A rusty pilot takes to the skies again

Flying has always been part of my life. Whether it was building and flying model airplanes as a child or attempting to become an airline pilot during college or my career after college, it has always been part of my life. My father had a lot to do with this as he was an avid U-Control “pilot” and later an RC pilot with some nice sailplane trophies to show, including a few from the Nationals in Muncie, Indiana. He taught me how to fly both U-Control and RC planes, neither of which I was particularly good, at having crashed his pristine Corsair at an early age as I recall. Maybe I should try to fly an airplane instead of just trying to control an airplane remotely?

After obtaining a private pilot certificate on my 17th birthday in Peoria, Illinois, I felt like I was on my way to becoming a real pilot, with aspirations to fly larger and more capable aircraft. While I was not able to achieve the dream of becoming an airline pilot, I was able to have a long and successful career at McDonnell Douglas and later at the Boeing Company to follow my two passions: aviation and electronics. I flew a few hours in St. Louis after graduating from college and starting a job at McDonnell Douglas but something about flying underneath large, fast jets just didn’t seem safe to me with a new family as I recall. The lyrics from a John Lennon song (“Life happens when you are busy making other plans”) come to mind as I write this.

Cherokee
Always a Cessna guy, and yet the airplane ended up a Cherokee.

Fast forward 35+ years and I was once again inspired by my father to get back into aviation, this time as a result of an agonizing four hour road trip to visit my parents (now in their 80s). I wondered if it would be easier to fly instead, so I purchased my first airplane in the fall of 2017, a “new to me” 1966 Piper Cherokee 180! Always a Cessna guy, I’m not sure how I ended up with a Cherokee. I asked my instructor on my first flight, “what is this fuel pump switch for?”

After a ground school refresher attended with my son, an AOPA Rusty Pilot seminar, and about 10 hours of instruction, I was checked out and ready to fly by myself once again. I asked my instructor how many hours he had acquired and he replied, “I’m not sure, I stopped keeping track after 20,000!” I had a lot to learn.

Since then I am proud to say that I have visited my parents on seven different trips to northern Illinois, all uneventful except for the unexpected growing cloud deck over Bloomington on one bright, sunny day VFR over-the-top (with my son). We did find our way back down (around the clouds) which prompted me to start on my path to my instrument rating. I successfully completed the written last October and I continue to fly with my instructor and several generous safety pilots to acquire my new instrument skills with plans to obtain my instrument rating by the end of the year.

As a side note, for any recent private pilots out there that are not exactly sure how to use their newfound freedom, I would encourage you to consider working toward your instrument rating as a good next step. If I can do it, anyone can do it! It is essential to have a “mission” each time you fly to stretch yourself. It is also important (and rewarding) to have a longer-term mission, whether to visit your parents or friends, fly to a special destination, or obtain a new rating. The journey is the reward.

My most recent cross-country took me to beautiful Crawfordsville, Indiana, to visit my father-in-law and his wife, followed by an additional one hour flight to visit with my parents and back home to Spirit Airport in St. Louis – all in the same day. Over five hours of flight time, all with Flight Following services provided by very professional controllers from St. Louis Approach to Chicago Center and several in between.

On my last visit to Illinois, I asked my dad if he wanted to go for a flight. To my surprise, he said, “sure, let’s go!” Not what I was expecting but kind of hard to say no, since I had asked the question. So, off we went into a beautiful, sunny Illinois sky. First a touch-and-go in Pontiac, Illinois, followed by some fly-overs of some recognizable landmarks to both my Dad and me. The landing at the local airport was as smooth as I have made, having learned to fly so many years earlier at the same airport with a very narrow runway in Dwight, Illinois.  Now, if I can only get my mom to go for a flight….

9 Comments

  • Reminds me of my flying career. Received my license right after graduating college at NC State University in 1974. I had no mission except learn to fly. That in itself held me back from progressing as an aviator. Marriage two years later, and new priorities made pleasure flying become very scarce in my life. I made my last flight in 1977 and never thought I would be able to fly again. However, through friends prodding me I was able to start flying again by soloing again in 2018, a lapse of 41 years! Joined a flight club and haven’t looked back. I just wish I could have about 20 years of my life back!

  • Wow! Sounds very similar to me. Got my license at 20 at the Van Nuys Airport and flew on many “dates” to various restaurants in SoCal on my college student loan. Became a controller at 24 and spent 25 yeas in ATC, flying when I could but not nearly enough. After getting my Comm/ Inst license in 1985 and flying a little around the Pacific Northwest, 20 years passed without flying until moving to Idaho in 2007 to be close to the backcountry. I did the Rusty Pilots Seminar in 2016 and in 2017 purchased a 1958 Cessna 182 that had spent almost all of it’s life 6 miles from where I grew up. Did lots of work on the plane over the winter of 2018/2019 and have flown about 60 hours since getting the plane 14 months ago. That includes 7 months of downtime for upgrades. I’ve now been to about 8 different Idaho backcountry airstrips, a 1600 mi trip back to CA to see a son and grandkids (gave them their first airplane ride) and just returned with my wife from the High Sierra Fly-In. I am truly living my dream!

  • I began my flying career in 1969 when I was in the US Army Warrant Officer Rotary-Wing Aviator Course to learn flying helicopters and my subsequent assignment to support ground actions in Vietnam. This was my first flying experience.

