Smith

The Covid pandemic at least had one positive outcome for me: achieving my Private Pilot license. I have always wanted to share my journey and offer some lessons learned and tips for those that are either learning how to fly or are considering it—especially if you are 55 years of age or older.

Smith

Learning to fly later in life is fun and rewarding if you approach it with the right mindset.

Where did my love of flying begin? Both my father and mother took flying lessons from a flight instructor, Joseph Susi (now deceased). He moved into our home as a boarder, my parents divorced, and my mother married the CFI. My dad did get his Private Pilot license and my mom only soloed.

Many times as a teenager I would hang around the airport watching the general aviation planes come and go. In my early 20s, Joe (my stepfather) would take me up and give me some lessons in a Cessna 150—I would pay for the fuel. Eventually, college and career got in the way and flying lessons stopped.

Fast forward 40 years later, and here I was in Covid 2020—working from home and growing bored with flying in X-Plane, a computer-based simulator. I started my flight instruction at a flight school at a Class D airport and quickly learned that while air traffic control offers some great radio practice, you do pay for the time the propeller is spinning and you can waste a lot of time on the taxiway or just holding short while the meter is running (Hobbs).

I decided to make a change to a closer flight school that was a non-towered airport. In contacting the school, I requested a flight instructor closer to my age (60s) and was offered the chief flight instructor. During our introductory flight I told him the story above regarding my parents and then he said, “oh, he taught me how to fly.” So, imagine that: I was now taking flying lessons from a CFI who had lessons from my stepfather!

Here are some tips and lessons learned if you are just now starting your journey to Private Pilot.

If you are over 55, understand that it helps if you are in pretty good physical shape. There will be times you may have to climb up on a high wing aircraft like a Cessna 172 to check the fuel in the tanks or add fuel to the tanks. You will most likely have to pull the plane out of a hangar or parking as well as put it back. Spend some time lifting some weights and do some aerobic exercise (I walk three miles a day and do lift weights three days a week).

Choose your headset carefully and don’t cheap it out. I made the mistake of not getting a headset with Bluetooth and when I wanted to use ForeFlight on my iPad, I couldn’t hear alerts from the ADS-B—“Traffic 1,000 feet below.” I now use Bose A20 with Bluetooth.

Understand that early during training words like “spins,” “stalls,” and “steep turns” may scare you half to death—they did me. There is a wonderful feeling in facing your fears and coming out of it with accomplishment. In the end, none of those words will scare you and you will look back and say, “it really wasn’t that bad.”

These maneuvers–along with others–will be required for you to perform during your check ride. I found that often these are taught early on during your instruction and then again at the end. Ask your instructor to include them along your journey so that when checkride time comes, you are not trying to get used to them again.

During my long three-hour required solo flight in the heat of summer, I learned that the heat convection off the surface of the earth made it bumpy, as well as the missing 200 pounds of my CFI. Understand that as the weight of the plane gets less, you will more likely feel the bumps in the air. You’ll get used to it and not even think about it over time.

Check to be sure that your flight school will allow you to fly beyond the required solo hours–my first flight school did not, second school did.

Over trees

Don’t forget to enjoy the view once in awhile—even if it means you fly beyond your required solo hours.

Of all the repetitive things you will do, landings are always different and don’t expect to land like a passenger jet. Spend time on working on the stabilized approach and remember that airspeed is your life! Never shy away from going around. Never think that going around makes you a failure; it makes you a very safe and smart pilot.

Be aware of a tailwind that may push you past making the turn to final, which might tempt you to make a steep turn from base to final at low airspeed. This can put the plane in a stalling situation and spin, which can result in death–go around!

I video recorded my lessons (with my CFI’s approval) using a GoPro Hero 8 with an Audio Adapter Cable (so I could capture headset and radio communication). It was helpful to go back and watch and listen.

While you may like strapping an iPad to your thigh as a student pilot (using something like ForeFlight), you’ll find that when you are flying solo either as a student or a Private Pilot, the looking up and down motion can initiate disorientation. I now use the new iPad mini (more screen real-estate) and a suction mount to place it on the left side windshield. I tried using an iPad Pro 11” (too big) and an iPhone Pro Max (screen too small).

As your lessons begin you may be thinking, I should get a flight bag to carry my headset. Don’t make the mistake that I did and buy just some little bag—soon you’ll find out it’s too small. So now as a Private Pilot, what all is in my bag?

  • Headset, logbook, sunglasses case (be sure to NOT use polarized sunglasses if you want to see some avionics like the GPS screen).
  • Cloth for cleaning the windshield (I hate bug splats), cameras, mounts, audio adapter cable, Sentry ADS-B, battery pack, leg strap for writing pad, sectional chart, E6B calculator (although I use an app for that on my iPhone).
  • A place for my iPad and extra cables for charging.

