Back in the Game

Getting back in the air after a long absence can be tough. A plan of attack and realistic perspective can smooth your road to currency.


Every pilot is inspired to fly for different reasons—personal and technical challenge, freedom and new perspectives, civilian or military professional career paths.

But the obstacles that arise between us and that goal are just as varied. Medical problems, family priorities, geographic inconvenience and financial obligations can all get in the way.

The latter is what stopped my prop. In 2007, my wife and I moved to a new city. Between buying a new home, entry level pay and existing debt, money was tight. I wanted to fly, sure, but the reality was that I didn’t actually need to fly.

Once on better financial ground, the itch came back… bad. I scheduled a check flight and a FR with the local flight school.

It’d been over four years since I’d flown as pilot-in-command. Sure, I’d right-seated a couple of times with friends, but that’s not the same as accepting the mantle of PIC.

The flight was a week away. Getting myself up to snuff wouldn’t be easy. So, I did what I was taught—I made a plan to fly and then I flew the plan.

Day 1: Number Crunching

A good flight starts with good preflight planning, so that’s where I started my review. Plus, I figured an unfamiliar flight school wouldn’t let me near their airplanes if I showed up with sloppy, inaccurate paperwork.

During my flight training and active flying, I calculated weight and balance and plotted cross countries on a daily basis. It was nothing to bang out wind correction angles, fuel burn, and time between points. The idle years, unfortunately, had chiseled away at these skills, so I set out to refresh them.

When I dropped by the school to schedule the flight, I cracked open the binder containing their rental aircraft’s data, and snapped some pics of each plane’s vital weight and balance statistics. Armed with the real data, it was easy to practice at home, trying different combinations of aircraft, load factors, and weather conditions.

W&B refresher done, it was cross-country planning time. I laid out some routes to several fields within a couple of hundred miles. I called Flight Service once for a mock briefing to familiarize myself with Lockheed Martin’s current system, and did my other briefings online.

Soon my dinner table was awash with my charts, manual and electronic E6Bs, plotter, flight log sheets, and the Pilot’s Operating Handbook. I also dragged out my old flight logs. Those logs had gotten me past my check ride and been accurate enough to get me to many a destination and back again. Perhaps older me could relearn from my younger version’s tricks.

I went to work. The first couple of plans were a mess of scratch marks and rewrites. I quickly remembered to use a pencil instead of a pen. By the third flight plan, I’d wrapped my head around the process again and felt confident I’d arrive at my destination in one piece, on time, and with plenty of gas.

Day 2: Keeping it Real

I didn’t worry much about the physical act of controlling an airplane. Honestly, there’s just no substitute for strapping in and flying the darn thing. As I mentioned, I’d been fortunate to right-seat a couple of times, so it wasn’t all that hazy to me.

Of course, the flight wasn’t going to be a casual sight-seeing jaunt like my right-seat flights. We’d be doing some air work to put me through the paces. Let’s also not forget that most important of activities: landing.

I whipped open both my Practical Test Standards booklet and my old flight training syllabus materials and studied them as if I was going for my PPL check ride all over again. In the comfort of my arm chair, I performed soft and short field operations, steep turns, stalls and unusual attitude recovery. I paid special attention to each maneuver’s altitude and speed tolerances.

The trick was keeping expectations realistic. After four years, I wasn’t expecting to grease perfect landings with a ninety degree gusting crosswind. I made peace with my limitations, choosing to emphasize safety and judgment. Pushing too hard to impress the instructor could backfire. A good go-around would be better than a marginal landing.

Days 3 and 4: Plying the Virtual Skies

Once I’d done my flight planning and reviewed the PTS, I turned to an old friend to practice cross country skills: Microsoft Flight Simulator X.

I’m well aware a consumer product like FSX, X-Plane, or Prepar3d is no substitute for a real plane. The sensory overload of tactile feedback, sound, and the smell of a thousand anxious flight students just doesn’t come on the DVD.

Sims excel in practical navigation, frequency management, and general situational awareness. Each product I listed contains the entire world’s worth of NAVAIDs, fixes, significant geography, airspace, and live weather updates. I could practice everything from VFR dead reckoning to IFR navigation, all under real world weather conditions.

I was committed to not treat it like a game. When I sat down behind my computer’s yoke and pedals, I had my kneeboard strapped on, my charts and flight log in place, and my checklist in hand. Practice like you play, right?

I “flew” the cross countries I’d plotted. It was rewarding to watch the world outside pass more or less at the rate I’d planned. While MS FSX’s air traffic control is marginally realistic at best, quick virtual ATC vectors and frequency changes did help me rebuild my cockpit management habits. Soon, I was writing down ATC instructions, communicating, and flying, all at once. While I’d rather have been twisting knobs on a radio stack than pointing and clicking, it was still valuable.

Days 5 and 6: One Shot

Emergencies concerned me the most. My old instructor seemed to drill failures every other training flight, and my reactions had once been automatic. Now…not so much, and when things go wrong, you might only get one shot to take appropriate action.

I turned again to the simulator and set it up to hit me with random failures. If I’d plotted a cross country to take about an hour, I’d program a failure somewhere within the first 55 minutes of the flight. I would never know when, how, or where an emergency would strike—just like real life.

I drilled engine failures and fires first. I also emphasized those gradual failures that require a good instrument scan for detection, like fuel leaks and decaying oil pressure. Halfway into a cross country, my panel would go dark and I mentally slapped myself for not catching a failed alternator.

