Finally… back in the left seat again

There are rusty pilots and then there are RUSTY pilots. I was a RUSTY pilot, having not been PIC in the left seat of an airplane in 40.7 years. Half of a lifetime! As many of you, there existed a love for airplanes since childhood. Growing up, Sky King reruns started the dream and gave me an appetite to experience flight. When asked what I wanted to be, it was always “a jet fighter pilot.” The realization later on was that less than perfect vision would keep that dream at bay, and even a visit to the military recruiters did not offer much hope and certainly not a promise of that opportunity between high school and college.

During my junior year at NC State, a TV movie about a young pilot having to try to land a light plane on an aircraft carrier during an emergency caught my attention and got me dreaming again about learning to fly. A beautiful June afternoon in 1973 set the stage for a visit to my local Cessna Pilot Center in Gastonia, North Carolina, where hopefully the journey would move from a dream to reality. Dick and Barbara Caldwell were the proprietors and airport managers. They made me feel at home and answered as many questions as could be asked from a beginner.

By 150
The dream started a long time ago.

Working for my dad that summer, and with his and Mom’s blessing, training began in the flight school’s Cessna 150s at the rate of $14 per hour wet, and another $6 per hour for my instructor. Wow, 20 bucks an hour… would I be able to afford this? My first goal was just to solo, and then I would see where God’s plan might take me.

My first instructor was a friendly guy named Mike Hoke, who was probably just a few years older than me. We progressed through all the initial phases of an organized approach to flight instruction, and on July 3, 1973, after a late afternoon lesson and 8.3 hours under my belt, I returned home minus my shirt tail. Actually Mike cut off the entire back of my shirt!

Mike was a very patient and understanding teacher, and he made me want to learn. The Cessna ground school course had also been purchased and I began the journey of self teaching myself the non-flying portion of the adventure. Contact was lost with Mike not long after my solo, as he left the school to go elsewhere. I always wanted to make contact with him later on but never knew what became of him. He got me off on a good start, and the goal was to press on.

Instructor Kenny Walsh flew with me for a short time until Mike could be replaced, and much was learned from him. He checked me out in the Cherokee 140, the Cessna 172, and gave me my first night time instruction. Night flying was not required for a Private certificate back in the mid-70s, but I wanted to experience that, too. The 172 was nicknamed “The Cuban Queen” because of a unique unplanned trip it took back in April of 1970. A young couple, under the ruse of wanting a sightseeing flight, had hijacked the plane and pilot, Boyce Stradley, to Cuba. Boyce was able to return safely a few days later, but the highjackers ended up in a Cuban jail.

The next week on a visit to the airport, introductions were made with Ken McGill, who had moved to our area from Beaumont, Texas, to be an instructor. Again I fortunate to get a great instructor, and we clicked right off. Ken took me through the rest of my training that summer, and upon my return to NC State in the fall, I tried to make frequent trips home for training. That $20 an hour was pretty close to what $150 an hour feels like today, so we did not get to fly as much as I would have liked.

Continuing to study the ground school portion as time permitted that senior year meant juggling time with classwork as graduation neared. Taking sporadic lessons (when a trip home on weekends could be fit in) and hoping for good weather, it seemed to be always review and repeat mode when we finally got back in the air. Ken was always gently pushing to see me master older lessons and challenge me on newer ones.

Checking fuel
When you don’t fly a lot, many lessons end up being merely review sessions.

My nemesis was power-on/takeoff stall practice. Probably the most frightening experience ever in my life was the time I was looking straight down at the ground spiraling up to meet me. Holding the elevator in my lap too far past the stall break with no rudder input allowed me to experience my first unintentional spin. Had I been alone, I would not be writing about my memories today.

Ken, in his own calm manner, explained what happened and what was not done correctly, and then proceeded to demonstrate a spin and recovery. To my amazement I found myself going through the maneuver like a semi-seasoned veteran. That was one of the most memorable and practical lessons taught up to that point. However, it was still a relief when I able to get on the ground and drive home that afternoon. That, to be honest, was the closest that I had come to not finishing because the event was so quick and scared me so bad. Your nature says pull the yoke to gain altitude, but that is certainly not the case in a stall/spin.

