Editor’s Note: Welcome to a four-part series on Chris McGonegle’s experience as a rusty pilot – a relatable category for many. Chris is an Instrument-rated Commercial pilot and product manager with Sporty’s Pilot Shop.
After I earned my Commercial Pilot certificate on June 24th of 2015, I took what some would call a hiatus. Others may classify it as hibernation. I’ll regrettably define my lapse in flying as an ill-advised abandonment from sky commuting. I felt proud of what I had accomplished, while also feeling exhausted at its expense. It took me 1,721 days to earn my Commercial certificate after that first lesson. Contributing factors were responsibilities at home and work, but regardless, my training took longer than it should have.
I’ve been told that I’m critical of myself, and because of that, there were many flights throughout my training that made me feel like a failure. Luckily the flight school recognized this and paired me with a complementary instructor. But even so, I remembered the stings more than the victories. In hindsight, I’ve realized that when I paused my flying, the lack of “stings” was an agreeable feeling and mindset, and one I wasn’t necessarily excited to change. I’d fallen into the trap of “comfortability” which is married to the stunting of growth, and I didn’t see a reason to get back in the plane. The rust had found a new host.
I devoted more and more of my eligible time towards work (because it was actually nice to watch a bank account grow rather than decline) and before I knew it, I hadn’t flown in three months. I’d slipped out of currency to fly with passengers. I’d reassure myself be thinking how easy it would be to knock out three full stop landings a day before I take anyone up—but those rides were never scheduled. Then about a year after I earned my Commercial Pilot certificate, I took a position with another company that wasn’t aviation related in the least. I’d no longer be within earshot of Cessna 172s training the next batch of budding aviators. Sure, the money was good, but was it worth it to lose the sights and sounds of watching airplanes stop for Avgas?
Unbeknownst to my new employer at the time, when they were congratulating me on my one-year anniversary with the company, I was catching up with the realization that my total currency had lapsed. Federal regulation 14 CFR 61.56(c) states that no person may act as pilot in command of an aircraft unless, in the preceding 24 calendar months before the pilot acts as pilot in command, that person has accomplished a flight review in an applicable aircraft for which that pilot is rated, and also received a logbook endorsement from the authorized instructor who gave the review certifying that the person has satisfactorily completed the review. I had fallen out of the recency requirement set by the FAA and was more or less an apostate.
For years, dinner conversations would inevitably broach the subject that I had my pilot’s license and I would have to strategically explain why I wasn’t using my hard-earned skill. People would always ask if I could fly them somewhere and I would invariably respond with, “you buy, and I’ll fly,” but I knew that if anyone actually put their money where their mouth was, I’d be in trouble. During my hiatus from flying, I took countless trips with friends or family that required travel using the airlines. I’d randomly make eye contact with a first officer or captain traversing the terminal walkway and a small part of me felt that they could pick up on my orange hue from all the rust, my permanent iron oxide letter. We’d board the flight and I’d crane my neck slightly to catch a glimpse of the flight deck (without causing concern to the flight attendants) and see the glow of familiar avionics or electronic flight bags. I’d take it upon myself to assure anyone nervous in our row why the plane was acting like it was, or how the humming of the gear retracting was supposed to sound like a dying animal. I was in amazement and appreciation of the aerodynamic beauty that went into these fully loaded, one million-pound vessels to become airborne. Instead I was slumming it with the overly anxious passengers counting down the seconds for the drink cart to arrive and remedy their unnecessary tense ride.
Deep down there was a continuous longing in my gut, head, and heart to get back into the front of the airplane. A few months before my path started veering back towards aviation, I remember confidently telling a friend (after he’d asked the last time I went up) that I would get back into flying. Looking back on that moment, I’m not sure if it was the compounded yearning that had caused my voice to sternly relay that I was going back, but I still remember that moment as a course correction, one that would lead to more happiness.
Within a week I messaged my former superior at Sporty’s and asked if he’d want to grab dinner sometime just to catch up; it had been three years anyway, so we were due for a reunion. Unbeknownst to me, a few of my other former coworkers were coming, and it was a really great night at a local barbecue joint. Having all been in sales, eventually the conversation steered towards if I would be open to the idea of working at Sporty’s again and I made it clear that I wasn’t opposed. Fast forward a few weeks and I was signing on the dotted line to return to Sporty’s Pilot Shop as the New Product Manager. Not only was I going to bump elbows with the aviation community, but flying an airplane was one of my required duties! I was ecstatic.
As I settled into my new role and better managed my responsibilities, I started preparing for getting back in the left seat. I’d only been away for three years, but so much had changed or was new in the aviation world. The fleet of Cessna 162s that were an instrumental part of Sporty’s fleet were gone. The 2020 ADS-B Out mandate was a few months away and I was learning a new language that included the terminology “extended squitter” or “universal access transceiver.” There’s a new medical certificate that doesn’t require an AME? Oh, and I can stay instrument current in a Basic Aviation Training Device without an instructor? A lot had changed in the three short years I was away, but I was determined to ramp up as quickly as possible, so I buried myself in study.
I’ve heard the phrase “It’s just like riding a bike” described when getting back into a long-lost skill or activity, but I was very hesitant to compare a Cessna 172 to the 10-speed Schwinn I grew up with. I started my knowledge pilgrimage with a quintessential read; Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche. Next I devoured the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge (which I highly recommend all aviators reread every five years or so). I scoured AOPA and online blogs with any mention of “rusty pilot” in the title. I spent a weekend combing through the Flight Review and VFR Communications courses offered by Sporty’s. In hindsight, I realize I spent more time preparing for my return to the left seat than I’d needed to, but I was that guy who strives for 100% on my written tests, and the resources at my disposal gave me that confidence that I could pass this next flying milestone, “with flying colors.”
Finally, the day came that I would get back in the left seat with an instructor… I’d reviewed my V-speeds, logged multiple hours chair flying, familiarized myself with the latest avionics, listened to live ATC to get back into the radio jargon. But was I ready to get back up on the horse?