I’m willing to bet your family took a few trips when you were a kid. Maybe they were long distance treks of a thousand miles. Maybe they were to the next town. Whatever the case, as a young ‘un stuck in the back seat with a limited view and a limited knowledge of geography, you asked the question parents just hate. “Are we there yet?”
There’s almost never a good answer to that question. Ask it once and you’ll hear something on the order of “Almost” or “Not yet.” Ask it a half dozen times or more and you’ll feel the wrath of a driver who is as aggravated with you as they are with the traffic flowing around them.
When we’re young, or at least younger than we are now, destinations can be the central focus of any journey. To our unsophisticated mind the only real adventure is to be found at the end of the trip. Everything that happens along the way is just prelude. All those people we encounter, all the sights and sounds and smells we stumble upon are tied up in the tedious and sometimes exasperating necessity of travel. We’re laser focused on the end of the line and miss the majesty of what lies around us.
Humans are weird like that.
There is an exception to every rule, of course. And for pilots the exception is the almost total disregard for the end of the line we all face.
The day will come when we can’t, or shouldn’t, fly any more. Not as PIC in any case. Our time in the left seat will terminate. There’s no way to avoid that reality. Yet few of us consider an exit plan.
Frankly, not many of us even acknowledge that day will come. We live with blinders on, much as we did when we were seven years old sitting in the back seat of the family sedan, motoring off to grandmother’s house, or a day at the beach, or the county fair.
We’d do well to reconsider our ways. As is true of our career, marriage, retirement, and the state of our personal health, a little planning can make the difference between a satisfactory outcome and an absolute train wreck of a surprise ending.
A while back I was shopping for an airplane. A basic single-engine, fixed gear GA stalwart. One of the aircraft I looked at was in great shape. It had clearly been treated well by its owner, a gentleman who didn’t strike me as being over the hill. I asked why he was selling.
“My flying days are done,” he replied. “I’m starting to forget things. I get confused sometimes.”
I was so impressed by the resolve this fellow showed. He felt his ability to fly safely had eroded to the point where the smart move was to hang up his scarf and headset. He was leaving on his own terms, in his own time. How can you not respect that?
Interestingly enough, I still see this fellow around the airport. He flies with friends. He takes the right seat where the controls work exactly the same as they do in the left. He flies. He is still connected to aviation. He just respects his own limitations and has adapted to them in a responsible manner.
In recent years the question of when to stop flying has crept into my flight review ground instruction sessions. This is especially true when I’m flying with aircraft owners. To this point they’ve all shown an appreciation for the reality that a last flight is in their future. They each report having a no-go point that will tell them the game is up. It’s time to move into the next phase of their flying career.
I’ll find a way to remain connected to the art and science of flight until the end of my days.
That’s the critical part of the question. Moving to the next phase. You can choose to drop aviation entirely, of course. But that’s not necessary. There is still so much an experienced lapsed pilot has to offer. Sharing your stories around the FBO coffee pot is just one option.
Volunteering to speak to school groups where you can share your story while encouraging your audience to participate in aviation is another. For those who have command experience or hold a CFI, shifting into ground instruction can be a satisfying option. For those with a mechanical background there are plenty of opportunities to teach the trade in a traditional classroom/shop setting. Or you might pitch in to help a local homebuilder speed up his or her project’s completion. And there’s always the Internet to consider, which is wide open to those who want to write or make videos to share their knowledge and insight with the world at large.
I will stop flying one day. I’m sure of that. But as long as I can hold a pencil in my teeth to tap the keyboard, I’ll write about aeronautical issues. While I can still walk, I’ll be found in a hangar somewhere, poking and tweaking and doing what I can to be productive. And I’ll stand in front of students in a classroom, and civic leaders in public forums, and social organizations that have an interest in what the airport can do for the economy or the educational system of their particular town or region.
I’ll stop flying one day, but if there’s anything I can say about it, that departure from the left seat will happen on my terms. Even so, I will not be out of aviation. Not ever. It’s in my heart. It’s in my head. I will continue to look upward when I hear an engine overhead, and I’ll find a way to remain connected to the art and science of flight until the end of my days.
Am I there yet? No, not yet. But someday I will be. Thankfully, I’m able to plan my departure. I sincerely hope you will plan yours to your satisfaction, too.