Cherokee 180

From time-to-time over the years, usually late at night when everyone else in the house was asleep, I’d pull my old canvas flight bag out of a closet. I’d sit at my desk, open my logbook, and stare at the last entry.

Dated October 21, 2001, the entry recorded a flight from Murfreesboro Municipal (MBT) to Guntersville, AL (8A1) in my friend and instructor Jim Wilbert’s PA24-250. I’d met Jim a couple of years earlier when he was looking for a writer to collaborate with on a project. We’d become good friends and business partners and I’d fallen in love with his Comanche 250. Months earlier, he’d signed me off on a Flight Review and written my endorsement in High Performance/Complex aircraft. It was one of my proudest moments as a pilot.

Not once during one of those nights did it occur to me that it would be over 19 years before my next logbook entry would be recorded.

Why had I quit flying?

I don’t think I ever meant to. It’s not that I lost interest. I’d kept my AOPA membership current ever since I first joined as a student pilot in 1986. There’s an AOPA sticker in the back window of my car. I was proud to be a pilot, but as the years went by, I talked about it less and less.

I began my primary flight training after leaving corporate life in the mid-eighties. I started publishing crime novels and writing screenplays, bringing in a decent—if sporadic—income. I had a flexible schedule. I was single then, debt-free, and in my early thirties. I’d had a lifelong dream of flying and just decided to go for it.

Cherokee 180

Buying into a Cherokee 180 partnership was a dream come true, but it didn’t last.

I started out on the Piper PA-38, the unfairly maligned Traumahawk, then transitioned to the 152 and 172. In 1987, I had the chance to buy into a partnership with two other guys and became the proud co-owner of a 1968 Cherokee 180. A year or so later, we hit TBO and couldn’t afford the overhaul, so we sold it. While we had it though, I built some good time and it was a great experience.

Later, life got in the way. Divorce and remarriage… Becoming a parent for the first time at 48, then again at 51… Having to give up freelancing for a full-time teaching job… I had a family now and responsibilities. Teaching doesn’t pay well, but it does pay regularly and it came with health insurance. Unfortunately, it also deprived me of the two essential components any pilot needs to fly: time and money.

Then my business partner, friend, and flying mentor, Jim Wilbert, contracted small cell carcinoma of the lung early one spring and was gone by Thanksgiving. This was a hard loss. Jim had over 25,000 hours and was rated to fly everything but the Space Shuttle. He was also one of the funniest people I ever met. After he regaled me with some of his adventures as a younger pilot, I told him he was the only guy I’d ever met who had type ratings in the Mile-High Club. I miss him to this day.

The years seemed to fly by. Teaching and family responsibilities were all-consuming. I barely had time to miss flying, let alone contemplate doing it again.

In 2015, while sitting at my desk one night grading papers, I had a heart attack. A quintuple bypass followed, then a long and painful recovery. It got my attention, though, and I realized if I ever wanted to fly again, I needed to get started. None of us know how much time we have left.

In June, 2018, I got serious. The first hurdle was getting my long-expired Third Class Medical back. Dr. Bruce Hollinger, our local AME, worked with me endlessly and patiently. My cardiologist, Dr. Mark Goldfarb, was patient and supportive as well. There were stress tests, evaluations, and a long list of forms for the FAA. Both doctors filled out more paperwork than I’d ever seen and didn’t charge me a penny for it.

Finally, after going back and forth with Oklahoma City for months, my Third Class Medical was reissued in November, 2018. The FAA, however, backdated the certificate from the date I applied for it, not the date it was approved.

After all that, I had not quite seven months left to get back in the air.

Two months later, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. What followed was a year of grueling chemotherapy. Once again, flying went on the back burner until I worked through the medical issues.

In January, 2020—after being declared cancer-free a month earlier—the college where I’d been teaching for 25 years announced it was closing, like so many other small private colleges in the last decade. I was suddenly thrown back into the flexible schedule of self-employment. Money was tight, but not as tight as it had been. I decided it was time to take one last shot. It looked like an uphill climb, though.

I had two things going for me. I’d been involved with AOPA’s Rusty Pilot program for years. I’d taken a series of Rusty Pilot webinars and completed a bunch of online courses from the AOPA Air Safety Institute. This is a great place for anyone to start.