Now finally, I would like to inform you that if you think it’s all about just sitting in the left seat next to your CFI to accomplish the requirements to Private Pilot, you will fail. Below are some tips on what you need to do in addition to just getting up in the air with your CFI. The following is a list of what I used to pass both the Knowledge Test and my checkride:

  • Online ground school from Kings Schools. Their format and testing of knowledge as well as sample tests are great. I got an 88% on my test
  • Books: when possible, I used the Apple Books app to study in a digital format as it helps to mark pages, lookup words and phrases, and is easy to read during down time. The follow are the books I used:
    • POH for the airplane used for lessons and checkride
    • Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge
    • Airplane Flying Handbook
    • Private Pilot Oral Exam Guide
    • 2021 FAR/AIM – there is also a great app for iOS for this
    • Pass Your Private Pilot Checkride by Jason Schappert (both PDF and audio book)
    • Practice flights using a computer-based simulator like X-Plane or Microsoft Flight Simulator.
    • Take advantage of free tools like YouTube, AOPA, FAA hosted webinars and alerts.

Now I am working on my Instrument Rating so that I can be a safer and more knowledgeable pilot.

David Smith
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21 replies
  1. Adam Schneider
    Adam Schneider says:

    I would add, as one who started the journey at age 49, the book studies are quite a bit harder than when I was younger. Plus work, family, and life balance can be a struggle. But it’s all worth it.

    Reply
  2. Ken Kueny
    Ken Kueny says:

    Wow. Almost the exact same story, right down to the gear recommendations. Except, no flying in my family tree. I have controlled diabetes, but there are no hard criteria for Class III medical pass or fail. Not going to take that chance and never get to fly. Fortunately, the local airport has a large fleet of LSAs. So, I was able to go the SPL route.

    Reply
    • David Smith
      David Smith says:

      Thanks Ken for commenting. Small world huh? I just bought a wing tie down camera mount for my second GoPro Hero 8 and a GoPro remote so I can control that camera remotely – including turning it on and off from the remote so I don’t waste battery life. I have a YouTube Channel if you want to look: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCljIQlqwskQ9eJ_WpcIaoRQ
      This week I get to have a JetBlu Pilot fly with me as he is in our flying club – want some tips on landings and pattern entry, etc. Should be fun!

      Reply
  3. Mike Vander Loop
    Mike Vander Loop says:

    Very-well done. Thank you. As I contemplate a mid-50’s number of candles on my next birthday cake, the article addressed a majority of personal concerns I’ve had about returning to the cockpit. It offered many relevant perspectives on how I might best attract, maintain, and retain the passion I have for general aviation.

    Reply
  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    I’m a retired Air Force and airline pilot. BUT, I retired back in 2002 and I have forgotten just about everything connected to GA. A buddy of mine has a really nice plane and has given me several rides. The stick and rudder part is just fine, but the knowledge of air spaces and ATC communications is lacking. In the airlines your dispatcher did all the flight planning and other things so all you have to do is plug it in the airplanes computer. So you tend to forget all about filing flight plans, weight and balance and other things as it is all done for you. All you really do is fly the plane (or manage the autopilot) and talk to ATC when they transfer you to another sector. For me to get a single engine rating on my ticket I guess I have to pass a few tests and fly a check ride. I picked up a FAA AIM and realized I have some studying to do and at my age things don’t stick very well. I set myself up with a good home flight simulator (X-plane 11) with good controllers and this is helping out a lot.

    Reply
  5. Dave K
    Dave K says:

    I started late’ish, at 42, in Fresno. Got the SE/ME CPL/IR in 3 months. full-time, then took over 12 months to get the UK licences. Slower, more intensive and expensive, and very demanding. First job at 45 (Fokker F-27), then A320 at 48, A330 at 49. Finished at 65. Age didn’t stop me studying, getting through those pesky recurrent checks, and I was fortunate with medicals.
    Those tips from David Smith are all valuable. I would just add to his advice one key point. If you cannot get along with an instructor (you may have a few along the way), let him/her know that once you are in the crew room, And suggest a swap. It is not an easy thing to do, but not all teachers suit all pupils. Remember school. I changed my instructor just before my UK instrument ride, and it was the best thing I could have done. And he bore me no grudge.

    Reply
  6. Vince Massimini
    Vince Massimini says:

    David: A nice article. I do a lot of instruction for older folks here in MD, and I’d add that expectations are important. Older folks simply do not pick up things as fast as younger folks. If you are pushing 60, don’t expect a private certificate in anywhere close to 40 hours nor a sport certificate in anything like 20 hours. But, go for it anyway. Best for 2022.

