5 min read

I came to flying late in life. Busy with work and no one to act as a mentor, I didn’t seriously consider pursuing my dream of becoming a private pilot until retiring after 31 years in the fire service. A move from the hectic pace of South Florida to the laid back life on the Upper Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee, and coming to know Bill Williams, reignited my desire to learn how to fly.

View of TN

Learning to fly later in life does give you a new perspective.

Bill was in his late 70s when I met him. He still maintains certifications as a CFII and A&P/IA, and worked for years with Eastern Airlines, retiring as one of their most senior captains. Bill would assign me work in a basic handbook on flying, and when I thought I was ready he would come over to the house and quiz me on what I had been studying. I will always remember our first session. He sat across the kitchen table from me and asked a seemingly simple question: why do airplanes fly? After an hour of discussion about Bernoulli’s principle, drawing in my notebook (upside down so that I could read it as he was drawing!) to explain yaw, pitch and roll, P factor, angle of attack, and a myriad of other what (at the time were) baffling concepts, we moved on to other lessons.

After each lesson he would leave NTSB reports on fatal accidents, and I would be quizzed on those as well. By this time I was receiving flight instruction from Joey Fowler. Bill was very good and I continued for a time with him in the airplane, but he was an old school instructor (he kept telling me I was dragging my left wing, and with all of two or three hours in the airplane I had no idea what he was talking about.) Joey was a better fit for me. After many hours of one-on-one instruction and online study, I was ready to take my written exam. I didn’t think I was prepared to take the exam but passed with a score of 89. And after 15 hours of flight training I was allowed to solo.

I’m very fortunate to have an airport 15 minutes from my house, and even more fortunate to rent a beautiful Cessna 172 straight tail for $100/hour. I was flying every chance I had, checking off all the necessary boxes for prescribed maneuvers and cross country flights getting ready for my check ride. I knew I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me in aviation and often told people that if I had learned to fly when I was in my 20s I wouldn’t be here. A fair amount of wisdom and common sense does come with age. At 63 I was old enough to know what I didn’t know and young enough to still have good eye hand coordination and the mental faculties to keep it together in the airplane.

BasicMed was not available when I took my first flight physical, so I paid the money and passed the FAA Medical. However, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to one small admonition from the doctor. He told me I didn’t need to wear my reading glasses in the plane, but I needed to carry them with me. I use glasses to read, but my eyes are good enough that I can get by without them. That little detail almost led to a fatal accident. And after reading a lot of NTSB reports on fatal accidents, I realized that many of those accidents could have been avoided if the pilot had paid attention to the little details.


Those glasses can sometimes make a big difference.

Several months after my first solo, I was getting ready for a long cross-country flight. Joey checked my navigation notes and listened in as I filed my flight plan. He told me to call him when I was back on the ground at my home airport (2A1) and wished me luck. After a thorough pre-flight, I hopped in the airplane and back-taxied to take off on 36. As I reached takeoff speed and pulled back on the yoke, I immediately noticed my angle of attack was far too steep to sustain flight.

Although I only had 25 or 30 hours, I knew I was about to have a stall. I pushed forward hard on the yoke and started trimming the nose down as I listened to the stall warning horn. I didn’t have time to even think that I might die. I thought about it a lot afterward and still do!

That beautiful straight tail C-172 had been flown a lot over the years, and the paint on the trim wheel designating takeoff position was kind of hard to see. In fact, I couldn’t see it clearly even with my glasses on. I had them in the airplane, just like the doctor admonished me to, but they were in my flight bag on the back seat.

It’s forgetting the little details that get pilots in trouble. I always use a checklist, but now when I visually look at the trim wheel to make sure it’s in takeoff position I wear my glasses. It was a scary lesson. Realizing how unforgiving flying can be has made me a more careful and much better pilot.

Kit Howes
Latest posts by Kit Howes (see all)
27 replies
  1. Kim Hunter
    Kim Hunter says:

    A lot of departure accidents have occurred because the airplane was not fully configured for takeoff.

