On becoming an old, new pilot

We’ve all got our stories as to how we got into general aviation. This is mine. I just started a bit later. OK – a LOT later than most. OK – virtually later than all other folks I have since met who fly. I was 56 when I started my flying instruction and 57 when I passed my licensing check ride. The key is, it doesn’t matter when or how you started – what matters is that you stuck with it and finished. Even if you’re starting a lot later than just about everyone else.

I’d always been fascinated with airplanes. As a young boy growing up near Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, seeing the Vietnam-Cold War era fighters and transports constantly going in and out, the whole notion of flying was stuck in my brain. But, by the 9th grade, glasses on my nose, I knew that becoming one of those guys was just not in the cards.

At college I decided being a Cadet would be fun, and did the extra coursework to earn my Army commission, eventually becoming an infantry officer. From 1979-1987, military transports and Army helicopters were my method of going up, landing, and sometimes parachuting out as an Airborne Infantryman. Still, I looked at those guys who got to drive and wondered about becoming one of them; maybe a medical wavier for the glasses on my nose? But it still wasn’t in the cards.

My army stint came to a close and I still had the bug, now for general aviation – all I needed was the time, money, and opportunity to achieve that goal, that dream, of piloting an airplane. I was pretty sure that when the time was right, it would happen. It didn’t: all the usual excuses of work, kids, and other priorities – for the next twenty years. I mean, it’ll happen, right? Hang in there, it’ll come. So I did – and the years became decades and my feet were still on the ground.

Hackneys
The couple that flies together…

Fast forward to October of 2015. I was at a GA airport to meet some executives flying in for a company meeting. The airport had a small restaurant for the hundred dollar hamburger crowd and several retired folks were there who wanted to show off their planes that were parked on the grass apron. I had some time and I looked at their planes and they told me how long they’d been flying, from 20 to 45 years. They obviously loved what they did. That evening I made a frank appraisal of my situation and all my excuses to that point with a conclusion I could no longer ignore: I wanted to be like them and that meant I needed to create the opportunity and go to it – quit expecting it to come to me.

Six months later, at the end of April, accompanied by my wife, all my ground school and manuals digested, dissected, and memorized, we arrived at First Landings Aviation (FLA) in Apopka, Florida. We were living in Chicago and looked at flight school options there, but none met our criteria and winter weather was not a desirable prospect if we could avoid it. I’d researched for a place that had full-time immersion instruction available with a first-class facility, comfortable weather, and a good reputation. After a few calls to the FLA staff and aligning a couple of weeks’ vacation for the two of us, we finalized our plan. It was finally in the cards.

For me, that first Monday – 2.1 hours of flying! Yet, what was I thinking? The cabin was small, you bounced around in the winds, and that runway came up awfully fast for landings, where exactly was I if something went wrong, and there was so much to know! I’m not saying I was thinking of quitting after the first day – it wasn’t scary or anything – it just wasn’t what I expected and it was a wee bit intimidating. OK, a lot intimidating.

We were flying a Tecnam P2004 Bravo with a six-pack as a trainer. Nimble, forgiving, but still daunting to a guy in his late 50s who had a highly experienced 22-year old as his instructor pilot. My wife wasn’t really sure if she’d like it, had not done much of the pre-work despite my insistence, but her first hour in the air had her totally hooked! As the week progressed things became less intimidating, even enjoyable, as basic maneuvers were mastered and the ability to understand and respond to cockpit information improved. Weather and winds didn’t let us fly all of our allotted slots, but we got in a good ten hours that first week. You know, I might be able to do this!

The following Monday things were clicking. The instructor pilot and I were approaching Apopka from Leesburg airport where we’d been doing touch and go’s. My instructor said, “The crosswinds are going to be a little hairy, you do the set up and I’ll take it once we’re on final.” It was our third training flight of the day. The prior Monday, when the instructor suggested he could talk me through my first landing, I’d looked at him and asked if he was crazy. Now, a week later I looked at him and told him he was definitely crazy, “I had this!” And, with him ghosting on the controls, I did.

Airplane on ramp
Finally achieving the dream – pilot in command.

