Already a member? Please login below for an enhanced experience. Not a member? Join today

Can I still land an airplane?Can I still land an airplane?

A rusty pilot shares his comeback storyA rusty pilot shares his comeback story

It was August 1989 when private pilot George Gillett took a timeout from his flying to concentrate on graduating from college.

Photo courtesy of George Gillett.

The flying was going well. He was working on his instrument rating, and was only five hours short of eligibility to take the practical test. But there wasn’t enough time or money for academia plus aviation.

Graduation day came in May 1990. A new job, relocation, and family responsibilities came along, as did “life in general that got in the way of returning to the cockpit.”

Does that last bit—life getting in the way of flying—ring a bell?

Fortunately, Gillett’s aviation story that had begun in December 1979 at North Carolina’s Sky Manor Airport while he was in the military, based at Camp Lejeune, didn’t end to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance at the college commencement ceremony. He still had his flight case, plotter, flight computer, and old charts, and he would break them out for a look now and then. But it wasn’t until September 2018, after retirement from a law-enforcement career marked by eight relocations in five states, that Gillett, now a Knoxville, Tennessee, inhabitant, hit the internet to see what was going on in aviation.

The information he found online got the juices flowing. He learned that the FAA would mail him an updated pilot certificate for the asking. And he discovered that AOPA was offering a Rusty Pilots Online course, the web-based version of the popular AOPA Rusty Pilots seminars that have helped thousands of lapsed pilots get back into flying.

Could he do that too? “Because it had been so long since I [had flown], I figured that I would never pilot an airplane again,” he said. “I felt I was too old and was out of currency for so long, that it would be like starting all over as a student pilot.”

That wasn't his only concern. Times had changed. “When I quit flying there were NO cell phones, NO world wide web, NO electronic flight bags, NO glass cockpits, NO GPS approaches, NO BasicMed, simpler National Airspace System, etc.”

Those alibis soon collapsed under the weight of the evidence. “I enjoyed the rusty pilot course so well, I joined AOPA and began to take advantage of the Air Safety Institute. I studied the materials and felt overwhelmed. However, the more I reviewed the materials, the more curiosity I had as to whether I still had the ability to land an airplane after almost 30 years…mostly to prove to myself that I still could.”

That proof wasn’t long coming. Encouraged by connecting with flight instructor Matt Prince—“the calmest CFI that I had ever interacted with”—Gillett found that he could fly a Cessna 172 with no intervention. Gaining confidence, he forged ahead, celebrating the 115th anniversary of powered flight on Dec. 17, 2018, by passing his instrument-rating practical test.

“One of the proudest moments of my life is when I was told that I had passed and was a newly minted instrument pilot 30 years after beginning that journey,” he said.

Gillett offers seven tips on how to succeed at returning to flying.

Go for it: “For anyone who is considering a return to the cockpit after any length of layoff from flying, I say go for it!”

Find a good teacher: “If I was going to make any attempt at flying again, finding the right CFI was important to me. After searching around a bit I found Matt Prince, CFII at AvZ Aviation in Knoxville.  Matt was the calmest CFI that I had ever interacted with and seemed to have endless patience answering my questions, reassuring me that I wouldn’t have any problems and investing his time with me before we ever got into an airplane.”

First flight since 1989: “I was outright nervous the entire time. Not once did Matt touch the controls or take over any part of the flight, even though I was wishing he would. We did three landings my first flight back and I didn’t need Matt’s help on any of them. The landings didn’t have a lot of style points, but they weren’t horrible, and we ‘walked away from all three.’”

Going back for more: “After a full week of thinking about whether or not to return, on October 25, 2018, I returned for another flight. This time, I wasn’t quite as nervous as the first time and one of the three landings that day was acceptable by my standards.”

Man with a plan: “I thought long and hard about my path forward as a pilot after the October 25, 2018, lesson and decided that I wanted to finish training for my instrument rating, try to pass the written test and then a checkride. So, I committed myself to my new goal, even though it was like I had stepped through an aviation time warp.

“There was much to learn, but I discovered that aviation had changed for the better. GPS RNAV approaches were more straightforward than the old non-precision NDB approaches that I had trained on. Electronic flight bags and iPads as kneeboards had made navigation so much easier and safer. Cell phones allowed easy flight plan filing and canceling. There were no more paper charts and plates to keep track of in the cockpit, fewer holds and position reports, so the pilot workload during flight was eased.”

Instrument pilot at last: “After completing my flight review and only 12 hours of instruction, Matt recommended me for my instrument checkride. On Monday, December 17, 2018, I met with DPE Greg Hudson at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge airport (KGKT). The oral exam was challenging but not overwhelming. Then, out to the airplane for the flying portion of the checkride. Matt had me well prepared and I flew all approaches, holds, and the unusual attitudes in a manner that I was personally satisfied with. DPE Hudson was thorough and fair; I actually reflect on it being a terrific learning experience as he used the checkride as a teaching experience.”

Advice for others: “Absolutely do it. You won’t regret it. Take it one maneuver, one flight, one lesson at a time, and don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed by your own mind. Everyone, from your CFII to ATC to your fellow students are supporting you and want you to succeed. Don’t be intimidated by changes in the system or technology. Embrace it and learn from it. Even if you don’t stick with flying this time around, take something away from your experience that you can build on in the future. But, mostly, enjoy yourself and have a good time. There is nothing like flying solo again; the combination of nervous energy and exhilaration can’t be duplicated in any other area in life.”

George Gillett, left, is congratulated on earning his instrument rating by designated pilot examiner Greg Hudson. Photo courtesy of George Gillett.
Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: You Can Fly, Pilots, Flight Training

Related Articles