Knocking Off the Rust

Time to fly again

October 1, 2003

Life changes are funny things. Alter your career trajectory and all sorts of unintended consequences rise from the dust at your scrambling feet. Maybe you'll need to relocate, or learn a new company, but what may be the worst is such a change's impact on your flying. Let me tell you about that.

For some now-unexplainable reason, I left this august periodical three years ago to return to the ranks of motorcycle journalism. It's an interesting and dynamic field, but flying for business is simply not part of the deal. (Although the number of motorcycling pilots continues to surprise me.) So it was that I went from flying more than 250 hours a year, many of which were in my own Beechcraft P35 Bonanza, to, first, flying one-tenth that amount and, second, selling the Bonanza because what was once a justifiable business expense became a luxury I not only couldn't afford but one that I wasn't using enough to be good for the airplane.

You'd think I would know that a sudden reduction in flying — and not just the act, but in that period I suffered an immersion in a new job that kept my head out of aviation as well — would have a deleterious effect on my flying skills. Don't give me that much credit. For the last few months I owned the Bonanza, I knew I was flying off my game — a bit sloppier, slightly less aware of my surroundings, and, in one case, slow to recognize a mag failure on a long trip. My instrument approaches got me on the ground, but they weren't pretty. There was nothing major in the slippage, just a few subtle hints that my brain couldn't back up my used-to-fly-all-the-time swagger.

These were quiet lessons, learned in the privacy of my own airplane. A larger surprise was waiting, thanks to good friend and indefatigable Bellanca Viking fan Troy Foster. I met Troy on the ramp at my home field of Long Beach, California, while he was part owner in a beautiful Bellanca. We'd kept in touch through the sale of my airplane and the purchase of a new (old) one for him, occasioned by his partner, Randy Pittman, being assigned to the Midwest.

Troy and I began trading seat time in his 1969 Bellanca Turbo Viking (in fact, the first turbocharged Vike built) and vexing the otherwise helpful controllers at SOCAL Approach with our myriad requests for approaches. Finally, with a peer in the seat next to me, the rust in the joints and the pulled wires in my brain became painfully evident. On our first journey together, Troy offered me a B-minus grade on the flying, an exceptionally generous mark, if you ask me. Although the Viking's systems are vastly different than my Bonanza's and the panel had yet to become familiar to me, neither could explain my ham-fistedness.

That was enough. I'd had my fill of banging around in a complex, expensive airplane doing a bad job and not really enjoying myself. I needed help. Recognizing the problem is always the first, most critical step; it gets easier from there. (Or so I'd hoped.)

Betsy Parrott was there to help. A staff instructor at Surface-to-Air Aviation in Long Beach, Parrott had seen my plight before. "It happens all the time," she said, already starting to prop up my ego. "You don't fly for a while and it happens. Don't worry, you'll get it back. By the way, I bet you need a BFR [flight review]." She was right. Like so many pilots, I kept slavish account of my overall time and my instrument currency, and always knew when my medical was about to expire, but the flight review thing was never top of mind. (For review: In order to operate as pilot in command, you need to complete a flight review every two years, consisting of an hour of ground review and an hour of flight instruction. It's up to the instructor to "pass" you. A successful flight review earns you a notation in your logbook, while a "failing" session is logged as dual received until you have completed the airwork to the CFI's satisfaction. The flight review requirement can be fulfilled by means other than a dedicated checkride.)

Parrott and I spent our hour in the classroom going over changes in airspace and various regulations, discussing the target numbers for the Cessna we would fly, and making fun of my Jeppesen approach book whose contents expired in 2000. (Hold the cards and letters: During my little hiatus I used NACO charts instead.) We talked about the most common mistakes made by rusty pilots — poor airspeed discipline, loss of situational awareness — and how to work through them. A lot of the discussion centered on reacquainting myself with the 172.

