I swore I would never do it. I did. Out loud. Once my career started in earnest, and the airplanes got bigger, faster and more complicated, I swore I would never fly a light single engine airplane again.
Over the years I’ve flown with more than a few guys that have had their own planes and kept a hand in general aviation. I guess on some level I kind of understood their motivation but the difficult early years of my career ground down my desire to spend any extra time in airplanes on my days off. I was enjoying my professional flying but didn’t have much interest in going backwards.
It went on that way for a while. Eventually I started to come around and thought I would just go do a one hour check out flight in a Cessna 172 and commence flying around. This, is the Airline Guy trap. You know, here’s this Airline Guy. He’s been driving jets around for God knows how long, he’s tired, crusty, maybe a little grumpy when he hasn’t had his coffee, and he thinks,”I can fly this <insert jet here> I can fly a Cessna no problem.”
Yeah, let me tell you something Airline Guy. No. You can’t.
Now, I tried not to be that guy. I swear. I’m humble, open minded, and self deprecating almost to a fault, but alas, I am indeed an Airline Guy, and into the trap I fell. I booked a one hour check out in a Cessna 172 and thought, “I’ll have this thing wired up in an hour. It’ll be fine.” Yeah, not so much. The flying went mostly fine because airplanes are airplanes (sorta). Power, pitch, roll, yaw and trim. Easy peasey.
The landings… Yeah, that part. You’ll find this to be a theme. I remember it was gusty that day and I was immediately reminded how this Cessna was in no possible way like the jet I was working on. The landings were…. well, about standard for an Airline Guy. Flaring too high, too fast, and what in the hell are these pedals for? It was a mess. I left that checkout, not signed off, humbled and embarrassed. I vowed never to return.
Until last year. It had been a few years since that last failed attempt, my bruised ego had healed a bit and life was quite a bit different. So in February I started looking around. Aaaand it was 2020. Ah yes, 2020 the year of the pandemic, crushed airline industry, civil unrest and all around general global shenanigans. It seemed like the perfect time. You see, my wife had started training for her private pilot certificate in the fall of 2019. Her training and studies began to rekindle my interest in GA. As spring approached, she switched to a school that utilized the venerable Piper Warrior. She was raving about the handling characteristics and how the wings were actually on the right side of the airplane. (Sorry Cessna guys. Actually I’m not.) She suggested I talk to them about a check out.
She clearly didn’t remember the last time.
But, call I did. Once the world started to slowly open again I called the local flight school. The manager could see me coming a nautical mile away. I had Airline Guy tattooed across my forehead like some sort of badge of general aviation dumbassery. Right off the bat he recommended the Piper Arrow. The Arrow is a popular airplane for pilots working on a commercial certificate since it is considered a high performance and complex aircraft due to its 200hp engine, retractable landing gear and constant speed propeller. He further noted that the other idiot Airline Guys that have rolled through his office have had more success with the Arrow than with the Warriors and Cessna. Initially I assumed that was because it would feel more like a “real airplane.” But, I suspect it was actually the five hour required training for insurance that was helping them out. I loved the idea. Zero pressure to be smart on the first day (or the second for that matter) and I could ease my way back. He assigned me to a senior instructor and we got on the schedule.
Handflying at work is always a skill I try to keep sharp. Much to the eye rolling chagrin of some of my colleagues, I make it a habit, when appropriate, to turn off the automation and actually fly the airplane. The thinking being that someday it might be inop and we should be able to competently fly the airplane without all the magic. Now, I’ll say that by and large, even without practice we can all do that. I just don’t want it to be weird, so I fly a lot. With that said, flying these little planes was never much of an issue. Different, yes, but the fundamentals are always there. I liked the Arrow right away. It felt much more substantial than the Cessna 172 I had tried those years before. With the help of a very patient instructor, I got more comfortable with the feel of the airplane, and after my first few landings, things started to come together.
I would argue that landings are where the instructors earn their money. Mine certainly did. Forget the fact that the Arrow is significantly smaller and lighter than say, an Airbus, and that they share almost no similarities (except maybe wings… maybe). A couple hours of flying can sort some of that out. The thing that trips up your standard issue Airline Guy is sight picture: sitting five feet off the ground in an Arrow vs thirty feet in an Airbus. It takes a fair bit of practice to get that sight picture correct. After five hours I was getting there. Not perfect, but safe… ish.
With the sign off finally in my pocket, I booked a two hour block in the Arrow. As I taxied to the runway and looked over at the empty right seat, it occurred to me, it was the first time I had been alone in an airplane in nearly twenty years. It’s funny how that moment felt similar to the very first time I soloed and airplane in 199…. well, a while ago.
This is fine. I’m fine. This is totally fine. Right? Yeah. Fine.
I performed a normal takeoff and climb out, flew over the house, out around some of the hills to the west and then back to the airport for some pattern work. Just like I was a pilot. Like a real one. And that’s when it occurred to me, this is why those guys I had flown with kept their light airplane skills sharp. Getting back in touch with the sights, the smells, and the feeling of flying a “real” airplane again was invigorating.
It’s interesting to me how time and experience changes perspective. As I’ve gotten to know some of the instructors just starting their careers, it’s an interesting juxtaposition between our experience. They can’t wait to learn all the things I’ve learned in my career just as I have been enthusiastic in seeking out their knowledge and advice in their area of expertise. I may know more about flying jets than they do, but they definitely know more about flying single engine airplanes than I do right now. And maybe that’s the point. The learning never stops. Whether you take a step backwards to relearn things you forgot or if you’re moving forward and learning new things, you’re always learning something. There’s a saying somewhere that says in aviation, once you stop learning you’re dead. It’s a little dramatic and cliche for my tastes, but all the same, I think it’s true. Whether at work or at the local airport I’m always picking up new things.
So what’s next? Well, there’s more to the story of my Ali-like return to general aviation, but I’ve rambled on long enough for now. I have some things on my list to learn this year as the weather eventually begins to cooperate. Besides building and maintaining proficiency in the (new)Cherokee, and being able to switch successfully between that and the Airbus, I’m looking forward to adding formation flying, short field and soft field takeoffs and landing to my skillset. It should be an interesting season.
I’ll add updates as the hilarity ensues. Carry on.