    In 1971, 2 months after I had returned from Vietnam and separated from active duty, I started to take fixed-wing training at 3M Airport in Bristol, PA. My first lesson was in a Piper Cherokee 140 and then the next 37 hours was in a American Aviation AA-1A Trainer. Although an additional rating to my Commercial Rotary-Wing rating was simply to train to complete the check ride, I told my CFI that I wanted to learn to fly and airplane and not just pass a check ride. Since I had flown over 1,000 hours in helicopters and I was active in Army National Guard Aviation, the transition was fun and easy. I completed my Private Pilot Privileges Single-Engine Airplane rating a few months after I re-entered full-time college studies in 1972. Being as I was now college poor and later full-time employment and then marriage cut short my civilian flight activities. I continued to fly helicopters in the National Guard and subsequently in the Army Reserves until I retired in 1996. In 1997, I had funds to renew my flying to want to achieve my Instrument/Commercial SEL ratings. Although I did complete my instrument rating, relocating for career employment ended my further training at KPNE.

    In 2005, I retired from my civilian non-flying career and I set my sights to fly helicopters again first to fly helicopter Emergency Medical Services for 6 months and 100 hours and then to fly helicopter tours in Hawaii in 2006 for 5 months and 546 hours. At the end of this employment, I have 5,000 hours in helicopters.

    Life has it’s changes in your path whether you plan them or not. I did not fly on a regular basis until 2017 and then 2019 flying a UH-1B Huey that belonged to a friend of mine. I now had a refreshed goal of where I could take a SEL airplane on trips to shorten the travel usually by car. in September 2019, I bought a 1978 Grumman American AA-5B Tiger. I hired a very experienced CFI/CFII Tiger owner to assist me to ferry this airplane from western Missouri to Eastern Shore Maryland and to train me to complete my Biannual Flight Review. I am still working on completing the BFR and working to learn this airplane to be comfortable and confident. There is a lot of rust that needs to be chipped away!

    • I went to Army flight school back in 1986, and flew Huey’s and Blackhawks for 23 years. Then an accident got me grounded for life. I enjoyed your writing so thanks!

  • Excellent story and one that is similar to many of us. For myself, it was a hiatus of 30 years…kids, family, career. What finally got me was the increasing danger/frustration of driving on I95/I75 in the southeast and some excellent tax advice from my accountant.

    Fast forward 10 months, 135 hours later, several long cross countries and my instrument written as I work toward the practical and I’m in for as long as I can.

    Agree with Mr. Tock that you need a long-term mission. I bought a fully equipped (Dynon HDX/Garmin Area 796/BRS) S-LSA Sportcruiser. It’s an excellent platform for IFR training and for those 150-300 mile hops around the southeast. It burns 5.2gph Mogas and carries 2 people. If I need an IMC plane with more seats, I can rent. As well, if my health should ever get bad, it’s an LSA with lesser medical requirements…though, common sense might dictate letting a son-in-law or grandson act as PIC.

    For the moment, my weekly missions are for business purposes and weekends generally for training. The joy of flying a technologically current glass panel with 2-axis autopilot has allowed me to shake off my thick coating of rust and to give my kids access to a pursuit that they might not have ever thought possible.

    Simply, the best, and at a much lower cost of ownership than I’d ever imagined.

  • I was nine years old in 1943, when I knew I wanted to be in Aviation… and Ihave no idea why! My parents helped me purchase a Thor model airplane motor…. really wasn’t
    much good…. would not run very well even on the motor stand I constructed…. built u-control model ‘high speed’ model airplanes… Graduated Curtis High School in February 1952…went to RPI to become an Aeronautical Engineer and in Air Force ROTC… Graduated… was in the Air Force pilot training class of 57-H…. First flight in a ‘souped up’ Piper Cub was on February 2, 1956…. Became a pilot after almost being ‘washed out’… flew B-47’s with an Aircraft Commander who flew B-17’s in WWII…. flew F-86H’s and F-84’s in the Mass. Air National Guard…worked at Pratt & Whitney, division of United Technologies, Inc. for about 40 years….. Now retired mentoring and ‘teaching’ aviation related subjects with elementary, junior, and senior high school students, and previously adults in Dartmouth’s ILEAD program…. Received the EAA Leadership Award in 2006, and in 2010 The Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” Award from FAA “In recognition of your contributions to building and maintaining the safest aviation system in the world, through practicing and promoting safe flight operations for 50 consecutive years”… Organized Airport Awareness Day and Young Eagle Rally at Lebanon Airport for 4 years and Dean Memorial Airport for 14 years… continued flying in our 1976 Cessna 182 to travel, and fly youngsters to become a Young Eagle, an EAA program chaired by Sully & Jeff, pilots of the now-famous US Airways Flight 1549 ditching in the Hudson River… My last flight in our 1976 Cessna 182 (N1408M) was in October 2011 and sold in 2012… VERY sad; but I had 55 years, 1,996 hours flying time with 1,762 take-offs and landings… much fun, challenges, excitement, and pilot-in-command time… In 2014 I became a ‘Ground Pounder’, member of EAA Chapter 26 Seattle, WA co-chairing monthly newsletter, “WIND IN THE RIGGING, belike”, and doing mentoring/seminars on many Aviation related topics with youngsters & ‘elderly’.
    Being in Aviation, EAA Young Eagles program (flown just under 400 youngsters),
    and mentoring youngsters has been, and is, a VERY rewarding experience.

  • I learnt to fly in a Cherokee 180 D, and enjoyed every minute from start up to shut down, and long cross county stints flying onto uphill / downhill strips that only an eagle can see made this beautiful most forgiving aircraft a delight to handle.
    the power source of the 180 engine against the regular 120 models gave you much better control on short strip bush flying.
    At 85 now my bucket list still has wishes to get back in the left hand seat to glorify of the old days.

  • Thank you to everyone who commented on my article and shared their flying experiences. I enjoyed them all. We share a passion! Robert Tock

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