Getting airborne again when the only flying you’ve done for many years has been behind a desk needn’t be a daunting process.
How often is it said that once you get into flying, it really gets in your blood and it never really leaves you? For so many of us, it starts as an interest, becomes a hobby and then goes on to become our life’s passion. I can still remember my first trial instructional flight just like it was yesterday. My first solo, as is the case for every pilot, was an experience I’ll remember forever. But for so many of us, the realities of life so often sees the expense of flying as hobby clash with priorities such as mortgages, paying bills and raising a family. This can mean walking away from flying for a while and letting your currency lapse. But you’ll always find yourself looking skyward waiting for that time when once again you can climb back into the cockpit and get back amongst it.
I’m very much one of those people. I’ve had several shots at regaining currency and happily, I can report to you that I’m just about there after way too long. But getting back in the air again can be and has been a rather daunting experience.
Technology has changed, rules and procedures have changed, airspace has changed. There’s so much to learn and to relearn. In short, you’re rusty. So as a rusty pilot how do we go about getting proficient again? How do we go about scraping the rust off all those skills that we acquired so many years ago?
To explore this topic we’ve assembled a virtual roundtable discussion comprising fellow rusty pilot and Aviator Media owner and former RAAF Hornet pilot, Christian ‘Boo’ Boucousis, plus highly experienced serving RAAF and GA instructor Paul ‘Simmo’ Simmons and Aviator Magazine’s very own Owen Zupp, a highly experienced airline pilot with extensive instructor experience in the civilian world.
Owen: They have Steve. But while it’s good to go for the best radio etiquette, I think ‘aviate, navigate, communicate’ is the ethos to follow there. As long as we can get our message clearly and concisely, I wouldn’t sweat too hard when trying to get back in the saddle. Getting word perfect on the radio should be our goal and we can work towards it, but getting back into the groove of actually flying the aeroplane is the first goal. To start with communicate on the radio in a straightforward manner and if you’re unsure on the radio ask a question, speak to flight service or just broadcast your position. We all try to get that radio etiquette just right and that should be the goal, but I wouldn’t let that get in the way of your getting back in the saddle.
Boo: I had exactly the same experience having got back into flying after a 12-year hiatus and especially coming from a military background where everything is so prescriptive. One of the most intimidating things for me was talking on the radio, and getting back into flying it was one of the key areas I discussed with Simmo. But his advice was, hey, get this aircraft around the sky and do it in a way that keeps people well informed and you’re spot on. By starting the whole process with the aviate part and just getting the hands and feet back on the flight controls, that really should be the first step for someone that hasn’t been flying for a long time.
Simmo: Over the last couple of years I have been doing quite a bit of work mainly with military guys that have either not flown GA or are, like Boo, getting back into GA after a period of time off, flying out of Newcastle with the Royal Newcastle Aero Club.
As an instructor, early on I take out the communications element to let the rusty pilot or the new pilot get their hands on the controls manoeuvring the aeroplane, putting it in the right piece of sky in the right configuration. Then as their brain space frees up, they’re able to take on the communications aspect.
Steve: In my case, I found that it’s not even so much that the information that you’re giving out has changed, it’s the order that it comes out in. In fact on one recent flight I got myself into a position of lost situational awareness where I was too focused on the radio calls and had I not had an instructor that was switched on I might’ve been in quite some trouble.
Simmo: I always tell guys when they’re coming from military flying, and they might be current F-18 or Hawk fast jet guys, that the aeroplane is going to keep you very busy for a period of time until you get used to it. As it crazy as it sounds, getting a Cessna 182 sorted in the circuit properly, getting the engine management right, keeping the speed under control, controlling descent profiles and making sure we end up in the groove on final really takes quite a lot of thought and practice.
The military guys can’t assume that just because you can move an F-18 around the pattern, anywhere between 150 and 500 knots, that a 182 doing 120 knots is just going to be a doodle.
I really try to be agnostic about what a pilot’s background is and just take every flight at face value and try and adapt my instruction to suit once I start seeing how the rusty pilot is getting back into the groove.
Boo: I found when I was doing my GA flying as an F-18 pilot that sometimes the instructor would say, “Oh look, you know what you’re doing. I’ll just sit next to you and you’ll figure it out.”
It’s a very different experience flying GA aircraft compared to a Hornet, but you always have to treat every aircraft you fly with respect because it can bite you. As a rusty pilot there can be a degree of anxiety in getting back into the cockpit because it’s not like when you’re learning to fly to get your licence where you have baby steps along the way. If you’re a rusty pilot, there’s not really a program to follow and I think there’s an opportunity here for GA to make that a more seamless experience. Myself I was really fortunate in having a good mate in Simmo who had done this before and he made the experience seamless for me.