By far, though, my biggest worry was the Third Class Medical. Did I have it in me to go through that again? I called AOPA and was directed to a Medical Certification Specialist, who thought I qualified under BasicMed. I started gathering information and compiling paperwork for my primary care provider, who was not familiar with BasicMed and seemed a little tentative at first.

Medical exam

The hardest part of getting airborne again is often the medical—but BasicMed makes it easier.

The oncologist who saved my life, though—Dr. Karl Rogers—is an experienced pilot. During my treatment, we occasionally hangar flew in his offices. He was incredibly supportive and worked with my primary care doctor to get it done. I took the online course, completed the paperwork and procedures, and became medically qualified to fly.

Now all I had to do was learn how to fly again. The only question was: how?

Then I got lucky. I found a flight school based in Smyrna, Tennessee (MQY). I got a good feeling from the school’s name—Flying High Again—and from the fact they were located in the same hangar where I’d taken my primary training 35 years earlier. I got an even better feeling after talking to the company owner, Sean Amos. I told Sean I was probably the rustiest pilot he’d ever seen. He was understanding and supportive and recommended that I take ground school again. Much has changed in nearly twenty years, he said. Ground school was a chunk of change—about the equivalent cost of four hours of dual—but I took his advice and signed up.

It was the smartest flying decision I ever made.

Ground school was taught by Flying High Again’s chief pilot, Aysha Harward, a CFI, CFII, MEI and former Dash 80 first officer for Horizon Airlines. After one conversation, I knew I wanted her as my flight instructor. I needed someone patient and nurturing, but exacting as well.

In Flying High Again, I not only found a group of great instructors and pilots, but a welcoming and supporting community of people who all simply loved aviation. In short order, I felt like I’d become a part of this community. With Sean and Aysha, I felt like I’d found friends.

So what’s changed in the nearly two decades since I’d been in the left seat? How hard was it to come back?

Every pilot’s experience will be different. No two journeys are the same. For me, though, there were a couple of surprises. The first time Aysha and I went up in one of Flying High Again’s Cessna 172s, I marveled at the fact that basic stick-and-rudder skills were still there. I got the airplane off the ground, held altitude and heading (more or less), and got it back on the ground without hurting anyone and the plane could still be flown the next day.

What was hard? The instrument panel. The last 172 I flew had a six-pack of old steampunk analog gauges. I’d never seen a Garmin G5 EFIS, a Garmin 340 audio panel, or most baffling of all, the Garmin GNS 430. I was lost and confused.

I downloaded user manuals, studied and highlighted them, and sat through hours of tutorial videos on YouTube. Finally, it started to sink in.

The second biggest challenge was the nature of the airspace and the volume of traffic. When I took my primary flight training in the mid-eighties out of MQY, the Smyrna airport was a slow-paced, almost backwater operation. I remember it as a non-controlled airport, although it may have had a part-time tower.

Hangar flying

For a rusty pilot, finding your tribe is as important as finding your landing touch.

Now MQY is one of the busiest private airports in the nation. On my one-hour drive from West Nashville to Smyrna, I’d pipe the Smyrna tower into my car with the LiveATC app. The closer I got, the higher my anxiety levels rose. During dual instruction with Aysha, we’d find ourselves fourth or fifth in line to take off or land. The amount of chatter over the headset was jarring and disconcerting. I got so rattled once I forgot the phonetic alphabet in the middle of a transmission. Just went completely blank…

Legally, all I needed was a medical and a flight review, which requires an hour of ground and an hour of dual instruction. In the end, I took somewhere around 26 hours of formal ground instruction (not including home study, which I didn’t even keep track of) and 9.7 hours of dual. When we landed the last time and taxied off 32 in Smyrna, Aysha smiled and said “Congratulations.”

So what’s next? I’m still not confident enough to fly passengers. That’s going to take a lot more time. Even when I was flying regularly, I’d been a cautious pilot, always believing the flying adage about old, bold pilots. I’m not going to take chances with anyone else.

