After years of accumulated rust in my logbook, a friend and senior mentor at work, who is also CFII, was admiring the Boeing 737 poster hanging in my office one day when he mentioned he knew of a 182 fractional ownership opportunity. “You know what? I have a 182 poster behind that 737!” I said as I took down the poster and opened the frame to reveal the circa early 2000s Skylane cockpit facing Sporty’s Pilot Shop. The admiration continued for a few more minutes, and a lightbulb clicked. Fast forward six months, and I had reinstated my third class medical and was a new partner of vintage Skylane ready to start my first lesson in 13 years.

For the next three months I re-learned the basics that were buried way way back in my subconscious, and I got familiar with a few new things, like the constant-speed prop and electronic flight bags. I also took my instructor’s inaugural instrument ground school, newly prepared for a handful of local VFR pilots. On March 16, after just over 21 hours of instruction, I received my first-ever BFR, complete with a high performance endorsement.

A reminder of the dream…

And on March 17, our tiny airport closed its terminal’s doors. The world was in chaos, and through the rest of March and April, flying took a backseat to surviving the pandemic. But part of that survival was keeping our young children (ages 3 and 1) occupied, and our solution was frequent trips to the hangar and biking among the hangars and along the taxiways. As talk of opening things back up increased, we decided this would be a great time to put the bird to good use by taking the kids to see their grandparents in Kansas. We decided to introduce the kids to flying gradually. So one Saturday in April, I installed the car seats in the back, and we taxied around Los Alamos Airport (LAM) for 15 minutes.

I started flying again the first week in May. After standing in the hangar for 20 minutes, gazing at the wind sock and psyching myself up to tackle the “8G12KT” crosswind, I completed my first solo in over a decade. Three days later, with car seats installed again, I took our family sightseeing over Taos and Lake Abiquiu. A week later, a slightly longer cross country flight with a 45-minute stopover. The next week, another family flight, and a 2.5 hr solo cross country. I racked up 13 hours in May, which was almost 15% of all my hours up to that point. We were almost ready for Kansas. There was just one thing left I needed to do.

When my instructor was ready to teach again, we scheduled a ground school (wearing masks) to brush up on a few things, and a few days later, a short dual lesson (also wearing masks) to solidify that discussion with action.

For my first-ever long cross country, family in tow, during a global pandemic, our mission was to trek to Kansas for a week. In the days leading up to our departure date, I watched the weather like a hawk. We wanted to leave early in the morning, but if schedules and weather worked out better for the afternoon, so be it. Friday morning, I preflighted the plane and installed the car seats. That afternoon was looking iffy, but we might have a two-hour window around noon. As the morning passed, the clouds over the mountains in our flight path grew to cumulonimbus. We were packed and ready, but as the outlook grew worse, I made the no-go decision. We’d try again first thing Saturday morning. And good thing too, because that afternoon and evening, the radar suggested storms would have been chasing us for our entire flight, and the possibility of finding ourselves in a bad situation was very real.

We woke up at 4:30 Saturday morning. I weighed our luggage one last time, we got the kids up and ready, and I headed to the airport to load up and do one more preflight. Everything looked good. After a short run up, we lined up with the runway. I’d never flown this heavy (still well below max gross limit). I knew that ground roll would be longer than I was used to, and everything was fine, but the experience was nonetheless surprising. Wheels were up by 6:40 am.

The weather was perfect, and we had a generous tailwind on our route to Liberal, Kansas. The 3-year old slept quite a bit, but the 1-year old cried for about half of the first leg. Communications with air traffic controllers had become more fluid, and I was comfortable with flight following handoffs as we crossed into Texas, then Oklahoma, and into Kansas. Liberal’s AWOS winds were reported to be down the runway at 14G25KT, and short-final was bumpy. We found the (fantastic) FBO, gassed up, got a clean windshield, and relaxed for about an hour before loading up again for the next leg to Wichita. Remembering my instructor’s discussion on density altitudes below which leaning isn’t required, I took off nearly full rich. This was my first time taking off in this airplane below 5000 ft. MSL. Even fully loaded, with the winds as strong as they were, we were in the air quicker than I expected. After leaving the pattern and a quick call to Kansas City Center for flight following, we were on our way.

The second leg was just as smooth, and the calm afforded me the opportunity to rehearse Class C communications in my head a few times. I was a little nervous as we approached 30 miles out from ICT, and as a result as we got closer, I forgot to switch from Approach to Tower. I got a gentle reminder from the controller. Lucky for us that, again, winds were right down the runway (19L). Another smooth landing, and a short taxi to the FBO. Part one of the mission accomplished!

The Wooten flight crew, ready for an adventure. (Photo credit: Julia Kennedy)

Although our goal was to stay a week, our earlier experience reminded us of the importance of being flexible. To make sure we were home by a deadline, it became clear that we’d have to cut our trip short by a couple of days to avoid what looked like three solid days of thunderstorms between us and home base, spanning our intended departure dates. While an early morning departure would have been ideal, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend a little time with the great-grandparents the next morning. So our goal was to depart by noon.

The FBO had the plane topped off and ready to go when I arrived. Another installation of the car seats, preflight, and we were ready to go. We were wheels-up shortly after noon, headed to Dalhart, Texas. This ride was long, bumpy, and hot. The sky was clear but slightly hazy, and those generous tailwinds from our eastbound trip turned into a 12-kt headwind. After a one hour break and fuel up at another friendly FBO, we headed out for the final leg.

And it is during this leg that I applied every bit of piloting skill I had ever learned. Just south of Las Vegas, we seemed to enter a golden haze, with smoke blowing in from the wildfires blazing across Arizona for the past several days. I didn’t notice anything mentioned in the weather briefing, but the hazy smoke most certainly obscured mountains and the ground below, reducing visibility to less than 5 miles. Add to that, the crosswind gusts at home base exceeded 30 kts, which meant the possibility of diverting.

I notified ATC of my intent to descend to maintain visual contact with Interstate 25 and turned southbound to stay clear of the mountains that I knew were there but could not see. And I diligently exercised the instrument scan I’d learned in IFR ground school just a few months earlier. After flying at about 3000 ft. AGL for 15 minutes while maintaining visual reference to the interstate, the smoke mostly cleared and the winds at home base had calmed down. I decided to head home. Winds were a quartering tailwind at 8G15 kts. On short final, things got bumpy again, and it wasn’t the prettiest crosswind landing, but we arrived home safe and sound.

So that is my return from being rusty, to having completed a 1000-mile round trip long cross country with my wife, two toddlers, and 70 lbs of luggage—all during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m so lucky to have a supportive family, an awesome instructor, and a beautiful Skylane.