At the end of our two weeks, the weather went bad for the back half of the week and my initial goal for that trip, to solo, couldn’t happen. I’d passed my FAA written and I was ready, but it wasn’t in the cards. Our upcoming work schedules – and less than comfortable central Florida summer weather – would mean no return visits to Apopka until fall. No problem: there was a flying club at the Racine, Wisconsin, airport, a little over an hour from our home in Chicago. We could keep stirring the pot there until we got back to Florida, so we did. Different aircraft type, instructor, and flying environment. The key was that we wanted to really do this now. “Do it,” which, initially really meant “Try it,” now definitely meant DO IT. Complete the training and get the license.

It took a couple of more trips to Florida that fall to solo, finish all the training requirements, and get ready to test. But getting it done before the end of the year was not going to happen: a couple of maintenance and weather issues didn’t align with work and travel back and forth from Chicago, so my wife and I continued to stir the pot at Racine.

The key is persistence. Finally, in March of 2017, eleven months from when we started this journey, we were back in Apopka for a four-day weekend with the goal of passing that check ride. It was a tad windy, but I was out of time to get it done before we had to fly back to Chicago the next day. The oral and practical exam were deservedly high pressure, but I passed: I was now a licensed pilot.

A new, old pilot of 57, soon to be 58! For those considering doing this – be you 14 or 80 – there is no more amazing a feeling of satisfaction than having that FAA inspector tell you those magic words: You passed. You can now legally fly yourself and your passengers in an airplane wherever the limitations of your license and ratings allow.

So that’s my story. My wife still has a bit to do to finish her license, but she will. Later that spring of 2016, we purchased our first plane, full of all the modern Garmin avionics and other cool stuff that we then had to be taught how to use. Some 300 hours (I don’t think in “years” anymore) later we are cruising across the country as the weather allows, enjoying our plane, and simply the sheer joy of flying. And still learning. A lot of pilots have flown a lot of years to get to 60: I made it in less than three. I guess it was in the cards.

51 Comments

  • Although I started lessons and flying in 1967 in the University of Arkansas Pilot Club in a J3 Cub, really started flying averaging 250 hours a year for past six years getting my instrument rating. I’m 71 years old but still a Captain and Pilot with Civil Air Patrol, Angel Flight and Pilot for Christ, Mentor Pilot for Young Eagles with EAA and still flying all the time in my solo practitioner law practice. Suggest you get your instrument rating now that FAR/AIM still fresh on your mind. Happy Flying!!! ‍✈️✈️‍✈️

    • Thanks for your post! I became a pilot in 1964 (I’m 77) and last flew as PIC 20 years ago, but have been thinking of returning to flying while I have my good health. You’ve inspired me!

    • Started training at age 60 and took my check ride at 61. Still working on my instrument rating which I hope to achieve before I hit 65. I plan to make up for lost time during retirement. Didn’t pass vision test to qualify for Navy flight training, so went to medical school instead . Started a practice, reared 2 boys and finally decided it was time to realize a childhood dream.

  • It’s never to late to teach an old dog new tricks. Started flying in 1977 at the ripe old age of 15. Went back in 1988, solo and did my dual cross country flights. From there all the usual life stuff. Married, house and beautiful daughter, work, but no time or money to fly. Always looking up though. As the years went by I thought that, well I soloed I have that. In 2018, yup 30 years later, I decided having soloed wasn’t enough. I wanted my certificate and to share the experience of flying. I found CHI Aerospace at The former Pease Airforce Base now Portsmouth airport in New Hampshire. March 20th 2019 at the age of 55 I earned my Sport Pilot Certificate in a Van’s RV12. Three weeks later I got to take mt daughter flying. Now when I look up it’s to see if the weather is good to fly.

  • Mike! What an inspiring story!!! Just loved every second of the reading. You know, I started late in life too, not that late though. But yet, after being a college band lead singer, a copywriter, an author, I answered the childish dream call at 25 becoming a cabin crew (the only thing I could afford back then), and was not until being 32 that I made the great move: left my brazilian airline for a year, went to Florida, and did my “zero to hero” in 8 months. Just like you, in the beginning I thought that was not for me, the acft wouldn’t do anything I asked from it. But soon it became clear nothing else could make me as happy. Fast forward 7 years, and today I’m living a dream of being where I always wanted to be: now an ATP, just crossed the first 1000 hours on the fright seat of the most advanced airliner ever designed. I think that starting late gave me – and you’ll probably agree – the sense of commitment that a younger me wouldn’t, and I still don’t believe much of how far I got in a so short career (I flew the 737NG for 3 years in South America before coming to the Middle East and fly the 787). But the heavy plastic, although an excellent office, is still an office. You are now where I want to be at your age: with my own airplane, flying with my wife to wherever, whenever we want. So, there’s no really late or soon in aviation, and GA just made me fall in love like it has done to you. Congratulations once more! Hope to see you around some day!

