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.
My Airborne Beginning
The house I grew up in lies just over two miles as the crow flies from Lunken Field, so planes overhead were a common sight. I had an aunt who worked as a flight attendant and was able to introduce me to a professional aviator, who in between flight legs one sunny day, gave me a tour of his office. I learned from an early age that balsa wood models and rockets required attention to detail and gentle craftsmanship. For icing on the cake, my father ran thermodynamic stress tests on jet engines for General Electric and would take me to Lunken on the weekends to fly RC planes. To say that aviation is in my blood would be an understatement; it’s practically a building block of my DNA.
Even with all these subliminal signals for me to earn my wings, I never took the steps toward jumping into an airplane and seeing the world with an AGL altitude over 0. People who could fly airplanes had an elite reputation in my mind; one that seemed too far-fetched for me to consider. So my teenage years were filled with school, sports, and summer jobs outside occasionally interrupted by the distinct hum of an engine passing overhead.
In my third year of study at the University of Cincinnati, I decided that I would need a new hobby to freshen up my all too routine days filled with work and studying. I remember sitting in my room trying to decide which musical instrument I wanted to pick up (to the detriment of my friendship with my roommates) and was again interrupted by the sound of an airplane flying overhead…my new path was beckoning and who was I to ignore it?
After researching local flight schools, I coordinated with my dad and we drove out to the Clermont County Airport to investigate how much it would cost and what the required time allotment would be in order to earn my license. I still remember that first time I touched the strangely-designed handle to open the Cessna 172 door and peer into this alien machine. The dials and gauges seemed like hieroglyphics to this caveman and the fuzzy sheepskin seats looked like something out of a disco movie.
Why would you ever put that on your seats? (I’ve jumped in a 172 around midsummer day after the leather seats have had ample time to cook in the sun and realized REAL FAST why sheepskin is a luxury seat cover). I found out during this visit that the University of Cincinnati had an accredited aviation program connected with the airport and after careful research and consideration, I was enrolled in the Academy.
My first flight was early October 2010 and I can still remember looking out the left window, watching the ground shrink beneath me. I’ve always had a fear of heights but something about this metal box gave me a sense of serenity and caused my fear to evaporate. For a truly memorable first flight, my instructor told me I was going to land the plane just as we turned onto an extended final. After what seemed like an eternity, he informed me he was kidding and he would show me a few before I tried. My pucker factor quickly lowered.
Four months later, in mid-February, I was cutting the back off a cheap button down shirt I had purchased from a discount retail store two nights before. A little over a year later, I earned the proud certification of a Private Pilot. In 2012 there were 514 people in the U.S.A. for every one pilot, so my mom associated me with the likes of Chuck Yeager to all her friends and family, but I knew there was much more to my training and learning.
A few months after the proud certification, I found myself scheduled for a solo cross-country in an airplane that had plenty of payload with full tanks. I asked my instructor if I could take someone with me and he responded, “Why wouldn’t you be able to”? It was a push towards strengthening the important skill of aeronautical decision making, while simultaneously reminding me of the benefits of possessing a Private Pilot certificate. All too often I found myself looking at the next challenge rather than reflecting on my accomplishments, and this was my first order to smell the roses.
On September 15, 2012, I took up my first passenger. This was easily my favorite flight during training, because I was able to share the exhilaration of flying with one of my biggest supporters. We also enjoyed a great BBQ meal at the end of our second leg before firing up the 172 for the sunset leg home. My flight with dad really reaffirmed this new path in life, which started just under two years earlier, and helped to show that it’s not all work.
A little more than a year after my flight with my dad, I earned my Instrument Rating – one of the most challenging and frustrating things I’ve ever experienced, but I cherish the memories of learning the IFR system and how it improved my aptitude and safety margin in an airplane. In passing I’ve heard the analogy that gaining an instrument rating is the equivalent of earning your master’s degree in aviation and I tend to concur.
According to AOPA, since 2002 accidents involving fixed-wing aircraft inadvertently transitioning from visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions were fatal 86% of the time. The recent passing of a basketball legend—in addition to the early death of our 35th President’s son almost 21 years ago—all too grimly relays the importance of understanding the challenge of instrument flight. The confidence I’ve gained from earning the Instrument Rating, in my opinion, is one of the most important side effects of training.
Fast forward another 16 months and on June 24, 2015, I earned my Commercial Pilot certificate. I felt like I had finally made it—the door for monetary compensation was cracked open. Mom was marginally closer to the truth when she compared me to Sully, and at long last I considered myself an aviator rather than a trainee and I was ready to take on the skies! But not before giving myself some time to relax and focus on work and at-home responsibilities to decompress slightly before leaning into the next level of flying… The rust began to accrue.