    Vince

    Reply
    • David Smith
      David Smith says:

      Thanks Vince, I will say that my CFI commented that when he compared how I studied and was prepared at each lesson and for check ride, I was much more prepared at each lesson and check ride because those of us over 55 and have college degrees knows what is required to prepare, he said some younger students believe it’s all about the 1-2 hours of flying only. I will say that being under part 14 CFR I took my time, and yes – we probably closer to 60 hours when I went for my check ride. For me it wasn’t a race, it was waiting until both I and my CFI felt I was ready to sit for the check ride.

      Reply
  7. Art Sonneborn
    Art Sonneborn says:

    David,
    I really appreciate your taking time to write a nice concise and to the point article about your experiences. I started training at 65 and wanted to learn since I was eleven. I had a couple of wonderful experiences then in two C172s one in the back seat when my best friend’s father gave flight instruction and another getting to fly with my father and I as passengers to Cape Canaveral for a tour. School and raising children made anything as consuming as learning to fly out of the question and after starting the training it was even more obvious that it had been the best idea to wait. It would have been a tough nut for me at even at 20 but I got (after a couple tries) the perfect instructor for my personality, age and attention span. It took a little longer than I expected but it was all about my gaining confidence, after so long away from school and at my age that I had what it took. My instructor made all the difference here and something that so many say and that is don’t be afraid to look for the best instructor for you. She made each lesson to be framed as “look what we learned today” not how much we need to learn or should have done better.
    Anyway, I’m now a private pilot (also just starting instrument training with online ground school) and it feels incredible to have achieved it and be able to get out there and fly for the sheer joy of it. We all can do and can achieve much more than we often give ourselves credit for.

    Thanks again and all the best !

    Art

    Reply
  8. David Costa
    David Costa says:

    Congratulations on your achievement! The passions that we have when we are young are often buried in our responsibilities as we get older. There is no greater joy than seeing someone who has that passion to continue pursuing a dream despite the timeline and despite the challenges. Outstanding article!

    Reply
  9. Dick Williams
    Dick Williams says:

    While in graduate school in the 1960’s I accompanied a fellow grad student friend to Horton Aviation in Morrisville, PA. My friend, already a CFI, was bound for a career in aviation flying for TWA and wanted to see if Horton Aviation could use him as a CFI while he was building time. They could not, but before we left that day I had taken my introductory flight in a nice new Piper Cherokee 140 and was hooked.

    My training bogged down at Horton Aviation because I was training with whichever CFI was available, not with a single CFI and there was a lot of repetition.

    After switching to a university flying club and a dedicated CFI the training went considerably smoother. I received my PPSEL in a Cessna 150 in 1967 at age 26. There are anecdotes to tell about that experience, but I’ll stick to my main story.

    Shortly thereafter I left academia, married the love of my life, and started a career and family.

    As happened with many of you reading this, balancing all of this became problematic and I gave up flying in 1971. During that short flying interval I had the pleasure of flying Cessna 150’s and 172’s, Piper Cherokee 140’s and a 235, and a Beech Musketeer.

    Fast forward to 2009, career over, family raised, I found myself a widower at age 68 and decided to reconnect with flying to take my mind off of my loss. I took an AOPA “Rusty Pilot’s” course, passed a fight physical and got checked out to fly again in a 150 sitting next to an airline pilot/CFI. I was ready to fly solo again when after 10 hours he said “that I wasn’t scaring him as much as when we began the check out procedure”.

    To complement the practical part of the check out I took several refresher classes at a local community college (basic navigation, advanced navigation, basic meteorology, advanced meteorology, instrument ground school and commercial ground school. I was able to take these classes free as a senior citizen, and participated fully with the other (considerably younger) students.

    After flying with a flying club for several years I decided to buy an airplane. Initially I was thinking it would be a Mooney, and I looked at several before deciding that I should be looking at a plane that is more befitting my age (i.e., something easier to get in and out of). I found a very nice low-time 1977 Cessna 182-Q nearby and was able to purchase it at age 75.

    When I turned 80 this past June I was invited to join a select group of pilots, those who have flown as PIC after age 80. While I am a novice compared to most of these pilots, becoming a UFO (United Flying Octogenarians) is the peak of my flying experience. I’m not sure how much longer I may be able to fly, but it’s been an exciting and fun retirement activity.