    • I hope to see you around some day as well. The 787 is my favorite long haul airliner-you’ve got a great gig!

    • Got a PPL at 18 didn’t fly for 46 years. Got a biannual checkride almost to the date of my first solo from a that was less than 1/2 the age of my log book. Flying as Sport Pilot in a Tecnam P2008 TC. LOVE IT. My cousin and I both went up the same day when we were 9. He got his license at age 62 and loving every minute. I may not be as nimble but as my instructor said, “What you’ve lost in reflexes you’ve gained in judgement”. My hats off to you, we’ll done for pursuing your dream. Chicago is prettier from the air and safer than riding a motorcycle.

  • I received my private pilot license and passed my check ride last summer at the age of 61. It took a year and a half because I was working full time. I am proud of this accomplishment. Not an easy thing to do.

  • Mike,
    My hats off to you and your wife. I was also 57 when I started training. Now Im 73 and have 1000 hours and instrument and commercial ratings. My wife and I have traveled up and down the East coast many times from Canada to South America in our joint owned Cirrus. It took me longer to learn to land and learn maneuvers than if I was younger, but Im probably more careful than my younger self.
    To the CFIs who feel training old people is a waste—“it’s not”.

    • I agree! My CFI was 22. I’m not sure what he thought about me as an old guy, but I would not have progressed without his patience. I hope he has grown to appreciate older students base on our experience.

  • An inspirational story for those who think “i’m too old” or “I could never do that”.

    That’s what I thought (albeit at an earlier age; I started a month before my 31st birthday)…took a few instructors to disabuse me of that particular self-defeating mantra.

    So, congratulations on your achievement. I agree with a previous poster: while the FARs are fresh in your mind, kick your flying up a notch with some IRA training (in short, get your ‘instrument’) while still enjoying the freedom of VFR. You’d be amazed how smooth and precise your visual flying becomes when you learn how the aircraft really responds to your touch and what’s it telling you in return.

    In any case, clear skies and gentle winds..and be safe up there!

    • Thank you. Safety is always paramount. If I really have to get there and it’s not within my comfort zone, I wait or fly commercial.

  • Inspiring story and great comments. I got my mine a year ago at the age of 69. Congratulations to all my fellow pilots on this major life achievement, at any age, and safe flying!

  • I took my first flight instruction at age 16 and over the years have taken lessons on and off as time and money would allow but never soloed. Then, last year at age 72 and 6 years into retirement, I decided to once again take lessons to see if I could get a Sport Pilot Certificate. While most of my previous flying, probably 40 hours, had been in Cessna 150s and 172s, I am now training in a Tecnam P92. Flying the lightweight Tecnam with a stick has taken some getting used too, especially when it comes to crosswind landings, and mastering the piloting of the little plane is taking a lot longer than I expected it would. However, I aced the Ground School Test and have finally soloed. Hopefully, by the end of the summer I will be in a position to take my Check Ride and get my Sport Pilot Certificate. In any event, I am having lots of fun trying to prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

    • I did my FAA exam in a P-92: it’s a good airplane. Not as roomy or high performance as a P2008, but it’s a fun plane!

      • I also did my training and PPL checkride in a P92. It’s a fun and responsive plane that will really help you hone your stick and rudder skills!

  • Mike,
    I started my flight training at 55. In 2017. Became a licensed pilot in 2018 at 56. I had wanted to learn to fly my entire life. Tried to get into pilot training while in the Army but that didn’t work out. After my service time was through it was work, kids, and all the other reasons that come along.
    My wife bought me a discovery flight for Christmas in 2016 from our local flight school. I used it in June of 2017 and never looked back.
    My wife was my first passenger after I received my license. I haven’t been able to thank her enough for that push.

  • Great story. I started to fly in my twenties and, in the finals of my thirty’s, some facts of my life avoided me to fly during more than 15 years. I’m 71 and, after starting flying again about 15 years from now, I do it frequently.

