Rusty Pilot? Rehoning Your Skills, Economically

BasicMed is bringing lapsed pilots back to the aviation fold. Here's how to rehone pilot skills and knowledge without going broke.


One of the side effects of the implementation of BasicMed and the longest-running period of economic growth in our country’s history has been that quite a few pilots who stopped flying because of medical and/or economic concerns have decided they can return to the sky. For those affected, it’s splendid news. But the good news may come with mixed feelings: “I can start flying again! I’m pumped! Uh, now what do I do?”

How does someone who has not flown as pilot in command for a while—several weeks or several years—get back into the cockpit safely and do so without running up a bill that approximates the national debt? As it turns out, it’s not all that difficult because there is a huge amount of free stuff out there you can take advantage of to flake off the aeronautical rust.

We’ll start out with the best news—if you hold a pilot certificate, there’s no checkride involved. You will have to fly with a flight instructor and complete a flight review (those things that used to be called BFRs)—something you can’t fail. It may take a few flights to complete, but that shouldn’t be surprising.

Do the Cheap and Free Stuff

No matter how long it’s been since a pilot has been current and comfortable in an air machine, the first step is to get the aeronautical synapses firing in the brain. That means spending time thinking about flying. While that sounds incredibly basic, one thing that instructors complain about when they get together is the number of pilots they fly with who don’t do well because they apparently don’t think about flying for any length of time between visits to an airport.

To get back into thinking about flying do the free stuff first. At the organized training level, AOPA has excellent free resources for rusty pilots, including three-hour seminars it puts on regularly around the country. Your local FAA office also puts on free seminars and training programs through its FAAST Team. There are also numerous, very good, videos for rusty pilots on YouTube.

Read. Read all you can in aviation publications. Read all the stuff in AVweb—especially in the archives—it’s free and there is a tremendous amount of good information. If you can afford to subscribe to aviation how-to magazines such as Aviation Safety and IFR, do so, as information is power when flying. Subscriptions to those magazines include digital access to earlier issues—and they contain masses of excellent information. Go to the library and read the aviation magazines and books—it doesn’t cost a cent.

Don’t be spring-loaded to buy stuff. Want the FARs and AIM? They’re free, on the FAA’s website.

Keep a notepad handy. You’re going to have a lot of questions. Write them down. If the answers haven’t appeared during the course of your reading, attending seminars and watching videos and webinars, you’ll have them handy to ask the instructor when you start taking dual.

If you have access to a computer flight simulator, take advantage of its capabilities.

Go out to the airport when the airplane you want to fly isn’t scheduled to fly or when the weather is lousy. Sit in the airplane, pull out the POH and start reading it while sitting in the left seat. It’s amazing, but the POH seems to read differently when you are sitting inside the airplane than it does when you are elsewhere.

Read the emergency procedures section and touch each of the controls as you do so. Then read and do it again. And one more time. I don’t know how many recurrent sessions I’ve given where the pilot takes three or four or five times to get an emergency procedure correct. In the real world you may only get one chance, so sit there in the airplane and practice. Again, it doesn’t cost you anything and it significantly increases your chances of getting it right when it matters.

During quiet time, create “what if?” scenarios for yourself. You’ve been around the block enough to know many of the things that can go wrong on a flight. Imagine you are flying to visit someone about 150 miles away, on a route you fly from time to time, and that the weather rapidly drops below forecast, to the point where the ceiling is about 800 feet and visibility about 2 miles. OK, what will you do? Come up with strategies. Having thought about a potential problem during quiet time, before it blows up on you, suddenly, in flight, means that your chances of dealing with it successfully when it happens for real go way up.

Want to make it more enjoyable? Team up with a friend or three and go over airplane systems and emergency procedures over a cup of coffee or a beer. The last time I went for a type rating, the other guy in the program and I stopped at a stationery store and bought a package of 3 x 5 cards and made about 100 flash cards on the airplane systems and procedures. Each evening, over dinner, we used the cards to quiz each other. As a result, we knew the material cold when it came checkride time. All it cost was the price of the cards.

Plan the Flight

Whether you are going out solo after a few weeks layoff or dual after a few years, the moment the Hobbs meter starts running in the airplane, clicking away the dollars you are spending for the flight, is probably not the moment to start deciding what to do on that flight.

Before the flight, do a little thinking and decide on the minimum ceiling and visibility and maximum wind that you are willing to put up with. That way you don’t go through the “maybe so, maybe not” exercise, or, worse yet, launch and realize that the weather just won’t cut it and you get one takeoff and one landing, for which you get to pay, and nothing else of much benefit.

Consider what it is that will help you nudge those skills up as rapidly as possible. Write down the maneuvers you want to do so you can go from one to another with a minimum delay. In the process, think about the risks you face in the type of flying you do, such as crosswind landings, weather problems leading to possible low flight, terrain issues, short runways, low-performance airplanes and high terrain, low-speed handling of the airplane and the kinds of maneuvering you expect to do inflight, to name a few. Spend a little time on how you would handle weather deterioration and how low you are willing to fly, especially nowadays when the proliferation of towers of all sizes has made scud running far too dangerous in most areas of the country. (If you haven’t done so, maybe it’s time to schedule a little dual when the visibility is 3-4 miles and the ceiling 1,000 feet—legal VFR, but marginal—so that you can see just how lousy it is and make a decision as to what weather you are willing to accept in the flying you do.)

