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Time offTime off

Getting back in the saddle can take time

When I was a full-time CFI, it was common for people to come in and fly after long layoffs, and they often acted like getting into an airplane was no different from getting into a car.
AOPA Turbine Pilot
Illustration by Taylor Callery

They didn’t want to use checklists; they made mistakes; they were sloppy; and, as any experienced CFI would tell you, they were trying to kill me. And the more complex the airplane, the greater potential there was for a bad outcome.

I’ve now been flying jets for more than 20 years, and two weeks is a long break for me. One of the first topics the crew discusses during the initial meeting or brief is any long layoff that someone has taken, and we always remind the other guy or gal to keep an eye on us. We are professionals who do this every day, and we are very in tune with the impact of small mistakes. The potential for error is magnified when there are new changes in procedures, policies, or processes.

I was recently the one with the long layoff. My mother had died, and I took a six-week hiatus from work to get her through hospice, grieve, and start taking care of her estate. Getting in an airplane would not have been a good idea for me during this time, but at some point, I had to go back to pay the bills.

The layoff was noticeable, and it reinforced what I already knew: If professional pilots are prone to small mistakes and moments of brain freeze, then so is a pilot who doesn’t fly every day.Coincidentally, the captain I flew with right before I went out had just taken a month off for the same thing, and we were able to talk about our common situation. I had noticed he was rusty, and when I came back to work, it didn’t take long to feel both comfortable and out of sorts at the same time. My first flight saw a series of relatively small mistakes. We do a lot of things using flow patterns, and I missed a couple of them that were caught either by the captain or by the checklist. But I noticed that I was a bit behind.

It took two or three flights to really get back into the groove. Working the radio was a piece of cake, and the flight director minimized any errors I might have made while hand-flying. But the layoff was noticeable, and it reinforced what I already knew: If professional pilots are prone to small mistakes and moments of brain freeze, then so is a pilot who doesn’t fly every day. Put that pilot in a high-performance airplane or a jet, and the risk of those small mistakes only gets worse. In fact, there is a risk that they could snowball into something serious, whether from improper programming of the GPS or improper system management.

If you haven’t flown for a while, you should seriously consider taking an experienced safety pilot with you or do some chair flying and book review. The bigger and faster the airplane, the faster things happen and the faster—and further—you can fall behind. And if you aren’t careful, you may not be able to catch up.

Chip Wright

Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.

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