I’m still on a budget, so don’t have a ton of cash to just build time. I thought my best bet was to take more dual, maybe earn another endorsement. I’d always wanted to fly taildraggers, so signed on with Ron Dillard at Advanced Tailwheel Training out of Lebanon Municipal airport (M54). I went from flying an IFR-certified 172 with a glass cockpit to a 1974 Bellanca Citabria that’s got about four instruments.

My struggle to fly again and the challenges of the last few years remind me of my favorite Winston Churchill quote: When you’re going through hell, keep going.

But the Churchill quote that speaks most powerfully to me is one that all rusty pilots should hear: Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…

This is what I want to say to my fellow rusty pilots. If I can get back in the left seat, anyone can. So get out there, find your tribe, and do it.

Latest posts by Steven Womack (see all)
33 replies
  1. Kim Hunter
    Kim Hunter says:

    Mr. Womack,

    This is a great story!

    I was told, when I was a kid, “you can have a long run as a pilot if you obey four rules: 1) don’t hit anything; 2) don’t loose control; 3) don’t run the tanks dry; 4) don’t give up.”

    The first three fall under judgement and technique. The last speaks directly to personal qualities. Not one in a thousand prospective pilots soldiered through the adversities you did without giving up. I’m proud of you sir and I have every confidence you will make a superb pilot.

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      Thank you so much, Kim. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kind words. I’m always astounded at how encouraging and supportive the aviation community is. I’m grateful.

      Reply
  2. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. I haven’t flown as a pilot since my ‘fini’ flight in the Air Force in August of 1989. You have inspired me to dig out my flight records, dust them off and get some rust off my wings too!

    Reply
  3. Paul
    Paul says:

    I too have gotten back in after 30 + years and can relate. Getting the Third class medical was not a challenge, however the new rules and equipment are. The Cirrus SR20 is intimidating at times and I often have asked myself is this something I really want to do? After reading your story my answer is YES!

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      Good luck, Paul! There are lots of challenges for pilots returning after a long absence. But each one can be met. Just keep going!

      Reply
  4. Dan
    Dan says:

    I think a really important element in your story is that of community. Until you’re comfortable taking passengers up, it can be a lonely, solo activity. The community e”piece you describe is so important. I found it by joining a flying club when I was ready to scrape 15 years of rust off a few years ago, and getting to a point where I felt proficient to take members of my family up. Best of luck continuing to improve your proficiency Steven!

    Reply
  5. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Congrats on your determination, I’ve always made other people (not me) tell me “no” and then worked to prove them wrong.

    Aviation as a community is not a cliche when you either find (or make) a friend who flies. How many GA airplanes take off with an empty right seat? How many pilots would appreciate gas money? Go to the airport where you have connections or to a small airport, get to know the group (via local CFI, EAA, flying club intros or just showing up at a welcoming hangar crowd, complimenting them on their airplane). Then ask if you provided (FAA approved share) gas money would they let you join them in the right seat sometime. If you don’t scare them, my bet would be on “let’s go!”. You’ll probably get a fair bit of stick time, and time to absorb all those things that may feel a little foreign since you last flew.

    Flying isn’t all or nothing and everything is rarely perfect. so don’t overlook opportunities to get back up there whatever the path! Good luck!

    Reply
  6. Steve Hope
    Steve Hope says:

    Steven, What a great example of the powerful attraction of aviation and the wonderful community of aviators. I was never a rusty pilot, I was a long time non-pilot aspiring to be a pilot. Since watching planes takeoff and land while eating Sunday lunch as a boy at the Dogwood Room atop the old Charlotte Douglas Airport, I’d wanted to fly but figured it was too hard for me, and a busy career and family life were also big impediments. Finally at 70 as my career began winding down I had the same “now or never” thoughts as you. I’m now 74 with my PPL, Instrument Rating and just passed my Commercial. Next week I’m hoping to close on a used SR22. I’ve got a granddaughter in Nashville I’m planning to visit a lot. Maybe we can fly together. Steve

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      Steve, you’re story’s really inspiring. I’m just a few years behind you, but one thing I’ve learned is that as long as we keep ourselves in some kind of shape, we can do this! Thanks so much!