In the spring the decision was made to make an appointment to take the written exam at Raleigh-Durham Airport. I had the feeling of being ready, but I was overconfident and not as prepared as I thought. I missed one question too many and the reality of it made me realize that maybe I wasn’t taking this as seriously as I should. Just after graduation in 1974, Ken helped me with a better program of self study, and now having the experience of a test under my belt, another attempt was made and only one question was answered incorrectly. I was elated, and now my ultimate goal was closer than ever. After a few more checkride prep flights, Ken was ready to give me the recommendation for a checkride.

On May 17, 1974, I climbed into Cessna N19033, a 150 that was really fun to fly. Takeoff was from Gastonia (AKH) for the short, 10-mile flight to Charlotte, where I would meet with Paul Wike, my pilot examiner. Cleared for landing on runway 5, I felt power and importance as an Eastern 727 sat patiently holding short for takeoff as my “speedy” 150 made its way over the numbers and landed. I do not remember a lot of the specifics of my checkride, other than Paul was very fair, I was extremely nervous, and the ride was anticlimactic. It had gone much smoother than imagined. I was now a pilot with all of 51 hours in my logbook, and had spent $1030 for the whole program.

Ken was excited for me, and he could now put another notch on his instructor resume. I also lost touch with Ken over the next year, and never knew whether he went back to Beaumont or possibly the airlines. If you know Ken McGill, tell him I said hello and thanks!

Over the next couple of years, there were only about 25 hours that found its way into my logbook. Primarily, it was rides for friends and family. There was no pursuit of any advanced ratings nor were there any “future flying plan” goals, a character flaw for sure that I regretted later. As is the case of many new young pilots who are in it for only the pleasure of flying, many new priorities inevitably take the place of a hobby. Mine came with marriage, and then by late 81 we were parents of a son and daughter. A young husband and father soon discovers new options/demands for previously disposable income.

Thus, I made my last flight on April 17, 1976, slightly less than two years after becoming a private pilot. I would not take anything for the experience, but I never flew enough to develop the confidence needed in order for it to feel second nature. It always felt like a mistake or breaking some regulation was just around the corner. The reality of never getting to fly PIC again was very much in my thoughts. And even worse was I would never be able to take my son and daughter on our own flying adventures.

In the early 80s I got involved quite heavily in R/C flying for my aviation “fix.” I enjoyed the building and flying and met a lot of lifelong friends and even taught my son to fly at 7 years old. Yet, the longing to be able to get back in the air in the 1:1 scale version was still there.

Back in it
Back in the saddle, after a long time away.

In the spring of 2017, my yearly trip was underway with a couple of friends to Joe Nall, the huge R/C fly-in first in Greenville and later in Woodruff, SC. My partners, Eddie Blackwood and Joe Ham, were owners of a 47 Champ and a homebuilt Zenith 601, respectively. Joe had started building his Zenith at 77 years old and finished five years later. I had always thought I would like to build an RV so I was constantly picking his brain. Eddie had approached me about 10 years earlier about buying a Cub together, but it wasn’t the right time, and secondly, my pilot career was seemingly dead in the water. This trip and subsequent discussions with my friends got me thinking: my ticket had never expired, so why let it and the investment to get it go to waste?

For me to fly again, a current medical and refresher instruction would be needed to get back in the left seat. How hard could it be… like riding a bike, right? There was also a new grandson by then and that provided the incentive to be able to take him flying. So, after almost 41 years, on a cold December Saturday, I found myself sharing the cockpit of a 172 with instructor David Millistrom at Lincoln County Airport (IPJ). In less than five hours of refresher flight instruction and a Flight Review, I was soloing again, and with a current medical I was cleared to fly again. My initial thoughts were, “You’re turning me loose after 40 years and a few hours of dual instruction!?”

To have this opportunity again was truly a dream come true. Why I did not do this 10 or 15 years ago I will never understand, other than I was just not ready. Soon I began wishing I had about 20 years of my life back!

