Finally… back in the left seat again

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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.

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.

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 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.

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!

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