For the airwork portion, Parrott and I took up Surface-to-Air's Cessna 172. We agreed that while it's certainly possible to do the flight review in Troy's Viking or either of STA's high-performance airplanes (a Beechcraft A36 and a Cessna T210), it made a lot more sense to take the Skyhawk. "No need burning a lot of fuel to do airwork," Parrott suggested. Besides, I was actually looking forward to flying a simple, straightforward airplane again. I didn't realize until later just how important the choice of aircraft would be. My experience and comfort level in the Bonanza would have carried me through to some extent, while my recent flights in the Viking would have offered much the same crutch.

We started with a thorough preflight inspection, the details of which I could feel coming back to me as we walked around the Cessna. Like many aircraft owners, I'm certain that I became lax in the preflight, secure in the knowledge that I was the only one flying the airplane. Parrott wouldn't let me off the hook — we did the preflight exactly by the book.

Except for a few stumbles on the radio when I was tempted to use the Bonanza's N number a couple of times, we got into the practice area without bloodshed. I was surprised to learn of a new air-to-air frequency for aircraft in the practice area intended to keep the miss-to-hit ratio on the right side of zero; although it had been in use for a while, it was news to me.

Like most owners, I rarely did basic airwork in my Bonanza (although Troy and I did plenty in his Viking) and it took more mental compensation than I expected to convert back into the Cessna. It just won't plow through maneuvers the way the Bonanza would, thanks to the Bonanza's great heft and reserves of power. That pesky Skyhawk wouldn't let me loaf, requiring a lot of pitch compensation for steep turns and more anticipation in slow flight. The sound of the wind over the airframe, the creak of Royalite as we slipped through the afternoon bumps. It all came back in a rush. There I was, a 100-hour, pre-instrument-rated pilot fighting the mighty Skyhawk, amazed at its speed and bulk coming from a steady diet of 150s and 152s. After a half-hour, I could do the maneuvers to my and Parrott's satisfaction.

We headed back to the airport for landings and my sense of self-satisfaction dissolved before the first touchdown. Call it reverting to familiar form. In short, I flew the Cessna like a Bonanza, using a stabilized approach (good) with a bit of power (not good). So it was I found myself on short final, high and hot. Parrott chuckled from the right seat, no doubt thinking, "These Bonanza drivers...." Instead, she offered, "Reduce airspeed by pulling the nose up and the descent angle will start to take care of itself." Too late for that. We floated the first 1,500 feet down the runway and eventually plopped, gracelessly, onto the tarmac.

After the landings, we pulled into the parking spot and Parrott offered her appraisal. "Not bad." Hmmmm. I was hoping for something along the lines of, "You didn't need my help!" She offered instead, "First, I think you learned that flying a Skyhawk like a Bonanza doesn't work. Also, you really need to use your checklist. I know you did for the preflight and engine start, but you didn't pull the list for the entire rest of the flight." Parrott was right, of course; I'd built up a very nice flow list in the Bonanza that had utterly failed me in the Cessna, which should come as no surprise. When, during the engine-failure part of the Skyhawk flight, I worked to diagnose the problem in my head — imagining a carburetor choked with ice or a magneto suddenly gone haywire — I should have grabbed the emergency checklist instead. "I like to have my students complete the before-takeoff checklist and then stow it with the emergency procedures facing out, so it's the first thing they see," suggested Parrott.

I came away from the refresher flight with newfound respect for the 172 and, equally important, severely chastened for my lack of proficiency. I had simply let myself and my skills go. Fortunately, the checklist to the fix is short and sweet.

  1. Recognize that as good as you once were, time and inactivity steal your skills.
  2. Find help. It's as close as your nearest CFI.
  3. Challenge yourself. Break out of the comfort zone of your own aircraft and try something different.
  4. Make it a regular occurrence. Just because you need a flight review every two years, don't make that the only occasion you go up with your friendly CFI.

Finally, recognize that there's no quick fix. After one flight review, I don't profess to be back to the proficiency I had when flying more than 250 hours a year, but I'm getting there. Turns out, too, that the trip back is half the fun.

Marc E. Cook is a former senior editor for AOPA Pilot. He lives in California.