Was it really like the proverbial “just like riding a bicycle” again? Well, the takeoffs and the in-air work came back quickly. Speed control in the pattern and setting up stable, correct speed approaches took more practice time. With the help of Danny Sloop, a college classmate who was also an aviator, we were able to get it down to where my landings gave me a great sense of accomplishment.

Continuing to rent the flight school’s 172s for practice allowed me to take my grandson and now grown kids flying. My wife always had a problem with motion sickness, so for us to fly together it had to be early morning or calm late afternoon flights with gentle turns and low angle banks. As many of you probably do, there is the dream of owning my own plane someday. But for now that is just not practical for us. Continuing to rent, however, meant always having to compete with others for rental times, especially with the student who booked the best times on Saturday every week for two months out.

Soon an invitation came from a friend to purchase a 25% share in a 172M Skyhawk, which was hangared about 30 miles away. He gave me some free time to test fly it, and it seemed that was the way to go. A few small things did not work out before we drew up the agreement so the idea was dropped.

That turned out to be a blessing in disguise because shortly thereafter, the opportunity came to add my name to the waiting list for the local flying club. It was at my original training airport and was only 10 miles from my home. After nine months a spot opened up and the opportunity to fly with some great guys with the benefit of flying both a well maintained and equipped 172K and 182P was possible. Now I could have the chance to fly more often and get the opportunity for continued training and advice from a wide variety of pilots’ experience within our club.

Grandson
A new passenger to fly!

During the long days of summer my son and I can now stop by the airport on the way home from work and shoot landings or go for a sunset flight. With fellow member and club instructor Bob Krall’s training and endorsement for high performance, the 182 opened up the chance to fly either plane and double my options. This allowed me to take the 182 for a trip down to the eastern part of the state with my son, grandson and 91-year old father for a BBQ lunch. Four generations flying together making family memories. We had a great time, and the payload of the 182 allowed the four of us to travel safely in the high density July heat.

My son (enthusiast but not pilot yet) and I have been able to fly more and I’ve grown in my confidence and feel much more comfortable than my earlier days when flying was just every now and then. Even though it’s now more second nature, I still take it very seriously and feel the responsibility when having someone else’s welfare in my hands. My wife says I keep too serious of an expression on my face when flying so I still need to work to keep a smile and show that I am enjoying it! That’s not a frown, Babe. It’s just my “focused” look!

We gave my son eight hours of flight instruction for Christmas 2019, but it was not until June that he was able to start. He had flown airliners extensively on the simulator so all the jargon and flight planning was second nature. Plus, I had always given him stick time when we flew together. It’s gratifying to see him take great interest in aviation and he is now a member of our flying club. I did not have a family background which influenced me towards aviation so hopefully we are beginning one now.

Was it worth it to get back to flying? For me, it definitely was. Airspace changes were perhaps the biggest changes for me from years ago, but studying it and asking lots of questions brought the clarity needed. I also enrolled in a three and a half month evening ground school course at our local community college taught by friend and highly experienced instructor, Dewey Jenkins. Even though there was no legal need to take this, it was very helpful for me to fill in the gaps of past training. And, the word is “a good pilot is always learning,” right!?

I’m still a very conservative, fair weather type of pilot so the sky is still the limit for me. To be able to do something that only a small percentage of people in the world are able to do makes it feel amazing and is confidence building. To share it with family and friends is even more special. I would encourage any of you other rusty pilots who have dropped out of flying to have some discussions with flying friends and those at your closest flying school about what it takes to get back in the air. Don’t wait any longer so you don’t regret the time lost that is still available to you. It was quite eye opening to find that in my case it was easier than I thought and very reachable to be able to knock the rust off and fly again.

I would also encourage “not yet pilots” with the dream to fly to go to your flight school or pilot friends and get the discussion started!