  • Great story, my wife and I have about the same story both are 61 years young, both are at the 16 hours point In training with a 22 year old CFI that we love and appreciate……his patience! Lol. I was an Army Officer in a Electronic Warfare Unit, 1st ASA Aviation (RR) and always wanted to fly back when it was only $995 with ER in the 70’s. But as a private the Army only paid $399 a month. We both hope and pray we can endure the roller coaster of emotions since starting our training and the second language (terminology). Lol. It’s hard to stop the 40 years of steering….so o drive my truck and let the steering wheel telescope in and out as I drive simulating landings. Lol enough said…….back to study…….we both forgot how exciting it was to get a learners permit 45 years ago. Pray for us!

  • I too was late to aviation! Always daydreamed though the years but life and $ always got in the way. Got training locally at 56 years young and at the age of 57 after 9 months got the certificate. Now almost two years later 400 plus hours and loving every minute of being in the air. Proud aircraft owner and continuously looking skyward

    • Isn’t it amazing to be able to own a plane? Mine is hangared five minutes from my office. I have a lot of late lunches and miss a lot of dinners when the schedule and weather permit!

      • Started training at age 60 and took my check ride at 61. Still working on my instrument rating which I hope to achieve before I hit 65. I plan to make up for lost time during retirement. Didn’t pass vision test to qualify for Navy flight training, so went to medical school instead . Started a practice, reared 2 boys and finally decided it was time to realize a childhood dream.

  • Mike, You are an inspiration. My story is similar. Just turned 67 years young. I also wear the specks and so I knew military flying wasn’t in the cards. However, I enlisted in the Air Force anyway and got a job as a Loadmaster on the venerable C-130. After 26 years and over 5,000 flt hrs, I retired but still no pilots license. And like you, I met some people who have a passion for aviation. I helped start a flying club, got my LSRM-A license and maintain a couple of Tecmans for the Club. Along with my FAA Green card to work on these airplanes, I also have that one that says, “Student Pilot”. I should be a Sport Pilot by the end of the summer. Aim High…

    • Thank you, Jeff. Congrats on the retirement and thank you for your service. Good luck with your training this summer!

  • I got my PPL at 63 and my IFR at 65. I’m now 67 and going for my commercial with 550 hours under my belt including 6 hours of full aerobatics. Age is only a number.

  • Great stories by all. I also now at the age of 64 have returned after being away for 30 years. That first flight back showed me what I was missing. My goal now is to move on to instrument, commercial and if not too old instructor and thank all of you for your service to this country.

  • I am happy to hear that I’m not alone. I was 16 when I started flight lessons, now I’m 54 and a returning older student pilot. The usual bumps along life’s highway has kept me on the ground, however, aviation has been in my blood pretty much my entire life as an Aviation Explorer, Aviation Ops Specialist in the Marines, Aerospace worker for 15 years, etc…just figured like you, I would have to make that push to get my certificate. Almost had it last October but my young CFI forgot a “few” endorsements in my logbook and it set me back. Will get it done this year for sure, then the wife and I are looking to purchase an older Mooney and do some serious traveling! Glad to hear about you and your wifes aviation journey.

  • Great article. I too am 57, have passed my written and just finished my solo, working on cross country. I started in 12/1997, had 9 hours of fight time when the instructor and I were coming into land with a strong crosswind and I wasn’t responding fast enough on the rudder and, which way to move it. When he took over and we had stopped he made a comment to me that made me quit. He said “next time I’ll stab something into your leg and you will know which is right and left”. I let 20 years go by thinking I may have the same experience with another instructor. But I’ve made it this far hopefully I can finish it. Thanks for the encouraging article.

  • The FAA medical division is the single biggest obstacle to people wishing to fly. The nicest thing I can say about them is they are bureaucratic shitgibbons obsessed with their own importance. These kind of articles are rendered as mere fantasy when you involve the filth in Oklahoma City.

  • Mike:

    I was lucky enough to get into aviation right out of high school. After a 40-year fun career that involved the Canadian military, the government, and corporate aviation, I’m still flying (an RV-7A) as I enter my ninth decade.

    Although the reflexes slow and learning takes a bit longer, you and the others have shown that age is no impediment to becoming a pilot. All it takes is the will, the determination, and the support from family. As well, a good training organization and knowledgeable, competent instructors is a must…

    Blue skies and following winds to you both!

