My experience as a rusty pilot – Part IV

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the final installment of 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.


Rust Free… and Sharing It with Others

As a new homeowner I’ve learned that a yard left unattended will quickly take advantage of such lack of devotion and make a house stand out for the wrong reasons. Similar to those persistent blades of grass is the metaphorical rust that clings to every idle pilot’s ability to fly an airplane. When a beautiful weekend day presents itself in the dog days of summer, it’s borderline criminal to skip addressing the landscape of your abode…but how come pilots don’t use the same rationale for getting airborne?

Changing the mindset from reactionary (“What a beautiful day… but I don’t have the time to go fly”) to being proactive (“Thursday looks great this week, I should move things around to make sure I can fly that day”) is essential towards reducing, as well as avoiding, rust. I’ll admit that during my initial training and learning plateau, there were days when I was happy that Mother Nature wouldn’t allow us to fly. The most influential pilots I bump elbows with are the ones who find a way to fly regardless of the hurdles. Driving 30 minutes at the crack of dawn on a Saturday because the weather is sensational isn’t a second thought to this group – it’s more of a calling.

The late Chuck Yeager is quoted as saying, “The best pilots fly more than others, that’s why they’re the best.” Among other colorful quotations from the first man to travel faster than sound, this one resonates with me the most because it sets a rudimentary standard for proficiency while simultaneously offering a challenge. I’ve accepted that I’ll never be in the top 1%, 5% or even 10% of worldly pilots. Heck, I’ll probably never crack the top 25% in the United States. But I can strive for it, and within that symbolic goal, I’m assured to stay proficient and safe.

My final leap towards rust removal was a personal objective of flying once a week in the month of June last year. In southwest Ohio, June typically provides warm days that upgrade to balmy when it’s time to head home from work, with the occasional pop-up storm in the afternoon when that big ball in the sky has had plenty of time to charge the weather. To negate these worrisome storms, I scheduled all my rental time in the early bird flight blocks which also provides the advantage of mostly empty airspace.

Week one was a short jaunt to grab some coffee at a “local” air cafe while the sun was climbing over the horizon. Week two I flew to Sporty’s local practice area and got reacquainted with performance maneuvers in addition to some NAV tracking before heading into the office. Week three involved a trip to an airport frequented during my training for its 36/18 runway, almost always offering crosswind practice. The successful crab to flare was an empowering feeling and another sharpened arrow in my aviation quiver.

For the final week of June, I was able to coordinate with an instructor and get back into a Cessna 172RG and practice landings and ground procedures at a towered field. During initial training, I was intimidated by the prospect of speaking to a control tower, for worry of using an incorrect term or taking too long to relay my message. But just as my initial concerns were unfounded, it was glaringly obvious on this June morning that I was communicating with another person who wanted to help keep us safe while conveying a sense of efficiency and professionalism.

The joy of flying with retractable gear and a constant speed propeller added to the confidence, in addition to the smile that was on my face when we shut the engine down that day. I’ve spent many a moments over the years wondering what 1903 Orville and Wilbur would think if they were to jump in a Cessna 172 with me today. And for the duo who revolutionized the propeller, I’m confident the twisting motion of the constant speed propeller would have appeared paranormal to them.

After those four flights in June, I’d shaken the final grains of rust off my aviation competence and I considered myself a rust-free pilot.

A goal in life should always be paired to a reward. “I’d like to buy a house within a couple of years so that I can start gaining value in my monthly payments,” or “I’d like to lose weight within the next six months so that I’ll be able to fit in clothes better and be healthier.” For me the reward of becoming a rust-free pilot was the ability to share this love of flight with my significant other.

Recently I was able to take my wife on her inaugural flight in a small airplane and I was ecstatic to see that she’s not of the small population of people who despise flight, even when in the front seat. After the fact she told me that the scariest part for her was when the entire airplane shook as the engine turned over (I’ll be sure to cover that detail on future preflight briefings with first time passengers). The joy was evident on both our faces throughout the trip and a pit stop for a sunset dinner on the northwestern side of Indianapolis made it a surreal day. That’s the only entry in my logbook with an exclamation mark in the remarks column and we already have a few ideas for future flights.

I know a few people who are marathon runners and I’ve come to realize that just as they finish one race they start preparing for the next. This isn’t necessarily because they’re gluttons for punishment; it’s more to keep their bodies in peak endurance shape and reduce the required conditioning as the next race approaches. While I’m not suggesting what I accomplished is anything similar to running 26.2 miles (honestly the thought makes my stomach quiver), but flying an airplane is a degrading skill set when not used periodically, similar to the marathon runner taking a month off from jogging.

With the removal of all my rust, I was back in peak flying shape and I wasn’t about to kick my legs up and start trading my proficiency for comfort.

I’ve been flying consistently since, in addition to setting new goals for myself and my logbook — to keep getting airborne every chance I can. Consider this an open proclamation that I will never hold the iron oxide letter on my being again. Having reflected on all the devoted time, study, sweat (literally), and monetary commitments towards earning this skill, it would be a slap in the face to my younger self not to keep this ability sharp.

Also worth mentioning again, this isn’t an ability that lacks benefits. Some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed were from the left seat of a Cessna. Time saved by flying to a destination rather than driving can’t be overlooked. Taking in the rolling morning fog or enjoying the red, orange, and yellows of fall above the seven hills of Cincinnati is a view that even Monet would have trouble fathoming. And lastly, flying an airplane is just darn fun!

Throughout the halls of Sporty’s Pilot Shop there are hundreds of mementos, paintings, and photographs accumulated over our 60 year history, all revolving around aviation. A picture that always captures my eye is the image of an earlier aviator (to the right). I like to think he’s just finished a challenging flight in this open cockpit airplane, shut the engine off, and removed those state of the art flying goggles to talk to the maintenance crew. Joy is the initial emotion that comes to mind when you look at all the features of his face: crest of his eyebrows, slight grin/smirk favoring one side of his mouth, the fact that his cheekbones are almost into his eyes. I like to think that as soon as he took his goggles off, his first words to the crew were something to the tune of, “can you believe I get to do this!” and that is one of the most telling pictures I’ve found that can express the excitement, joy, and reverence that’s a byproduct of flying an airplane. As Elrey Jeppesen once said; “There’s a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight.” Here’s to never being a technician again.

In closing this Rusty Pilot series, I’d like to acknowledge the people who’ve gotten me to my current position as a rust-free pilot. To my father for planting the aviation seed and for helping me persevere during the hurdles of flight training. To my mother for her unnatural interest in my flying accolades and the occasional ego inflation. To my wife for not making me sleep on the couch from all the early morning alarm clock wake-ups so I can get out the door to fly before work. To all the instructors throughout the years who were able to instill a stronger understanding of a system or a maneuver, and their zen-like patience when I had to learn lazy eights. To Sporty’s Academy for recognizing the instructors that would fit best with my learning personality, and to Sporty’s Pilot Shop for requiring me to get back into the aviation fold.

Lastly, to two men from Dayton, Ohio, named Orville and Wilbur. More than 115 years ago they laid the foundation for the millions of pilots that have followed in their footsteps, leaving the bounds of earth by powered flight. Countless industries have been improved or created thanks to these two men spending over three years tinkering with designs on that windy beach in North Carolina.

Clear skies and strong tailwinds.