Last week I found myself in a large hangar surrounded by perhaps as many as 150 individuals who self-identify as rusty pilots. They and I had traveled to St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, to enjoy the company of fellow aviation enthusiasts at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association last regional fly-in of the year.
Clearly, not being current or proficient in the cockpit does little to diminish the allure of aviation for many of us. I saw no embarrassment or shame in the room.
Rather, I experienced a gaggle of curious potential participants. As was the case early in their quest to fly, these out-of-practice aviators have questions and concerns about what the requirements are to get current, and hopefully stay current as pilots.
Frankly, I was pleased to see so many people of all ages and both genders who have been altitude deficient for an extended period of time gathering to find out exactly how they might go about climbing back into an aircraft, getting up to speed, and making the most of their penchant for being airborne. Doing that safely and legally was the focus of the discussion. From my perspective, those questions were addressed and answered. The attendees went home better informed and more confident than they’d been when they’d arrived.
The weekend event was educational, entertaining, and gave me a real reason for hope. Aviators may not be flying as much as they used to, but they’re sure thinking about it. Once the sensation of flight gets into your blood, I guess there’s just no getting away from the dream anymore. They want to fly again and they’re taking steps to get headed in that direction.
This all brought to mind an interesting question. What is a pilot? I don’t mean in the FAA sense, where the knowledge test and practical test lay out the exact topics, tasks, and completion standards for becoming a pilot. I’m wondering about the concept of being a pilot in the larger sense.
Is a pilot the whiz-bang speed demon in an almost unimaginably powerful fighter jet, or is it the ag pilot who spends the bulk of his or her career navigating over rows of crops while maintaining an altitude of between 5 and 100 feet AGL?
When the term pilot comes up in conversation, are we talking about the airline version with tens of thousands of hours logged, or are we thinking of the general aviator with less than 100 hours of total time in their book? Is it the helicopter pilot who radios in traffic reports to the local news station, or the blimp jockey hanging a thousand feet above a football stadium?
I think it’s possible that we can break new ground in the coming days by acknowledging that “pilot” means different things to different people – but that everyone who has earned the title celebrates the science and technology of flight with equal reverence and elation. We can do what was considered impossible not so long ago, and we can do it safely and consistently, enriching our lives in the process. That in and of itself is amazing. Simply amazing.
Let’s consider whether there really is a difference between the 17-year-old girl who just earned her private pilot certificate, and the gray-haired airline captain who steps from a transport category cockpit for the last time? For that matter, are those two any better or worse an example of what a pilot is than the insurance salesman or the general contractor who gave up flying 20 years ago in order to focus their attention and finances on meeting the mortgage, raising a family, and deferring their own gratification in the air for a later date? I don’t think so.
I think we’re all pilots. We all matter. Collectively we make up the full spectrum of the pilot population and we strive to not just dream of flying, but to live the aviator’s dream that so many before us could never truly bring to fruition.
If we as a community begin to openly value the sport pilot as highly as we value the ATP, we will have made real progress. That attitude may be easier to accept when we recognize that the ATP was at one time a nervous student pilot sitting at the hold short line, waiting to takeoff on their first solo circuit around the pattern.
We all start small, but the size and speed of the aircraft we fly says nothing about the significance of our choice to become a pilot. Even the men who have walked on the moon have been known to cast a glance of desire in the direction of a simple Piper Cub or an otherwise pedestrian Cessna, as it flies overhead.
There is an important aspect of rust that should never be overlooked. It can be removed. The underlying structure can be repaired and made whole again. Rusty pilots are not ex-pilots. They’re simply pilots waiting for the right opportunity to jump back into the game and participate once again in a way that works for them.
As much as I’m gratified to see the desire to fly isn’t dimmed over time, I’m even more encouraged to see so many pilots seeking out the opportunities, the instruction, and the social connections that can get them back into the air again.
The future looks just a little bit brighter to me. Hopefully, you’ll find a silver lining of your own and a definition of the term “pilot” that works for you through all the seasons of your life, too.