There’s a reason why your certificate doesn’t expire. Once you’ve been fortunate enough to leave the bounds of earth you can’t help but look towards the sky in bewilderment, eagerly daydreaming of your next opportunity to take to the skies. The adventure is simply intoxicating. Life, however, can quickly sober an aviator with the reality of various obstacles than can keep even the most strong-willed enthusiast grounded. These hardships, big or small, can quickly accumulate and cripple the momentum of a general aviation pilot. These hiccups can lead to currency lapses, diminish required skill sets, erode confidence, and keep someone who is meant to dance among the clouds on the ground muttering “I’d rather be flying.”
I found myself caught off-guard with the the severity of my lapse as I referenced my logbook for the last logged flight. How could it have been seven years since my last time behind the controls of an airplane? The time between flights was innocent as career changes, schooling, and a growing family easily distracted me from driving to the local FBO. As time between flights slowly became longer, it only became easier to focus on other things and harder to justify the time and expense necessary to remain current. I had sabotaged myself and the hard work once devoted to the uphill challenge of earning my private pilot certificate.
I had to escape this dry spell but I was overwhelmed with the daunting challenge of getting myself ready once again for the responsibility of piloting an aircraft. The overwhelming feeling was rooted in my new fear of putting myself in an unsafe situation. It had been so long since my last flight that I had lost confidence in my ability to safely operate in the arena I once thrived in.
I knew I had to get back in the cockpit but I was unsure of how to kick start my training. With the amount of material I would need to cover and limited financial resources to aid my studying, I was skeptical that it could be done. I applied an old saying learned earlier in my flying career to act as a guide in creating my own plan of instruction. “Plan to fly, fly the plan.” Just as planning for an intricate cross country flight can be broken down into small legs, I developed an easy and realistic plan to help take the pressure off of myself.
The first step was one that was both simple and extremely satisfying. I needed to reengage my aviation community for help. The aviation community is absolutely unique as it is filled with people who are selfless and want nothing more than for others to enjoy the same thrill of lurching forward after being cleared for takeoff. I turned to both professionals and enthusiasts alike for direction and guidance. This allowed me to lean on old friends, make new acquaintances, and learn that I was not alone in my quest to pull chocks and take to the sky.
I was fortunate enough to pique the interest of a life-long friend and professional airline pilot who still holds his CFII. Without any coercion, my friend Dan sprung on the opportunity to help regain my airworthiness. Understanding the magnitude of my goal and how important it was to me, Dan offered me the deal of a lifetime. If I could find the time to fly to out to the L.A. area (his domicile), we would take his PA-28 along the coast of California on a revitalizing multi-day cross country trip.
The trip evolved into an all encompassing crash course in flying, allowing me to safely revisit old skill sets while experiencing a list of flying firsts. With my only flying experiences rooted in the Midwest, this California trip wasted no time introducing me to new environments as we departed Big Bear City Airport (L35) and carved our way through the mountains away from the congested LAX area towards French Valley Airport (F70). This initial leg reintroduced me to the feel of the aircraft as I conducted basic flight maneuvers such as steep turns and slow flight. French Valley’s pattern was saturated with pilots enroute to lunch at French Valley’s Cafe, allowing me to practice both my pattern work as well as my radio etiquette. With it being a perfect day, we decided to top off the tanks and embark on the next bucket list leg of our journey.
Since I had already experienced a first with mountain flying, we continued our trip’s momentum by orienting our nose away from the mountains and headed west towards the “Airport in the Sky.” Traversing over the Pacific in a PA-28 towards Catalina Island was a first for both of us. After both agreeing that the airframe/engine were in the green, we had zero indications of faulty equipment, and both agreed upon a final decision point (based on our glide distance) to turn back towards the coast if we lost power, we committed and made the same remarkable approach as many DC-3’s have in the past.
This experience was truly incredible as we were the only aircraft in the vicinity, making it feel like we had the island all to ourselves. After taxiing to park, we walked the ramp space towards the iconic hangar, imagining the 1950’s-era hustle of airport shuttles to and from the mainland. We took a break and ate the infamous bison burgers from the Catalina Airport Cafe (my first “100 dollar burger”) and soaked in the surrounding scenery. After paying our landing fee ($25 was well worth the experience) we again took the empty Catalina sky and did a victory lap around the pattern to admire the pure beauty of the island for one last time. It was now mid-afternoon and we turned back towards John Wayne Airport (KSNA) for the final leg of the day.
To top-off the first day back into the left seat, we chose Orange County Airport so that I could experience the congested airspace of a Class C airport and work with ATC. This proved exhilarating as I was now being sequenced with airliners and landing alongside planes that dwarfed the Cherokee. If it were up to me, I would have remained in the pattern all night. Fuel quantities dictated a different course of action and we finally taxied to ACI Jet, where a marshaller directed us to our resting spot for the night. As we were buttoning up, we were surrounding by both commercial and private jets. I reflected on my first day back and was in awe at what I had just experienced. The good news was that this was only the first of a four day trip.
It was the start of day two and I felt as if it were Christmas morning. We called for a weather brief over coffee and planned for our trip north along the California coast. What was briefed along our initial route would have certainly grounded any VFR pilot, but Dan was excited at the opportunity for me to practice my instrument flying. We filed an IFR flight plan and began our trek north. This experience was fortunate as it tested the skills that were practiced during the previous day. I flew the plane as Dan managed the busy LA radios. This was invaluable as it helped me refine my crew resource management skills while being hyper sensitive to the plane’s every input.
Once we broke out of the IMC weather we quickly transitioned back to VFR cross country flying and followed the California Pacific Coast Highway (SR 1). Winding along the highway was mesmerizing as we were able to follow the contour of the coast while observing the natural beauty of the California coast with unlimited visibility. We cut inland over the San Rafael mountains towards Santa Maria Airport (KSMX) for a quick refuel and then continued on towards Monterey Regional Airport (KMRY) for our final leg of the day. That night I found myself once again in astonishment as I sat overlooking the Pacific Ocean while indulging in fresh calamari and mouthwatering swordfish.
On the morning of day three, we examined the weather for both our next planned destination and our home base. Weather was moving into both areas the following day and we made the educated decision to cut our trip short by a day. Although pressing north of San Franciso would have been undeniably unforgettable, the risk associated seemed unnecessary. We amended our plan and headed back south with a final destination of Big Bear. The trip allowed us to stumble upon on old warbird at Shafter Mintor (KMIT) and practice instrument approaches at Bakersfield (KBFL). Later that night we ended our trip back in the mountains where it had all started. The three day trip totaled nearly 15 hours of flying and I could not have been happier with the all around experience.
The intent of the trip was an overall success. It was meant to both regain old skill sets while rewarding the endeavor of regaining my currency. Dan and I were able to fly around mountains, fly over the Pacific Ocean to Catalina Island, fly in all types of airspace and weather, and most importantly, enable the spirit of adventure through aviation. The trip was incredible and I owe it all to the overwhelming support of the aviation community and aviators like Dan who will stop at nothing to help share the joy of flight. Without the support, I would have never been able to “Plan to fly, fly the plan”.