    Reply
    • Art Sonneborn
      Art Sonneborn says:

      Dick,
      A great story and something to be proud of to be sure. I admire you since turning into an easy chair is too easy to do and something that I personally wanted to avoid. Your story about going to school with much younger folks, hits home in particular. Almost all of the students in this area (Battle Creek Michigan) are from the Western Michigan University School of Aviation and are in their twenties.

      Art

      Reply
    • Larry Lantz
      Larry Lantz says:

      Congratulations on your accomplishments after an age that most would give up and not try! I am finally starting my ground school this weekend. I just turned 71. I have been waiting on my medical results since March 2021. COVID and “working from home” is the excuse for the big delay here in Ontario, Canada. Sometimes I think I am being foolish in starting so late but I know if I wait, I will regret that choice.

      Maybe someday, I too can be a UFO (United Flying Octogenarian)?

      Reply
  10. Airplane Larry
    Airplane Larry says:

    Great story David. I started the week I turned 62 and finished a couple of months after turning 65. Think I wound up flying with about 12 different instructors. Thankfully I was blessed to find CFIs who knew how to work with older and slower students. Bought a Grumman Tiger about a year later and still flying almost 12 years later. You made a lot of good recommendations for us older pilots that other older students should follow. Hope you can continue flying for a lot more years.

    Reply
  11. Paul
    Paul says:

    One more encouragement from an older rookie. I started at 58 and took 15 months (and 2 X 40 hours) to get my ticket. I bought a RV9A five months later and have flown 200 hours per year in the two years since. I love it and hope to fly for another 30. Old pilots fly on silvered wings!

    Reply
  12. Frank
    Frank says:

    Appreciate the perspective of the older student pilot, as many of us don’t find the time or money until later in life.
    I completed my private 20 months ago at the outbreak of the Covid pandemic (mask on during Checkride) at age 56. I would add that while everything takes me a little longer with training, that the following seems to help me the most: love of flying; patience along with persistence/discipline; and I would echo staying in good physical shape. I have started into my instrument training with some trepidation (as I hear it is the most difficult rating). In this time around I will complete my written test first; use a home simulator, fly my own plane, and read the ACS before getting a CFII.

    Reply
  13. David Mountain
    David Mountain says:

    Great story. I am Canadian and received my USA and Canadian Private Pilots Licenses at age 72 …… its never too late. The study part was a little more difficult than when I was younger but it was well worth it. I’m still only a 300 hour pilot but now have a 2008 T182T which gives me more flexibility. Much of my training was in the busy Delta airspace KAPF and the experience with these very helpful Controllers has been invaluable. Happy New Year!

    Reply
  14. Lindsay Petre
    Lindsay Petre says:

    I totally relate to this. I began flight training at 58 on a whim, with no aviation in the family. Yes, it took waaay longer than for most younger people, but i accomplished private ratings in single engine land, sea, and helicopter, plus tailwheel and high performance endorsements and a bunch of aerobatics and bought my own plane (C152). I guess you could say I got hooked.

    Reply
  15. Bill Hodges
    Bill Hodges says:

    David,

    Like you I grew up with a fascination for flying. As a youngster I would bicycle to Beaumont Municipal in Texas to bum rides with Gordon Baxter’s rich friends in their Taylorcrafts and Cessnas.

    My four daughters bought me the first $500 for Flying lessons when I was fifty and living in San Antonio. In a C-150 I was about to solo, but my wife’s parents both died that year (1994). She convinced me to stop flying altogether and I did.

    Do I regret it? Of course, but being realistic about money at the time, and the danger for a novice in the left seat, it was the better decision. Now, with my 79th birthday this week and a marriage of 56 years, I still read Flying, have had several trips to Oshkosh and sometimes can be seen flying right seat in my nephew’s Bellanca Viking. Happy wife. happy Life. Thanks for your great article.

    Bill Hodges
    Colleyville, TX

    Reply
  16. John M.
    John M. says:

    Great article, I received a Discovery flight on my 60th birthday. Never even thought of flying before, but as people have mentioned I got the bug to fly. Now in flight school, after also trying a few instructors, I have found one I can relate to. I now have 23 hours in the left seat and plan on continuing my training. Vfr then Ifr. I decide to take a online ground school ( also King School, great course.)before I take in person School, which starts this January. It was nice to read I’m not the only one to start later in life. Thanks for a Great read, John M.

    Reply
    • David Smith
      David Smith says:

      Thanks John for your comment. For me, I am pursuing my IFR rating however, I am not making it a priority as much as I did my Private Pilot. My focus on IFR training is first just to make me a safer pilot. If I end up with the rating great, if not I am a much safer VFR pilot. I read an article in a recent pilot magazine that only 15% of those with an IFR rating keep it current. Good luck on your adventure, it will be fun!

      Reply

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