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Rusty pilots return to the skies

Embracing the sentiment “once a pilot always a pilot,” more than 10,000 aviators are now back in the left seat thanks to the AOPA Rusty Pilots initiative.

The Rusty Pilots initiative began in 2014 as part of AOPA’s You Can Fly program, which aims to get people flying and keep them flying.

For one reason or another—be it cost, time, or regulations—thousands of pilots have had to forgo their passion for flying. Even so, only a small percentage of pilots never intend to return. Many lapsed pilots have lacked the support and inspiration they need to continue. The Rusty Pilots program aims to change that by lowering the barrier to re-entry and providing lapsed pilots a simple way to return to the skies.

AOPA offers several ways to get back on track: Attend an in-person seminar or a live webinar, or take a self-paced online course. Rusty Pilots seminars are free to AOPA members and are offered nationwide. Attendees can participate in a free ground school session that fulfills the FAA’s flight review requirement for ground instruction. The program helps pilots brush up on topics such as medical reform, weather briefings, preflight planning, federal aviation regulations, airspace, and communications.

Over the years, the Rusty Pilots initiative has attracted some 42,000 participants and held more than 950 seminars across the country. While most attendees are inactive pilots, the program is open to all—including students, nonpilots, and active pilots. In fact, about 40 percent of Rusty Pilots audiences are current pilots looking to sharpen their knowledge. “Rusty” means different things to different people.

Mark Sams, a former lapsed pilot, completed AOPA's Rusty Pilots course in 2018. He has since flown more than 1,000 hours, added a multiengine rating, and purchased a Piper Arrow and Piper Navajo. Photo courtesy of Mark Sams.

Many participants have shared how the Rusty Pilots program has impacted their return to the cockpit. Mark Sams, a former lapsed pilot, said the program “allowed me to get back up to speed quickly and efficiently so that I had the confidence to go on and do what I needed to.” Since completing the Rusty Pilots course in 2018, Sams has flown more than 1,000 hours, added a multiengine rating, and even purchased a Piper Arrow and Piper Navajo. Sams encouraged others to consider getting back into flying for the pure fun of it. “There’s a comradery in pilots you just don’t find in a lot of places,” he said.

As part of the You Can Fly program, the Rusty Pilots initiative has embodied AOPA’s mission to protect general aviation and keep it thriving. Since its inception, the You Can Fly program has made significant strides in building the pilot community by creating nearly 200 new flying clubs, awarding millions of dollars in aviation scholarships, and delivering aviation science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum to more than 25,000 high school students. The newest milestone—getting 10,000 formerly inactive pilots back in the air—demonstrates that You Can Fly is tangibly making flying more accessible and affordable.

“Stepping away from flying can be a tough decision for pilots, and getting back into it after a long absence can be intimidating. That’s why we’re so excited by this milestone. Every one of those 10,000 pilots is back to doing something they love, and we’re honored to have helped them on that journey,” said Elizabeth Tennyson, senior vice president of the AOPA Foundation and You Can Fly.

Now dust off that logbook–getting back in the air is easier than you think.

The You Can Fly program and the Air Safety Institute are funded by charitable donations to the AOPA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization. To be a part of the solution, visit

Amelia Walsh
Communications and Research Specialist
AOPA Comms and Research Specialist Amelia Walsh joined AOPA in 2017. Named after the famous aviatrix, she's a private pilot working on her instrument rating in a Colombia 350.
Topics: You Can Fly, Training and Safety

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