Safety Publications/Articles

Never too late

My journey back to flying

In 1987, Paul Langston was a bright-eyed college senior on the brink of a career in the exciting, high-paying world of aviation. Then life intervened, and he spent the next 18 years on the ground. Sound familiar?

But last year, Langston again climbed into the cockpit, rekindling a love affair that had never quite died. This is the story of his triumphant return to flying. If your career path was similarly misshapen, take heart. It's not too late to get back into flying.

Eighteen years. That's how long it had been since I last broke the surly bonds of Earth, and it's amazing how much can change in that time. Let me explain my full-circle journey back to flying, in hopes it will help you if you've been similarly ground-bound.

Like many of you, I had originally set out for a promising career as a commercial pilot. I poured a great deal of money, time, and effort into getting my FAA certificates and ratings, and even a college degree. During my last semester of college, an upper-level elective class was needed, so I picked air traffic control.

I remember that Friday morning like it was yesterday. The professor came into class and said the university, in conjunction with the FAA, was going to be giving a test to see if you had the potential to be an air traffic controller. All right, that's fine, but the professor still didn't really have my attention. He said the test would be given the following morning, and those scoring high enough would be offered jobs that afternoon. That was nice, but I was going to be a pilot, right? Then he said, "...and the salary is very generous."

Now he had my attention. Let's see, I can pursue my flying career, starving for several years to build enough flying time to get a better crummy flying job, just so I can build time to get an even better crummy flying job, so that eventually I might get a shot at a major airline. Or I can take this FAA test, and by the time I'm 22 I can be making some decent money. Hmmmm.

Don't get me wrong. I understood how the career pilot system worked before I started flying and was more than willing to make the sacrifices necessary. It's just that having spent the past four years starving, working three jobs, going to school full-time, and flying, I thought that I should at least go take the test. What was the worst thing that would happen? That they might actually offer me a job?

Well, the FAA did offer me a job, and I took it. I figured that I could keep flying on the side and build my time, albeit slowly. Then, I met my future wife and fell in love. There's nothing that can derail a perfectly good flying career like love. It's still all right; we'll get married and I'm sure she will understand that I might have to be gone a few extra nights or weekends so that I can keep building my flying time. She was very understanding and would even go flying with me on occasion. Then, I was summoned into the kitchen one evening and got the word, "Honey, we're pregnant!" This was, of course, one of the happiest moments of my life. But the only other thing besides love that can derail a perfectly good flying career is a family.

I'm happy to say that I now have three wonderful and beautiful children and have been married for the past 17 years. This brings me back to the beginning of the story. The kids are old enough now, and my wife, instead of wanting me around all the time, is trying to find stuff for me to do. I'm also starting to wind up my ATC career with the FAA. It's time to start thinking about what I want to do next, and I've decided I want to get back into flying. I also really enjoy teaching, so I thought, What could be a better match for both of my passions? I should finish that flight instructor certificate I'd started back in college.

The first step on my journey back to flying was ground school, to refresh myself on all of the stuff that had changed, and all the stuff I had forgotten--which was a lot! The ground school went well, and the concepts came back fairly quickly.

The next step was to go out to the local FBO and find a flight instructor brave enough to go up with me. I found a volunteer, and we sat down for a little while to review the basics. One of the first things he noticed was that I held a commercial certificate with an instrument rating. Here's a tip for all you instructors out there: Just because someone holds the certificate or rating isn't a good indicator that they are by any means proficient. I think he assumed that this would be a pretty easy flight review. You know, go out and do a few touch and goes, maybe some slow flight, and call it a day. He even asked if I wanted to make this my instrument proficiency check. I finally convinced him that I was going to need more than just a cursory review. We were going to hop into a brand spanking new Cessna 172. Great! I'm very familiar with the 172. That was the airplane in which I did almost all of my training 18 years ago. How much could have possibly changed? Apparently, a great deal.

"What do you mean there are 12 sumps?" I exclaimed. I swear I must have drained a gallon of gas out of that thing. We climbed in the cockpit. This airplane had more equipment than the space shuttle: GPS, autopilot, ADF, DME, marker beacons, EGT. It had a four-place intercom. I just had to chuckle to myself because we used to put earplugs in so that we wouldn't go deaf and then yell at each other over all the noise.

My next question was, "Where's the carburetor heat?" My instructor was now chuckling to himself. He very politely said that the aircraft was fuel injected and, therefore, did not require carburetor heat. I felt a little bit like Rip Van Winkle. I had taken an 18-year nap from flying, and when I woke up technology had left me way behind the power curve.

Which brings me to the autopilot and GPS. To me this stuff takes all the "fun" out of flying. I mean, you haven't really flown until you are 10 miles deep over the Okefenokee Swamp, using dead reckoning, bouncing all over the place, trying to read a sectional chart but finding no visual landmarks that you can identify (because it's all swamp!), and you have absolutely no idea where you are. Now I'm sitting in an airplane that will hold my altitude and heading or even track a navaid if I choose, and has a moving map that tells me exactly where I am at any given moment.

The moral to my story is that I'm certain there are many other former flight instructors with similar circumstances who would love to get back in the air. Today's active flight instructors should encourage, welcome, and help them through these new learning curves that technology has created.

I'm pleased to report that I am once again current and proficient. It took a little time and effort to get back up to speed but in the end it was definitely worth it. I'm on track to earn my flight instructor certificate very soon. Who knows, maybe my first student will be my own daughter. That would definitely bring my journey back to flying full circle.

An air traffic controller for 18 years, Paul Langston is an instrument-rated commercial pilot who is working on his CFI.

By Paul Langston

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