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Monday, March 31, 2014

Coming back to life

A few days ago, AOPA announced a "rusty pilots" initiative to help bring people who haven't flown in years back into the ranks of active pilots. This is a great idea, and I certainly hope it succeeds. After all, one of the hardest things about being a pilot is becoming a pilot, so it's a lot harder to add to the pilot community by creating new pilots from scratch than it is to "resurrect" lapsed pilots.

Notice I didn't say "former pilots". That's because there is no such thing as a former pilot: once you have a license, it's good forever. However, you can't exercise the privileges of that license without a flight review every two years. But what happens if you don't?

Here's what doesn't happen if you don't fly for two or more years:

  • You don't have to take a long, formal ground school again.
  • You don't have to take your written exam again.
  • You don't have to take your checkride again.
  • You don't have to fly a certain number of hours (like the 40 required for your original license).
  • You don't have to fill out FAA paperwork.

Here's what you do have to do:
  • You have to be able to act as PIC (pilot in command) again

Simple, right?

Actually, it is. The AOPA article says that it will take about 1 hour for every year you've been out of the cockpit. I'd never heard it stated that way, but that's actually pretty close to what my own experience bringing pilots "back to life" has shown me to be the case in general. It tends to level off at about 12-15 hours even if it has been longer than 12-15 years, though.

That's the flying side of how long it will take. How about the knowledge side? Actually, that's usually the easier part for me. That's because in general, once people get bit by the flying bug again, they usually tend to do the reading on their own. Planes still fly on the same basic principles, so most of what has changed is the avionics, airspace, and regulations. Here's a rough breakdown of what might be new to you depending on how long you've been inactive:

Less than 5 years:

  • Almost nothing important. Depending on where you live, the airspace may look a little different, but if it has, your instructor will definitely make sure you know.

5-10 years:

  • You may or may not have flown using a GPS, especially if you're closer to 10 years than 5. Ten years ago the average rental aircraft was as likely to not have a GPS as it was to have one. Nowadays it's hard to find one without at least a basic, handheld unit like a Garmin 296-696.
  • If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, you may not be aware of the changes in the SFRA (Special Flight Rules Area) since 9/11. After that day, the rules got totally ridiculous, then shrunk a little bit to the present mostly-ridiculous level. You'll need to take an online course just to be able to fly in that area.
  • Other types of new airspace and/or changed borders of prior airspace. This is the sort of thing that having an instructor who is knowledgeable about your specific area is perfect for. We fly in it everyday, so when something changes, we know about it.
  • Glass cockpits are more commonplace than they used to be. You're more likely to see one now than 10 years ago, but unless you're flying a newer aircraft, you might not see one. There aren't a whole lot of people who spend the money to completely retrofit an old steam panel to glass, especially since doing so can cost 100%-500% (or even more) of the aircraft's value.
  • You have to have your old paper license replaced with a plastic, credit-card sized one. Fortunately, that's extremely easy to do and costs only $2.

10-20 years:

  • You've almost definitely never seen GPS. That's a good thing for you in a way, because it means you'll be that much happier when you see just how much easier it is compared to VORs and NDBs, both of which are going away. The thick VOR network is going to be pared down to the minumum necessary to serve as a backup to GPS. NDBs have been officially declared obsolete and are not being fixed when they break, so they are fading slowly as the equipment decays.
  • If you are one of the rare pilots that flew with a LORAN system, you'll be used to GPS. However, GPS is way more accurate and reliable. And LORAN is also officially obsolete.
  • You probably flew during the transition from TCAs, ARSAs, CZs, etc. to the current airspace system, which has Class A, B, C, D, E, and G. Although there were some structural changes as well, most of the "Class x" airspace has an analogous former name (like Class B for TCA, for example).

20 years or more:

  • Everything above, plus you're probably the most common type of returning flyer! The majority of "re"lapsed pilots I've trained have a gap of 20-25 years, which uncoincidentally is almost exactly how long it takes to have kids and then have them grow up and move out so you can have your time and money back.

I handle returning pilots just like a flight review. Why? Because that's exactly what it is. Your license is still just as valid as it ever was, but you have to have a flight review to continue to exercise the privileges of the certificate. Every instructor is different, but this is how I do things:
  1. I sit down with you and learn about the kind of flying you used to do and plan to do once you're active again.
  2. We get in the air and do some maneuvers like you're used to. I place a heavy emphasis on slow flight and stall recognition to reawaken your butt feel and stick and rudder senses. If you didn't have those senses before, you will by the time I'm done with you.
  3. We do as much pattern work as necessary. It may start off rough, but after a while, it will all click again. If you grease the first one, congratulate yourself on your luck and don't take your arm off the yoke to pat yourself on the back.
  4. We chair-fly a cross country, with extra attention paid to those airspace details that may have changed or may be entirely new to you. Depending on how long it has been and whether or not you are already familiar with the GPS, we may fly an actual cross country, too.
Depending on how many hours you had before you took your break and the kind of flying you used to do, it may take you a few less hours or it may take more. Obviously an old multi-thousand-hour freight dog is going to take less than a 100-hour hamburger hopper. Nonetheless, the Two Big Rules for how long it will take to come back are exactly the same Two Big Rules for how long it will take a brand new person to solo: 1. You'll do it when you're safe 2. It takes however long it takes to meet #1. (You can always lie about how long it took afterward just like everyone else does when talking about how long it took them to solo.)

There's a proverb that says a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Fortunately, if you're thinking of coming back, you have a lot less than a thousand miles to cover, no matter how long you've been away! You can take that first step by getting in touch with a nearby flight school or flying club, leaving me a comment or email, or checking out AOPA's new Rusty Pilots program.

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