18 Comments

  • Great story and sounds much like my own:
    Started lessons summer of 1972. Soloed with 5 hours. Went back to school and didn’t fly again until 1976 when, with my new bride’s encouragement, I finished my PPL with 41 total hours. Bought a new 1978 172 in 1980 and had built up about 60 more hours when I got transferred and sold the plane. Never flew again until about 35 years later when I got the bug at a combo classic car cruise/EAA fly in. I got a new medical, took the AOPA Rusty Pilot Seminar, and passed a flight review in one hour with no refresher training needed (though I had picked up a little stick time recently with new Pilot friends I had met through a local Facebook group.)
    A couple months later a bought my Ercoupe.
    My life is complete again.

  • Lots of us have shared your experience.

    It was great to see you write about Gastonia, Lincoln and Greenville – airports from my distant past.

    Best of luck, Dave.

  • As I read this story i feel like it is my story. Like many, i traveled the same road. I began taking lessons, passed the written and worked toward practicing for my check ride in 1984. Family and career came along and all of that came to a screeching halt. Now at the age of 63, and at my wife’s suggestion, i finally got my ticket, and bought a 182T, and am having the time of my life with it. Your comment about wishing you had 20 years of your life back stirs many emotions. With that said I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.

    Thanks for sharing Dave

  • My flight path was different. I grew up on a farm that had an active flight school on a grass strip. By the time I was old enough the flight school had moved and education and life happened. At age 62 my CFI brother was able to piece together my flight training in a borrowed Cherokee 140 so I could scratch my aviation itch and get my PPL. Now at age 74 and still just over 130hrs, I am a flying club member with a well maintained C150 Aerobat. I hope to be more active regularly flying with fellow members as 2021 unfolds. Thanks for sharing your story. For those still interested flying clubs can be a cost effective way to enjoy flight. Both EAA and AOPA have flying club initiatives. Even starting one is not out of the question.

  • Great story and very similar to mine. Got my license with a CAP scholarship in Jul 1979, flew a couple times then went to college. I joined the Marines hoping to fly but my eyesight wasn’t good enough. I stayed in anyways and just retired after a fantastic career. I used every opportunity I could to get into the cockpit and got to be at the controls of many different military aircraft, but unfortunately never as PIC. The demands of the career never afforded me the time to keep current.

    With time now to reinvigorate my passion for general aviation, I’m renting a C172S out of a local FBO and brushing up with their CFI. My logbook has a gap of PIC time from Jul 1979 to Nov 2020. I intend to get my own 172 soon and build hours quickly. Best thing I did was sign up for Sporty’s Flight Crew and still review their videos many times over. AOPA’s Rusty Pilot Seminar and FAA Wings seminars are great resources also.

    Thanks for the great article Dave. Nice to know I’m not the only “old” guy starting fresh again.

  • “ Don’t wait any longer so you don’t regret the time lost that is still available to you.”

    My favorite line, and why I came back after ten years and am trying to finish out my commercial, even when I feel like giving up. Glad you made it back and could share your story. Thanks!

  • Great article! I must tell you that some of us in similar situations did not take such a break but weathered out the family, career, financial hurdles and flew on thru those years. You probably now know what you missed so I won’t elaborate, but 5000+ hours in ‘little airplanes’ has provided adventures, experiences and friendships beyond anything the ground-bound can ever imagine. You will have to work hard to ‘catch up’ but it’s great you’re on it! Best of experiences…and may many ‘altitude adjustments’ be in your future.

  • Great story! I’ve had a similar experience. My wife and I both got our private certificates in 1986 but then kids and career quickly took priority. I got current once again in 2001 and helped my son and some of his friends get their Aviation merit badge, but once again other priorities intervened and I didn’t have the time (or $) to fly often enough to feel safe. Finally just this past fall, retired, with a fresh medical and an open schedule I’m back in the left seat once again! After some dual and rental time from our local FBO I was fortunate to find a local flying club with a sweet 172 (180hp constant speed prop conversion) and I am back in the air regularly. Now I am working on building XC time and dreaming of pursuing an instrument rating. It is nice to know that others have had similar experience. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  • Great story Dave, Thank you. Started my flight training at Midway Airport in 1994, put in 12 hours, my instructor, a very nice good looking lady told me I was ready to solo, I din not believe her or in my own ability. Think I’m getting too old.