Owen: Simmo and Boo have both raised a very valid point, and when an instructor is flying with an experienced but rusty pilot it can be something of a double-edged sword. The instructor of an experienced rusty pilot can get caught off guard. My father was a very experienced pilot, he had about 200 combat missions in Korea and then in a subsequent civil flying career he ended up having over 100 different types in his log book. When he retired I was doing a check with him on a little Grob two-seater and the first thing he did was sit down and say, “Treat me like I don’t know anything.” He was right, as an instructor you should treat every student the same.
I had a pretty good role model there!
That being said, as an instructor you can still get caught out. I was doing civil instrument rating conversions for some military pilots back in the late 1980s early 1990s – they were given a credit card that they could use and get their civil qualifications. One chap hadn’t flown fixed-wing aircraft since he’d flown A-4 Skyhawks from the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. He’d been on helicopters ever since. He was an absolutely phenomenal pilot and I was just watching on with sheer admiration how he flew the aircraft until he tried to drive it straight into the runway as if he was trying to grab the number three cable!
You’ve got to treat every student the same. But if a rusty pilot is flying with a more junior instructor, I think it’s always good to set the bar for yourself. Say to your instructor, ‘look, regardless of what I’ve done, you’re the boss here. Treat me like I know nothing and let’s go from there’.
That way I don’t think you set your expectations too high and you and the instructor can work from a common point.
Steve: When I first learnt to fly I was 19. Coming back into it in my 40s there was a part of me thinking, ‘Well back when I was young, I was bulletproof’. But now there’s that niggling thought at the back of your mind going, ‘Can I do this again?’ That apprehension can play on your mind a bit.
Boo: I have definitely experienced that. I’ve always been respectful of all aircraft and even after flying fast jets for eight years, I never once hopped into a jet and thought ‘I’m all over this’.
For me contemplating coming back into flying was a stop-and-start process – should I do it and what about the cost involved? But what really distilled it for me was a great chat with Simmo where we could break down the process into bite-sized chunks.
Again it really does go back the aviate, navigate communicate mantra that we’ve all learnt. The key was to figure out a way of getting back into the aircraft where we could slowly ramp up the workflow because you’re sweating just as much in your first 182 circuit after a 10-year absence as you are on your first solo in a Hornet.
But Simmo was very good with me in reintroducing one ‘new’ component at a time. The challenges in GA are really managing performance. As a military pilot, you’ve always got plenty of performance to call upon to get yourself out of trouble. But in GA, you really have to be ahead of the aircraft and you can’t afford to get yourself in a situation where you forget to put the carb heat on or you manipulate the engine in a way that’s rough, and ultimately you break it and it can cost a lot of money. So bringing those new habit patterns into my flying was a challenge but also really rewarding. Life often isn’t very orderly but aviation is and it was nice to learn all the checks and after about two hours, it started to come flooding back.
But the key was to get airborne, to get out do some aerial work. We planned a 15-hour navex from Newcastle to Queensland and back, so it was a bit of fun dropping in to have a coffee at airfields along the way, meeting friends. It was a really good experience where Simmo kept intervening less and less and towards the end there as I was going, ‘Whoa, I’m actually doing all this’.
Trudging along at 120 knots it was rewarding. To fly back solo was very relaxing and to feel current again is a great experience.
But there was definitely some anxiety getting back into it, but it is about committing to it, coming up with a simple plan and not doing it half-assed. It’s a 10 to 15-hour exercise to get that currency back.
Simmo: My father was a New Zealand Air Force pilot and a bush pilot up in New Guinea for many years and so I grew up flying around with him. He gave me a couple of very sage pieces of advice as an experienced pilot and as a father and one of them was that a superior pilot uses superior judgment to avoid having to use superior skill.
I’ve found myself a couple of times in GA where through lack of judgment I’ve put myself into places where I’ve needed to use more skill than I should and I have that saying ringing in my ears. Coming back as a rusty pilot, the skills are going to take some time to redevelop, but you’ve always got that foundation of aviation judgment and airmanship. And you can use that as the confidence to say, ‘I just need to build my currency with enough buffer so that I don’t put myself into a position where I will have to rely on skills that may or may not be sharp enough at the moment because I’m rusty’.
My job as an instructor is to make sure we manage those risks but really encourage a rusty pilot to see that that airmanship is still strong and aviate, navigate, communicate with appropriate and sound judgment you’ll naturally fall back into getting your skills up and shouldn’t have fear that you’re going do something crazy there.
Owen: Generally pilots are their own best critics and they’re also their harshest critics and coming back into it, you’ve probably got exceptions of being able to operate an aircraft how you used to in the past, and that sets a high bar for yourself. But I think you have to be in a mindset to be prepared to learn again and to make mistakes and to be able to deal with that without beating yourself up.
I think being prepared to be your own critic but not beating yourself about mistakes is the path to getting better and getting back into the groove. As Boo said, it’s going to be a 10 to 15-hour process. You’ll have a memory of how you used to operate, and that can be your goal, but you can’t expect that on day one because you can dent your confidence and that will end up eroding valuable brain space as well.
