to finally fulfill this life long dream. Found a great club and hopped in the left seat of a Cirrus SR20 with full glass cockpit for 1.5 hour flight. Overwhelmed would be an understatement. So I’m now learning with Legend Cub!

    Thanks for story, Jerry. I feel much better about myself now!

  2. Jerry Thomas
    Jerry Thomas says:

    Thanks, Chris. Comments like yours make me feel better too!

    The experience you and I have had is more common that I would have ever imagined. Indeed, getting into the left seat after so many years away from it was a bigger shock than I thought it would be. Technological advances in the cockpit alone can be intimidating, even when we consider themselves relatively savvy outside of the airplane.

    One of the things I’ve come to realize is the role that a home computer can have, not just for weather and flight planning, but also in the scores of training videos available. Whether it’s turning stalls, cross-country planning, landing at a Class C airport or just about any other procedure, some CFI or flight school has posted excellent in-cockpit video addressing that specific topic on YouTube. None of that was available when we were first adding entries to our log books.

    Happy Flying!


  3. Steve Judkins
    Steve Judkins says:

    Thank you for your story, Jerry. It’s been 13 years lapse for me. I’m cautiously hopeful that my 400+ hours logged will take the edge off the rust when I climb back in the cockpit again. I appreciate the fact that you did your due diligence with the ground school and knowledge exam prior to doing the ‘real thing’. Best of luck in the wild blue yonder!

  4. rbabcock
    rbabcock says:

    I got my ticket in 1978 and owned a Cutlass RGII for about 6 yrs in the 90’s. The annual was due, my biennial was due, the young kids didn’t want to fly and other things caused me to sell the aircraft and walk away.

    For Father’s Day a couple of years ago my kids bought me an hour with an instructor in a 172. I was a little apprehensive not flying for 18 yrs but quite frankly with just a little help from the CFI I fell right back into it. I had no real issues in any phase. The only thing that surprised me was the Cutlass had detents on the flap setting, but the 172 didn’t so the CFI quickly corrected that when I went to set the flaps.

    I have always maintained an interest and keep up with what is going on from the AOPA magazine and on-line so other than knocking the rust off actually flying, I didn’t feel that disassociated with actually doing it. Since then my older son has gotten his Commercial, multi, instrument and is working on becoming a CFI so I’ve been in the right seat a lot.

    Now that I have a lot more time I just might plunge back into the $100 hamburger runs.

  5. C E Roberts
    C E Roberts says:

    I am currently taking lessons for my PPL – after a 27 year break following my one and only solo. I took lessons in 1991, soloed, and ran out of money.

    Fast forward to 2018, where I bought a 1970 Cherokee 180 and then resumed lessons. I feel your pain! It was a bit overwhelming at first. But it is all coming back quickly and I hope to get my certificate in the next few months.

  6. Dave Powers
    Dave Powers says:

    Thanks for the story. I got my ticket in 74, flew sporadically for two years and 75 hours with the last flight a week before I got married. This past December 2017 I renewed my 3rd class medical and after finally finding an available instructor climbed back into the left seat after 41 years. I was surprised after a little over 5 hours he signed me off to go up on my own. Still afraid I’m going to do something wrong. So I’m studying and reading a lot plus intend to take more dual until I’m more at ease.

  7. Ed Vargas
    Ed Vargas says:

    Your story is similar to mine. Got my ppl in 1975, and last time I flew was May 1982, since the Navy recruiter said “don;t worry about doing more flying. The Navy will teach you how to fly.” Unfortunately, my stay in the Navy didn’t last long enough to get to flight school, then I got preoccupied with raising a family. In March of 2017 I began the process of renewing my medical, and had to supply a lot of paperwork as I’m type 2 diabetic presently. Finally in Feb 2018 I received a special issuance 3rd class medical, so I joined a local flying club and went up after 36 years almost to the day. I’ve put in 7 hours over four flights with the CFII, and he’s going to sign me off during our next session, as he wants to work on my “smoothness” with landings. I was a little surprised with how natural it still felt to take off and land. Learning about the new airspace types and talking with approach control, flight service, and towers I found myself a little rusty with. Amazed at the tablet apps available now to help with navigation… much better than flipping a sectional around. So I plan on getting my instrument rating next. Enjoyed your story, as it rang familiar.

    • Jerry Thomas
      Jerry Thomas says:

      Hi Dave,

      I was cleaning up my emails and found your comment on my Rusty Pilot story. Sorry for the delayed reply. I hope your experience went a little bit smoother than mine. The good news is than it got much better quickly. Now, when I press the mike button, coherent sounds come out of my mouth.

      All the best,


  8. Mark
    Mark says:

    I’m glad I came across this. I’m in the middle of my bidecennial flight review now (yes, you read that correctly) and having a very similar experience. Two decades out of the left seat has me much rustier than I imagined, and a little amazed at the technological changes in GA over those twenty years. Thanks for the great article.

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