  • Great article! That’s me, except I only spent 35 years out of the left seat.

    This should motivate other rusty pilots to get back in the air.

  • I’m surprised at how many folks have responded with similar stories! Mine is very close! My uncle was a P-51 pilot in Korea, he taught my grandfather and my dad started lessons in the late ‘40s, but didn’t get licensed until the late ‘60s. Encouraged by my dad and hopeful of a future flying fighter jets, I began lessons in 1972 at age 15; solo’d at 16, licensed at 17, then my AFROTC scholarship didn’t happen, my dad sold his Cessna 150, and life took over! Over 40 years went by before I was nosing around I80 and met a youth pastor who had just purchased an older Piper 140 in order to learn to fly. After taking a AOPA Rusty Pilot course, I got current and have been flying 20-25 hours per year for the last 5 years!! Thank goodness for the resources available to get me back in the air!!!

  • My story, as well! Got my PPL while in college in 1976. Bought an Ercoupe. When the military wouldn’t take me to fly jet fighters because of my eyesight and a flood of Viet Nam trained pilots, I sold my Ercoupe in 1978 and went on to grad school. My log book gap stretches from August, 1978, to May, 2020, but I finally did it. I bought a beautiful Cherokee Six and am now being disappointed by weather conditions a lot more than I had hoped. I’ll get there. My problem is figuring out how to connect with local pilots. I’d even consider starting a club, but I have no good ideas on how to start. I’m working on purchasing a full motion simulator to share with the flight schools and clubs. Maybe that will get some connections going like the R/C world did for you. Thanks for sharing your story and showing us all that we really aren’t on our own out here.

  • The simulator is a “retirement project” that I hope will build my confidence, as well as that of others who can get into the sky for some reason.

  • Dave, your story really hits home, I know that area, I was on a B-52 crew as a gunner and one of the gunner’s said “Ricks, you know how to fly the tail, why not learn how to fly the front”? That began my flight training at March AFB in 1968.I have been flying in my business since then and have had many experiences like yours. I learned more at Rialto Airport near San Bernardino, had the best instructor’s, always remember airspeed, airspeed. I am 83 now and still enjoy flying and have been in Light Sport sales since it began in 2005.Dan Johnson and I have been friends for years and talk often. I will put my website here so you can see what I am doing at my “old” age. My son owns a sign company here in Phoenix and we are going to use graphics to reduce the weight of the airplane.

  • Dave, I was also inspired by that early-70s movie you mentioned. I saw it just once back then, and remembered all the highlights ever since. It was Family Flight starring Rod Taylor, and I found it on YouTube last week and shared it with my wife. It was a nice jump back in time!

  • Guess what? I was on that aircraft carrier (USS Ranger) when they were filming that movie about the non-pilot who had to take over and land in an emergency. They put up a big net where the arresting gear was, and the pilot made hugely exaggerated moves coming up to the flight deck (of course, he didn’t actually land). I got my private pilot’s license in 1970 during my senior year in medical school (thanks to an influx of money from joining the Naval Reserve program- I think it was $600/month), and rented Cherokee 140s for $14.00/hour, solo. Fortunately over the last 50 years, I have never gone over 3 months without flying, and have belonged to several flying clubs in different parts of the country, currently renting a well-maintained Cessna 182 from a friend.
    Thanks for sharing your story. Glad you are able to experience again the joys of flying.

  • Same scenario here different story stopped flying at 130 hours. I didn’t fly PIC for 27 years then got the KITFOX bug ( before I knew about Trent) and have flown in Idaho, cross country from New Mexico to New York, Maine, Minnesota and to Oshkosh. Tail wheel , tri gear , skis and floats . Now since 2017 I am closing in on 700 hours at 62. I still don’t like turbulence and pretty much stick to fair weather but I have practiced poor weather enough to get me through it. If I can do it most anyone can so don’t wait.

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