Life has a way of getting in the way of flying. With work, kids, and getting dragged into coaching, there is no time left. That was sure my story some 15 years ago when I sold my old Piper Tripacer and essentially stopped flying, other than a flight review and an occasional trip around the patch. As life unwound a bit, and I could see a little time of my own, I knew what I needed. So, I found a flying club and climbed back into the cockpit. Boy, had things changed! Not only had the general aviation environment undergone massive changes over the years, but so had I. For my fellow “retreads”, what follows is some advice for returning to the air after a long hiatus.
1) You are older, cannot hear as well, and when you can hear, you may not decode the message as quickly as you once did. You are also more forgetful.
As we get older, our perception of time changes. While four years seemed like an eternity when we were 18, it is now a blink of an eye. This effect is important. You may remember all sorts of details from long-ago flights, and it may seem those flights were yesterday. They were not. In reality, they were long ago and those psychomotor skills decay as a function of real time, not your perception of it. The skills will come back, but it will take time and you may need some gizmos to help you.
If you need hearing aids, get some. Today’s hearing aids are a vast improvement over those available just a few years ago thanks to advances in digital signal processing (DSP). Instead of simply amplifying all sounds, the firmware/software driving DSP amplifies just the intelligent sounds. Based on venerable signal detection theory, (i.e. detecting the signal from the noise) DSP does a really good job of differentiating various types of intelligent signals such as air traffic control (ATC) instructions from noise.
What about headsets? Today, active noise reduction (ANR) headsets also use DSP. Save yourself a good bit of anguish and spend around $1,000 on an ANR headset. Sometimes, flying is not for the faint of wallet. The noise reduction reduces fatigue from straining to hear above a noisy aircraft, makes for a cleaner sound, and makes rapid-fire ATC chatter much easier to understand. You will also find the headset works just fine with the hearing aids.
That takes care of getting better sound to your auditory canal. What about decoding that signal? There is no question you will be slower at this process. This decrease in the ability to decode incoming messages is a common effect of aging. First, you are not going to be able to multitask like you used to. You are going to have to be vigilant in your attention to the radio. Second, make use of your “say again” response. If you heard the radio call but it was gibberish, ask ATC to repeat. It’s likely they will slow it down on the second go around.
And, finally, you will be more forgetful. Use checklists way more than you used to along with notes to yourself. Don’t take a chance on a lapse in memory for such things as V-speeds, speed across the fence, and other things that you wouldn’t have dreamed of forgetting a few years ago. Even in today’s digital world, an occasional 3 x 5 note card still has a place.
2) And what about this digital world?
Well, it’s here to stay and halleluiah! It is a far safer world for pilots. Learning this new world will be like drinking from a firehose, but it will be worth every gulp. Learn to use an electronic tablet with Electronic Flight Bag (EFB) software. While you are at it, learn to use EFB software on your smart phone as well. Hold on to your paper charts for a bit if you must but wean yourself off. Once you do, you will realize everything you used to haul around in a satchel is now on your tablet. Even information you didn’t carry around but often wished you had, is now at your fingertips. And, it only takes a few minutes to keep it current. In fact, if your tablet has an internet connection, it will update the information automatically.
Even though mode S transponders were not required in the old days, it sure made sense to fly with one. Today, Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) In/Out is not required, but it makes even more sense. ADS-B Out broadcasts your position, speed, and other information not only for ATC, but for any aircraft equipped with ADS-B In. Likewise, your ADS-B In will capture the transmissions from other aircraft. Not only that, it will also capture weather information. And, all of this information is displayed on your EFB.
It is a lot to grasp and may be a tough transition for instrument rated pilots trained in a system where paper approach plates were gold. But, once you do, you will never look back. A sectional with the approach plate, your position, other traffic, and weather all close to real time and superimposed on your screen. This 21st century is not bad at all.
3) Get rid of that old kneeboard designed for cockpit paper.
There are many choices from a holder for the tablet and a notepad to a holder for just the tablet. In the latter case you would make notes directly on the tablet screen with an electronic pencil/stylus.
4) If you learned to fly with a six pack, VOR and maybe even a GPS, get used to integrated instruments.
In particular, the navigator. In the 1990s, Garmin introduced the GNS430/530 and the cockpit changed forever. Whether you are tracking a VOR or GPS or flying an approach, the navigator is your guide. There is still a free simulator online. It’s a bit dated, but is a good start. Don’t just stick with direct-to functionality. Learn to enter a flight plan and execute approaches. Take it slow and, as you get comfortable with the basics, explore the other navigator features. You will be amazed at the reduction in your mental workload.
In today’s digital world, autopilots are incredibly accurate, especially compared with the analog versions you may have used. Plus, they interface with most navigators such that you will be surprised at how rapidly you become proficient. Also, they are surprisingly affordable and are no longer a rarity in a flight school’s fleet. Once you are comfortable with the navigator, add the autopilot to your repertoire.
5) Get an instructor with whom you can communicate.
You will have a lot of questions and may need something explained more than once. Also, you will be learning new skills and, perhaps, unlearning old ones. Be sure the instructor understands your situation. And don’t let it bother you if he or she is less than half your age. I have had some terrific younger instructors even if they couldn’t stop calling me sir.
6) Flight schools still have the airplanes in which you learned to fly in their fleet.
But you may also see trainers with side sticks, electronic flight instrument systems (EFIS/glass cockpit) and of composite construction. Once you get your sea legs in the old girls, give the new trainers a try. You will be surprised how quickly you adapt to the side stick and how these low-drag airplanes just love to lift off of the runway. The EFIS will take some getting used to and this is where a good instructor can be an enormous help. Processing all of that information coming at you all at once is a challenge, but having an experienced instructor who can break it down into manageable chunks will make the transition much easier. And once you are comfortable with it, boy is that scan easier?!
That’s it, retreads. It will take some time and effort. But soon you will be back in the cockpit confidently doing what you love and wondering why in the world you ever stopped flying.