Steve: Speaking of brain space I learnt to fly on steam gauges and as much as I’m a nerd and I love technology, coming back into flying I found flying a glass cockpit aeroplane when I wasn’t used to it quite distracting.
Owen: I can still find the glass cockpit somewhat distracting but once again, it’s a case of currency and exposure to whatever system you’re using and understanding that the best you can before you get in the aircraft. That said, often the only way to get conversant with technology is really to use it, to have to set the QNH five or six times or set the speed bug five or six times. You can read the manual til you’re blue in the face but it’s really only exposure at the coalface that’s going to get you current with new avionics. But it is a whole new technology ballgame that can confront a new or rusty pilot and if you’ve come off the steam gauges, it can take away your focus and reduce your situational awareness.
They’re great tools but they’re exactly that. They’re a tool. They’re one component of what it takes to operate the aircraft safely.
Boo: In terms of tools, for me discovering EFBs such as OzRunways and AvPlan is incredible. The amount of situational awareness they bring and the ease they allow a pilot to get around the countryside is phenomenal. That was a massive game changer but there is a degree of skill and time you need to take to learn how to use those electronic flightbags.
But coming back into flying the best tool I could use was actually free. And that was falling back on a key techniques they taught us on pilots course – visualisation. Close your eyes and rehearse the flight on the ground, run through all the checklist patter and the movements around the cockpit. Every time you visualise an hour of flying, it costs you nothing but it gives you a lot more value when you’re in the aircraft and the prop is spinning.
And then there’s there’s no substitute for hitting the circuit and the training area. The circuit environment really works you out but I think it’s really important for a rusty pilot not to rush into flying and to make sure that you’re comfortable handling the aircraft in the circuit, to take it out to the training area to investigate the stall, to explore the handling characteristics.
My three takeaways? Don’t make excuses, just do it. Use your visualisation as much as you possibly can, and hit the circuit.
Firstly when it comes to ‘air’, don’t underestimate the value of the EFB. I would pick a product and I would become conversant with it. The beauty of an EFB is you can do your flightplanning at home and set up aircraft profiles, look at weight and balance, get the weather and NOTAMs. You can make sure that before you move into the aircraft you have a good picture of what is going on in the environment around you.
From the ‘man’ side of the house, we’ve talked already about some of the emotion around returning to flying. I wouldn’t be intimidated by it. But also pick the right instructor, someone that you gel with, somebody that recognises your experience but will not use that to either try and shortcut the process or to make it overly onerous.
That relationship between the rusty pilot and the instructor is probably even more critical than when you’re first learning to fly because you’ve already got established ideas and thoughts and habit patterns and neural pathways, and it’s important that your instructor is able to work with those and to refresh those, but not try and force you to do something completely different to what you have been used to.
Then when it comes to the ‘ship’, picking the right aircraft for what kind of flying you want to do is really important. Do I just go out on my own and fly around my local airport and just enjoy being airborne? Do I want to go somewhere with some people and/or baggage? Do I want to go out and do aerobatics or formation flying?
Knowing that then try to source a suitable aeroplane and then a good instructor in that aeroplane. Make sure that you while you’re with the instructor you’re pushing your personal comfort levels and you’re not afraid to make mistakes. Always explore and look and learn and then when you’re on your own make sure you operate that aircraft in a manner where you’ve got proper safety boundaries, keeping in mind the length of field or the type of field you’re operating from or the environment you’re flying into.
Give yourself some grace. A lot of the fun of getting back into the aeroplane is that journey of rediscovery, while that little bit of tension and pressure is a really healthy thing. And just enjoy the journey. The destination itself is not as exciting as the journey getting there.
Owen: Assess what you really want to achieve out of getting back into the saddle and be realistic about that. As Simmo said, assess whether you want to do aerobatics or whether you want to do cross country flying or just local jaunts and then be realistic about what your financial resources are and your time resources are so that you can commit to your goal. It would be very frustrating to get passionate about flying again and then halfway through find out you’ve gone down the wrong path because you can’t find the money or time.
Armed with that information, that allows you to go to the various flying schools and eliminate some straight off because they might not have the equipment for the task you want to do. Be realistic, sort out what you want to achieve with flying and then shop around.
Finally, I can’t overemphasise – no matter what flying you do and what stage of your career you are at – the value of preparation. I’ve done armchair flying since I first started flying. Indeed, if you’re out at the aero club or flying school and there’s an aircraft just parked there, it’s great to jump into it and do some armchair flying sitting in the aeroplane. It will familiarise yourself with the switches, the controls. Anything that you can do before you get in the air when you’ve got the available brain space will help once you once the wheels leave the ground.
Be realistic, shop around and never undervalue preparation.