  • Mike, a really great story. I started at 50. We had moved back to the northwest suburbs of Chicago after a stint in Cincinnati and moved two miles west of Lake in the Hills (3CK) Airport. Apparently everyone in the family noticed me looking up and going over and talking to Stan, a former kindred SFGA paratrooper. At the suggestion of my wife, our kids bought me a logbook for Christmas and I was off!

    Keep up the flying and the writing. It’s great!

  • I was 62 when I pulled the trigger and went for my PPL now 70 and a few hundred hours later my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier in life. By co-incidence my discovery flight was with First Landings at Apopka, I decided that as they only had Light Sport aircraft at that time, I would look elsewhere to get my PPL. I did this over a period of 12 months travelling from our home in the U.K. to a flight school in Central Florida.

  • I purchased a factory assembled Aerolite 103 Ultralight and buzz around A.M. and P.M. a few times a week. I enjoy flying without a lot of traffic around me. If we need to take a trip of a few hundred miles it is done in the car, more than that it’s commercial. This situation suites my needs fine. Note: I do like forming up occasionally with the Canada Geese….just don’t fly below them or approach them from the rear.

  • Mike,

    Great story. I too trained at age 50 in the Chicago area out of C81 in Grayslake, after being a flying nut since my childhood in the 60’s (very similar life story). Good clubs at KUGN and KPWK as well. If you ever want to motor around, drop me a line and we’ll go flying in my Cherokee out of C81. Racine is a great place, but C81 is closer. Skuemmerle@sbcglobal.net.

    Cheers – Steve

  • “Way back” in the 70’s and 80’s I was doing a lot of instructing and a retired couple had a 172 that had been their son’s until he got a Mooney. So they decided they would learn to fly at their leisure – no rush. The short stories: In her mid-70’s, she passed the written with a 98, let it lapse and 4 years later got 100, and passed the checkride when she and the examiner disagreed about something and she insisted he look it up to find that she was correct. He enjoyed riding along with her for a few more years.

  • Mike, thanks for sharing your story. Glad to know I am not alone. Started ground-school shortly after college in the 90s. Had considered finishing my license, but work, marriage, and family kept me too busy. In 2018 my 17-year-old son became interested in aviation through his JROTC program. Decided then to make time for flying at age 55, and we both started taking lessons. We were fortunate to find a very good flight school in our area. My son learns quickly in his flight training, with very little effort. I have struggled, and it takes me longer to master each maneuver. The number of lessons and studying required are far greater than I originally expected. Having a patient instructor has been very important. Expecting to be ready to take my PPL checkride next month.

  • Thank you for a great story, Mike. I started late fall of 2011 at the ripe age of 56. Since then, aviation has become my lifeblood. I own a Cherokee 140/160, am learning much about working on it with a couple of exceptional A&Ps, bought a “used” RV 9A quick build kit we look forward to finishing. My husband is my navigator and best puppy-wrangler as we fly our Pilots n Paws missions. It doesn’t matter how old you are if you truly have the passion required; sometimes I think being older is an asset in the way we view it.
    Blue skies and fair winds!

  • Congratulations Mike. I hope you and your wife enjoy many years of flying together. Reading the posts here regarding your adventure, I note the references to the 50’s and 60’s age group. Just the right age to start having fun. Those 50/60 numbers have a significant meaning for me. I was lucky enough to take my pilot training, and check ride, at Phoenix Sky Harbor in ‘58 —, 61 years ago. My then girlfriend, and shortly thereafter my wife, was at the airport while I took my check ride. I immediately went next door to the Cessna dealer, got checked out in a brand new C-150 and took her for her first airplane ride. We’ve been flying together every since and have owned a Cessna 175, a 182, and a 206. In the early 90’s we switched to Bellanca Super Vikings and currently have two powered with IO-550 engines. Flying never gets old.

  • The cataract in one of my eyes that blinds me in that eye and casts a waxy pale over the other eye when it’s open, is telling me otherwise, I’m too old to become a pilot.

  • Cataract surgery is an approved medical procedure by the FAA…..before my surgery I was 20/300 and could not see a darn thing after the sun went down….after my surgery I am 20/15 and have no problems with night time vision.

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