Even when I wasn’t running the sim, I reviewed the checklists and considered the importance and reasoning behind each listed action. I focused on the why, not just the what.

In hindsight, I could have asked the flight school if could sit in one of their parked planes or a hardware simulator to drill each checklist manually. It wouldn’t have to be powered on to build muscle memory on real controls. It would also have shown them that I was engaged and concerned with safety—both good traits.

Day 7: The Flight Itself

I rolled into the flight school’s parking lot on schedule, feeling a little nervous about the weather. The morning was marginal VFR, with a scattered-to-broken layer at about 2000 and gusting winds. Not terrible, but certainly not ideal. A friendly chat with the school’s chief pilot put me at ease before we got down to business.

The ground school portion lasted for an hour or so. While going through the expected flight review material—aircraft systems, flight planning, documentation—I clarified some of the national regulatory changes that had taken place during my hiatus. “Line up and wait” had replaced “Position and hold.” ATC now gives complete taxi routing instructions instead of just “Taxi to Runway two eight.”

After an uneventful takeoff, I navigated our Cessna Skyhawk out to the beach practice area, dodging clouds and looking for traffic. Once there, we did some basic maneuvers: slow flight, various stalls, unusual attitudes, and steep turns. It was very satisfying to feel the thump of my own wake turbulence as I rolled out of a steep turn. I’d held the altitude. The muscle memory was coming back.

We simulated an engine failure, and I executed the checklist as I’d drilled it. I chose a winding stretch of road along the beach to put it down. While the instructor and I agreed I would have made it, as we recovered, he pointed out that behind us was a mile-long straight section of the same road. It was a good reminder to always keep looking for better options.

Bringing it Home

We returned to home base for touch and goes. A forty-five degree, 11-knot crosswind gusting to 16 added a challenge. Both I and—more importantly—the instructor were satisfied with the results. Sure, they were a little flat on the flare, but I kept the wing down into the wind and the nose acceptably straight on the centerline.

The last time around, though, Tower extended us a few miles on the downwind to follow a Boeing 737, then told us to keep our speed up to stay inside a second jet. The instructor grinned and said, “Alright, show me what you can do.” I accepted the challenge.

I kept the airplane high above the Boeing’s wake turbulence, throttle firewalled, indicating a blazing—for a Skyhawk, I guess—120 knots. As the runway threshold slid under the nose, I chopped power, kicked into a forward slip, and dropped like a rock as the airspeed melted away. A hundred feet off the deck, I straightened out, dropped twenty degrees of flaps for cushioning, and squeaked it on to the runway, swaying a little bit with the crosswind.

The poker-faced instructor had his arms crossed the entire time, which did more to boost my confidence in my abilities than anything else. A couple of minutes after tying the Cessna down, he congratulated me and signed my logbook. Relief and a little pride washed over me.

My plan is to take a few solo skill-sharpening flights before I feel fully comfortable taking anyone else up with me. Nevertheless, on that cloudy morning, I was thankful my long week of effort had paid off and the sky was once again open to me.

Next, of course, I’m going after an Instrument Proficiency Check. I’m pleased with the success of the process I used for the FR, and I’ll follow the same general path to my IPC. This will start with a review of charts, procedures and regulations. After that some time arm chair flying and time on the sim shooting approaches will be in order. Finally, the actual IPC ride with some instruction will hopefully be sufficient to once again take to the skies even if the weather is solid IMC.

Graduating From the Old School

My flying hiatus began in May 2007. A major aviation revolution took place just one month later: Apple’s first iPhone was released. A waterfall of increasingly advanced aviation applications followed.

My flight school had focused on doing everything manually. Hand-drawn routes and flight logs. Hand-written weight and balance. Even if a plane had a panel GPS, I was taught to rely mostly on the world outside and the chart on my knee. My instructor wanted to ensure I understood the concepts. Technology was only a complement, not a crutch.

Now, between the Apple store and Android markets, tablet and smartphone aviation apps are plentiful, feature-rich, and largely inexpensive.

When I was looking to get back into the air, I tried several apps. Most worked as advertised and made short work out of my flight planning. Those were temptingly easy and convenient. Others were less than intuitive. In the end, I stuck with what I knew best for my return to flight: pencil, paper, and calculator.

Why? First, I work in a technical field. I’m well aware of how easily tech can fail. Batteries die. Airplane power adapters break. Wayward coffee spills and iPads have unscheduled meetings. Second, doing my number-crunching and plotting by hand really boosted my confidence in my abilities and my knowledge. I figured it would also show the instructor that I meant business.

That’s not to say I haven’t embraced aviation advances since I got back in the air. My father is an active pilot in South Florida. On our most recent flight together in late 2012 we had no less than four screens going at once. My Android Galaxy S3 running Naviator was mounted on my left-side window. His iPhone was mounted to his right. On his knee, he had an iPad running Foreflight and being fed ADS-B traffic data from a Stratus receiver on the dashboard. In the panel, we had a Garmin GPS. We’d done our W&B, plotted our flight, and gotten our briefings entirely via apps.

Increased situational awareness and convenience are good things. However, without any of those devices, I’m fully confident the flight would have been just as successful. We both learned to walk before we could run and knew the concepts that ran underneath the hood.

For those seeking a return to flight, go with what you know and add on to that knowledge gradually. You don’t want to get caught in a bad situation because you depended too much on unfamiliar tech and forgot the basics.

Rowe Larson grew up in an airline family. After spending an unnatural amount of his childhood riding around in the back of airplanes, he now enjoys Florida’s great flying weather from the front of one.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of IFR magazine.

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