It was one of those perfect Florida winter evenings.
This is the weather flying dreams are made of. The air was smooth. The Cessna 152 and I didn’t experience a single bump. The sun was low off my left wing, a flaming ball of orange hanging just above the horizon. The landscape to my right glowed with a deepening yellow tinge. Ahead was home.
A familiar voice came over the radio as I neared Gilbert Field. The voice belonged to a fellow who hangars two tiny airplanes in the same-sized space I can barely shoehorn my AirCam into. It was Sonny. I recognized the airplane, too. His little red and white experimental taildragger.
My fellow tenant was enjoying the sunset himself while doing a bit of pattern work at our non-towered home field. As I overflew the field well above pattern altitude to set myself up for a 45° entry to the downwind leg, Sonny was turning crosswind, continuing his climb-out from Runway 5. I announced my position and my intentions. Sonny did the same.
By the time I was on downwind, turning base, Sonny was back on the ground at the hold short line, and was awaiting my landing so he could take one more turn around the pattern. I called my base, he called to let me know he had me in sight and would hold in position.
It was all very orderly, not to mention aesthetically appealing. Sunset was still a few minutes away and the world as we could see it was glowing as if the sun was made of gold.
One notch of flaps and just a tad of a slip was all I needed for the Cessna to settle down on the centerline with a gentle screech of the tires. I made the second turnoff and left the runway, heading for my hangar. Sonny revved up and took to the skies one more time.
A few minutes later, as I was tucking my little yellow bird away and wiping the bug carcasses off the leading edges of everything that had a leading edge, Sonny taxied up to his hangar door, shut down, and marched right over to see me.
“Hey, I want to tell you something,” he called out as he crossed the narrow taxiway between our hangars. In his arms was the lap dog that always accompanies him. On his face was the smile he seems to perpetually wear. “I’ve got a suggestion for you.”
The long and the short of it was this: Sonny is a long-time pilot. He owns two airplanes. He flies often. But he hasn’t flown in controlled airspace in well over a decade.
That isn’t as uncommon a situation as you might think. But it creates an interesting dilemma.
While he’s skilled at many piloting tasks, he’s rusty and lacks confidence in some others. That is what led Sonny to be an attendee at one of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot Association‘s Rusty Pilot seminars a few months back. He participated well, and gave every indication that he enjoyed the course. As it turns out, it worked for him in more ways than one.
“I was over at Bartow the other day, getting some practice doing radio work,” his story flowed.
As you might imagine, it wasn’t long before he found himself being overwhelmed by the speed of the radio calls coming from the tower combined with the jargon that’s perfectly acceptable in the cockpit but not particularly common outside it.
“So I called him back and said, ‘Hold on now, I’m a Rusty Pilot, ya’ know.”
That did the trick. The controller deduced what the term meant and slowed down his calls. He enunciated a bit more clearly. Sonny was back in the game.
As is so often the case, controllers want to be of real value to us when we’re in the air. But it’s a two-way street. They can only help us with issues we tell them about. They can’t read our minds.
By sharing some pertinent information about the challenges he was facing, Sonny was able to work with the controller on the other end of the radio communication to solve his problem and remain safely in controlled airspace.
“More of us should use that term, ‘Rusty Pilot’”, Sonny told me. “It works.”
This past Saturday I presented another AOPA Rusty Pilot seminar. It was well attended, as they usually are, and the attendees participated well in getting back up to speed.
Two of those attendees turned out to be controllers. One came from a TRACON facility, the other ran the tower at a Class D airport. I shared the story with them and was pleased to find neither of them had a problem with the use of the term “Rusty Pilot.”
I’ll grant you, it’s a non-standard term. It’s certainly not found in the Pilot/Controller Glossary.
But then neither is, “Looking for traffic,” or “No Joy,” which are terms often heard on the airwaves.
But like, “Looking for traffic,” the term, “Rusty Pilot” carries real meaning. Just as a student pilot might get a bit nervous flying in Class B airspace on a long cross-country flight and invoke the term “Student pilot” when contacting Approach Control, there’s no reason the Rusty Pilot can’t do the same thing.
The glossary is a real thing, by the way. You can find it at FAA.gov.
Lapsed pilots — rusty pilots — are getting back into the air. And that’s a good thing. Much like when they were students, they’ll lack some confidence and finesse, even if they do have the basic skills to get back into the system and enjoy the privileges their certificates allow them to pursue.
Thanks to my neighbor, Sonny, they’ve got one more tool in their belt to help them make the whole process that much easier.
Man, I love the way this is all working out so well.