    Here is a simple method that has served me well. before taxiing, touch each instrument, each radio, each engine control and each airframe control. I start at the upper left side of the panel and verbalize as I touch (airspeed zero, attitude indicator erect, altimeter at field elevation……). Systematically work your way through every instrument and control (e.g. radio frequencies, mixture setting, fuel tank selector, trim setting – touch and verbalize. Even in complex airplanes it only takes a minute or so. Of course this approach would need to be modified for a full-up glass panel, but can still be applied.

    Yes, you’ll get some ribbing from your pilot friends, but some of mine have been converted.

    Best of luck in your flying career. You will never regret your decision.

    • Douglas Reichwein
      Douglas Reichwein says:

      Kim Hunter, what an excellent idea! Adding muscle memory to the pre-takeoff instrument scan. Thanks for the great tip. I will use it. It could prevent that one in a thousand oops.

    • Scott Powell
      Scott Powell says:

      Kim, that’s exactly what i do and I have caught things in the process. My multi-instructor chuckled when I did it before pulling out of the run up during each lesson, but it works!! Let them laugh if they want…I’m sold.

  2. Larry Baum
    Larry Baum says:

    Kit – always assume that the airplane is trimmed incorrectly for takeoff. Then you’re always ready – an oddly trimmed plane is no longer a surprise. Fly the plane – don’t let the plane fly you.

  3. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    …not all trim wheels are marked well or correctly. know where the trim tab (or stab) should be when properly trimmed for takeoff and make that part of your pre-flight tail check.

    mis-trim should not result in loss of control, but mis-loading (or load sliding aft) or mis-rigging can result in unrecoverable nose up to stall…the available window at rotation to survive that is brief…good job reacting to the unknown as worst case.

    • Kit
      Kit says:

      I always look at the position of the trim tab during pre-flight. A lot of pilots simply look to make sure all the nuts/bolts/pins are there, but feeling for tension in cables and actually moving control surfaces through full range of motion is something I now do.. Thanks for the comment Rich!

      • Shane
        Shane says:

        When I do my preflight walk around I raise the elevator to neutral and look to see where the trim tab lines up. It’s sometimes hard to see from the pilot’s seat and I don’t trust the trim setting indicator so while you still want to make any adjustment needed at least this should help avoid a gross trim error.

    • Kit
      Kit says:

      Mary, you are the person I hoped to reach with my article. I love the feedback from all who have replied that leads to learning for the aviation community. Thank you for your comment!

      • Mark T
        Mark T says:

        That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it Chief? You did the same for junior Firefighters and now you did it for a new Pilot. Great job!

  4. Douglas T
    Douglas T says:

    I have the same requirement for reading glasses, but about the only thing I need them for is reading a chart or the Ipad. I prop the glasses on the end of my nose so they are always there, and have a spare in my shirt or flight bag. But it seems the glasses were not the key takeaway for most commentators, and I agree. Preflight activities were suggested, and I would add, fix the trim marking. Good job recovering quickly where there is little time for hesitation.

  5. Mike H
    Mike H says:

    Most airplanes (including C172) with a fixed horizontal stabilizer should have the elevator trim tab set level or almost level with the elevator. Before the exterior inspection, set the elevator trim to the takeoff position with respect to the center of gravity. Inspect the trim tab during the walk-around. Very useful if the elevator trim indicator fails or is not readable.

  6. Chuck
    Chuck says:

    Kit, your article grabbed me right away as I pursued aviation post FD retirement as well. In the same boat with the reading glasses as you and just always wear them while flying. If you have not yet added your instrument rating you’ll appreciate the need for sure. Before I retired I found some safety sunglasses for work/training etc that have the magnifiers built in. Flying is So cool! Be safe brother

    • Carl
      Carl says:

      Sunglasses and even yellow tint safety glasses are easy to get with a range of reading strengths. I keep one pair on my face, with a glasses strap to reduce the chance of dropping them, and a spare pair in my flight bag [within reach] and a pair of regular readers in my pocket. I can read the Garmin PFD without them, but it’s easier to read charts and verify heading and altitude bugs with them. BTW, electric trim is much better when you need to retrim for a touch&go.