If you are going to fly with an instructor, call him or her up some days prior to the flight, discuss what you want to do and come to an agreement on what you will do on the flight so that it can be done as efficiently as possible. Then, put those things into order so that you aren’t wasting time climbing and descending, so you do the high stuff together and the low stuff together.

To get you started with the process, here are some suggestions as to what you might want to do during the session with your CFI when you scrape off the rust.

On the Ground

Review the information on TFRs and airspace generally. In my informal review of things that trip up rusty pilots, both are high on the list. Make sure you know how to find out where the TFRs are and what you’ve got to do to be legal in the airspace you’ll penetrate on a given flight.

Go over emergencies and emergency procedures for everything in the POH, plus anything else you can imagine. For obvious reasons, this is a high-priority item. It’s the one area we never practice in normal operations, so our skills and memory as to what to do atrophies here first and worst. Keep in mind that some emergency procedures are pretty generic, but some are airplane specific, such as whether you close the cabin air vents in the event of a fire.

Make sure you know the avionics in the airplane cold. They are often the most complex of the airplane systems, requiring the most study to operate. So, get to know them on the ground, and confirm that you can do so in the air, with a minimum of head-down time.

Finally, before you go out to the airplane write down or tell your instructor what you will consider to be acceptable altitude, heading and airspeed tolerances—objective completion goals for the flight (make sure he or she agrees with you). Challenge yourself. If you get into the habit of flying precisely, the less likely it is that you will ever ding an airplane.

In Flight

On the flight itself, why not do a precision takeoff, tracking right down the centerline, rotate at the book speed and perform the initial climb at Vx, with a transition to Vy? At altitude, level off but immediately transition to slow flight on the way to the practice area. Select the speed ahead of time, but the stall warning should be on all the time. Spend lots of time in slow flight, get comfortable, make turns, and change the airplane configuration a few times. Get the feel for how the airplane behaves and get comfortable enough that you know you can control the airplane precisely, even though it may take some large inputs.

Transition to cruise flight within the altitude limits you have set for yourself and get to an appropriate practice area. Then do clearing turns and start right into steep turns, with 45 degrees of bank, and hold the turn for at least a 360 in each direction—better still, a 720. Do a few until you can reliably hold the bank angle and your altitude as well as roll out on heading. Then, while still at altitude, do a few power-off, full-flap stalls and some full-power stalls. Do them in a shallow turn to simulate approaching to land or climbing after takeoff. Make a solid effort to feel the airplane as you do the stalls, listen to the airplane and the messages it gives you as you approach the stall, and work on burning the information into your psyche with the goal of never stalling the airplane unless you desire to do so.

Now review the emergencies that you can while up high: electrical fire, engine fire, jammed controls and any other ones you have outlined. Can you steer the airplane with the rudder and door(s) if the yoke locks up on you? Can you fly it with the trim tabs? Give it a shot. Remember, if the elevator is jammed, the trim tab will work backward. With an instructor, do some unusual attitude recovery; it’s not just an IFR exercise. Pilots have lost control of airplanes in VFR conditions.

If circumstances and traffic allow, starting near an airport, do a simulated engine failure to a forced landing from at least 2000 feet AGL. It sounds like something that shouldn’t be too hard, but I’m amazed how many pilots I’ve flown with that couldn’t do it the first try.

Now do crosswind takeoffs and landings to a full stop, so that you get the full benefit of dealing with the wind at all speeds. Remember that the most common problem and cause of accidents in crosswinds is coming in too fast. Work on flying the airplane on speed, even if it does feel mushy. Abort a takeoff. Make landings at varying flap settings to assure you are comfortable doing so.

After you taxi in and shut down—whether you are with an instructor or not—write up an evaluation of the flight (have the instructor do so as well) and write down your opinion as to what is the minimum runway length you would accept for that type of airplane, with and without obstructions, what is the maximum direct crosswind you would tolerate in it without an instructor and what is the minimum ceiling and visibility in which you would fly in a 200-mile radius of home base. Then compare the evaluation with your instructor’s and see if they are a reasonable match. If they aren’t, it’s time for a long heart-to-heart talk with him or her, as someone has a perception problem.

The written evaluation is a judgment-enhancing tool for you. It takes those general ideas you have had floating around and forces you to reach some conclusions and make a somewhat public statement about the parameters under which you feel you can safely make a flight. It may also give you a very good reason to cancel a flight when someone is applying pressure for you to go, even if that someone is you.


Be creative. Take advantage of free stuff: Go to the FAA safety seminars, and use computers, the library and the internet to stimulate your aviator’s brain. Then plan your flights to get the most out of every moment. You’ll land pretty pooped from the intensity of it all, but you will be able to feel the rust coming off and your skills will love you for it.

Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vols. 1 & 2.