      Reply
  7. Emory
    Emory says:

    Wonderful story, and congrats on both your perseverance and accomplishments!

    I can really relate to this journey. Started flying at 13 (paid for by washing dishes in nursing home, delivering papers, etc), soloed on 16th, went on to get CFII. I was in and out of flying over the years, but ultimately time, money and kidney stones kept me away for 20 years. Just retired, and realized how much I missed flying, and have several hours of dual under my belt now as I await to see if I can work through getting a 3rd class medical!

    As a teenager learning to fly, I really had safety drilled into me. At 63, it’s great to be up again, but like you, struggling a bit with the upgrades in avionics, “knobology”, etc. I’m attending lots of safety webinars, which are great, and just taking it one step at a time. Lots of rust to remove, and new procedures (eg iPad/ForeFlight) to learn, although the basics came right back…. Again congrats, and same to the many others on this rust removal journey!

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      Thanks, Emory! And I love your analogy of rust removal :-) That’s really what it is. And it takes time and effort, but somewhere beneath all that rust, there’s a shine!

      Reply
  8. Robert Luppino
    Robert Luppino says:

    Steve, I too enjoyed your article and found many similarities in my quest to become current after a 42 year lapse from flying. Job changes, relocation and losing my network of flying buddies caused me to stop flying. After my wife of 52 years passed away in 2018, I found myself lonely and looked for something to do. Then it hit me, I lost the love of my life now maybe I can rekindle that old love I had, Flying. In the late 70’s I had the opportunity to ferry Cessna aircraft from their plant in Kansas back to Chicago. It was exciting since you never knew what avionics would be in the airplane, if any. Normally you had the basic six pack, a compass and a sectional, no radios, and the knowledge Chicago was northeast of the plant in Kansas. Imagine my surprise when I first got back into the cockpit after 42 years. What’s this GPS thing? So I keep this little airplane on the magenta line However, one thing has not changed. The love of flying. Good luck to you fellow rusty pilot.

    Reply
  9. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Enjoyed your story. I have always been fascinated by aviation from a youngster. Finally got my license at age 62 with the help of my older CFI brother. I fly little, but enjoy being part of a flying club and the local EAA Chapter. Now at age 75 with still reasonable health I fly with another pilot to share the fun. Enjoy flight!

    Reply
  10. Jacqueline Talley-Sickles
    Jacqueline Talley-Sickles says:

    WOW! You are totally amazing. I love that two of my favorite quotes are also mentioned in your story. You give us so much desire to get busy and back in the air. After loosing my Husband to cancer in 2015 I couldn’t bring myself to go to our Hangar for nearly two years. Thank you for reminding me I can do this!!
    I appreciate your story more than you know.
    Best regards

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      You can do it, Jacqueline! And I am very sorry for your loss. Maybe flying again will give you some comfort and peace and the reliving of fond memories…

      Reply
  11. Kim Damazo
    Kim Damazo says:

    Thanks for the great read. Life is certainly a journey and you have clearly endured serious bumps. Getting comfortable in a “conventional” airplane has lead to some of the most enjoyable flying I’ve done. I hope it is similar for you.

    Reply
  12. Julio Hernandez
    Julio Hernandez says:

    Thank you Steven. You have inspired me when I needed it the most. So many parallels in our stories. I last flew in 1983. Life happened with marriage, chidren, divorce, a stroke etc etc. Still belong to AOPA, follow aviation websites FB sites etc. Went to several Rusty Piliot program events. Never made the choice to go for it. Then, one day, a friend, new to flying and training for his PPL, who looked at me in the eye and asked me: what is preventing you from getting back to flying again? Realized I was full of excuses. For the past 7 months I have been having tests, medical visits, multiple AME visits, evaluations and medical assesments done. Now I am waiting for the FAA’s decision for my 3rd class medical special issuance. I am doing an online ground school. At 65 y/o ready to start flying again. I sometimes get discouraged, but like my AME said, “remember, it’s a process”. Your article encourages me. Thank you for that.