  7. Stan
    Stan says:

    I am a student pilot in an aged 172 which means the trim setting is visually worn a little and the marker doesn’t seem to align with the TAKEOFF position. I always verify the actual trim tab is flush or near flush to the elevator during preflight check. Question….Should the trim tab be flush with the elevator with the trim wheel set to takeoff position and is a neutral elevator the goal for takeoff?

  8. Monte
    Monte says:

    In addition to using a standard checklist, there is an added check that you may find useful. It can be performed at two different times and may prevent a serious take off incident or accident. Pilots I know refer to it as the “TFF” check. I mentally note the “TFF” check when I give flight checks even when I am not PIC.

    Action to set the trim and fuel for takeoff is best done when you first get in the aircraft. Before engine start or tuning into Advisories or calling Approach.

    Regardless, before going to take off power, confirm: TFF “trim, fuel, flaps” (the wrong setting during takeoff on any of these can kill).

    Flaps. Takeoff involving float, ski, short field or heavy aircraft are especially critical of flap settings and with electric flaps this means looking at the flaps, not just looking at the indicator on the panel. Don’t ask how I know.

    Fuel flow. (I.e. fuel may have been turned off on parking to prevent cross feed on a slope and although the selector is off, the aircraft usually starts, taxis and begins the takeoff roll quite well before the engine abruptly quits).

    Trim. Easy to set properly. But an attention getter if set improperly.

    Monte M.

  9. Juan Diez
    Juan Diez says:

    I am also perusing my private pilot license late in life and know how important is to have good reading glasses. I suggest and I use progressive lenses that allow you for far, Intermediate and near distances. In this way you can always wear your glasses and have and adequate vision at all distances.

    • Al W
      Al W says:

      That’s what I did (54 yrs old private pilot) and I also went with transitions lenses with blue filter to help with glare. They’re really helping. I told the optician that I need the reading pane kind of high so I don’t have to arch my neck back to see the upper panel instruments. That made a world of difference in my latest pair of glasses!

  10. John
    John says:

    The root problem is a poorly marked trim indicator; I’ve been in a few airplanes where it was almost impossible to tell where the trim was – even with good eyesight.! Why can’t the marker(s) be touched up with some bright-colored paint?

    • Rich R
      Rich R says:

      sometimes the position is no longer properly indexed because of maint actions (new cable, etc). yes, it “should” be indexed, but I would verify with your (or the airplane’s) mechanic to make sure the new mark is actually going in the right spot.

  11. mike pilot
    mike pilot says:

    I believe the requirement for basic med is to have held an FAA medical certificate previous (within last ten years maybe) so not sure what your reference was to basic med not being available yet.

    • William Buchanan
      William Buchanan says:

      Basic Med was only created and passed by Congress on July 15th of 2016. Prior to that, Basic Med was not an available option for Pilots.

  12. mike pilot
    mike pilot says:

    You must have a current valid driver’s license,
    You must have held a medical certificate that was valid at any time after July 15, 2006,
    You must not have had your most recent application for a medical denied,
    You must complete a physical exam with a physician — it does not have to be an Aviation Medical Examiner —every four years, and
    You must complete an online medical course every two years. Courses are offered by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and the Mayo Clinic.

  13. Robert
    Robert says:

    Great save !! But on the walk around I level the elevator and see where the trim tab is and when I get in the aircraft I look back at the elevator while I pull back on the yoke and when it’s level I acknowledge the Poisson of the tab and visually make adjustments to level or slight nose up maybe half turn and cross referencing the mark on the wheel housing to make sure they correspond correctly and yes I started wearing reading glasses which take some getting used to so I have the sun glasses with the close up reading part on the bottom of the glasses and I also bring two pairs with me in the right pocket and I do the left to right sweep of the instruments and flight controls touching each one and talking out loud of each one making sure everything is in its proper position
    I fly a 172rg
    Don’t let anybody rush you don’t forget a sterile cockpit during starting, taxi, and takeoff to a safe altitude
    Happy flying everyone


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