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      Julio, I so get where you’re coming from. The similarities are amazing. Even now, I’m struggling to not get discouraged and continue on with the process. I’ve also had some recent financial considerations that have limited my flying, but I’m not giving up. We limp on, one step at a time, until we finally get where we want to be…

      Reply
  13. Mike
    Mike says:

    Great story, Steven! I’m building a RANS S-19 and I have been away from flying as PIC for 20+ years. At some point in the not-too-distant future I will be spending a lot of time getting current again. Your story gives me inspiration! Thanks!

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      You’re building a plane? Wow, you have a lot more patience than I have :-) The best of luck to you and I hope it becomes a wonderful experience for you.

      Reply
  14. Mark Tyrrell
    Mark Tyrrell says:

    What a great story, and it came at a great time for me. I began my pilot training in 2005, but life changes and finances required a change in plans. Now, 16 years later at the age of 56, I’m picking up where I left off. Occasionally, I find myself bitter about the lost years that I wished I could have spent flying, but you know what? It’s going to happen, and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.

    Thanks for a great story, Steve, and the inspiration it provides!

    Reply
  15. Duane Mader
    Duane Mader says:

    If I didn’t fly for a living I couldn’t afford it. I wish we lived closer to each other so you could ride along on some day trips in the CitationJet, always good to hear fresh life stories from an interesting and courageous person.

    Reply
    • Steven Womack
      Steven Womack says:

      Duane, I would love that. But I’d mostly be a passenger, even in the right seat. A Citation is way out of my wheelhouse…

      Reply
  16. Gerry Jurrens N2GJ
    Gerry Jurrens N2GJ says:

    Dear Steve,

    What an inspirational tale you shared with us. Thank you! I earned my PPL back in the early 1970s in a 150. My friend, Art, and I shared a love for amateur radio and flying his IFR-equipped AA-1 Yankee (N5677L). He built time towards an ATP rating and I acquired a ton of experience in the right seat.

    Like so many others, my marriage, fatherhood, and lousy teacher’s salary kept me away from the airport. I maintained my AOPA membership and, fortunately, enjoyed good health (blessed at 73 to qualify for BasicMed). Like others, I suffered the loss of my beloved wife, Connie, to a massive brain tumor (in 2013) but found love again and remarried in 2018 to a woman (Susanne) who has encouraged me to get back in the air. My first dual came while we were vacationing in Myrtle Beach, SC. KMYR was the first towered field I had ever had dual instruction in! Returning to our home in ABQ, I connected with David N5CFI, a fellow ham, who has the distinction of being the best instructor I’ve ever had. KAEG is a great place to relearn skills. Best of all, he’s not chain-smoking cigarettes in the tight confines of a 150 during the 40 hours I needed to log for my PPL.

    Steve, I’m delighted to read that you are healthy again, I’m not sure I would have had the fortitude to persevere as you did. More than anything I’ve ever done, flying an airplane is the most difficult. There are so many things we have to know. At my age, memorization is my toughest challenge. AOPA’s online aids are incredibly helpful. So is intense note-taking! How many of the readers here can say they only have less than a couple of hundred hours logged over almost half a century?! I’m not sure I even qualify as a “Rusty Pilot” as I have so much to learn from scratch. But I’m hopeful and committed to begin again.

    Your beautiful words and the exceptional comments here renew my resolve. Susanne’s encouragement has given me permission to begin again.

    Reply
  17. Steven Womack
    Steven Womack says:

    Gerry, what is it about flying and ham radio that the two seem to go together? I’ve been WB4DDL since 1965 :-)

    And I’m so glad to hear you’re coming back to the cockpit. You know, when you’ve got the fire in your belly, it never completely goes out. Good luck!

    Reply
  18. Phil McGowan
    Phil McGowan says:

    Thanks for this Steve, it’s really encouraging to read about other people’s struggles to get back in the air.

    I’m not anywhere near as rusty as you were though I’ve had to pause training for months just at the end (.5 solo, 1 hour sim instrument, & the checkride left) because of my work schedule. It’s surprising to me how stressful it is knowing I’m so close to earning my certificate but just haven’t yet.

    Stories like this remind me that it’s always possible to finish and that others also sometimes struggle to find the time to do it all.

    Flying is amazing but it sure does take a big commitment to do well and to do safely.

    Best of luck with your continued training and flying days!

    Reply

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