43 years later, I’m still a Private Pilot

I finished college in December of 1976 and I was to start medical school in June of 1977, so I had six months to kill. I did that by taking extra college courses just for fun, and… I learned how to fly! My mother and father gave me flying lessons as a graduation present!

I learned at the Toledo Express Airport under the watchful eye of my certified flight instructor, Del Vesey. There are some moments from that time I’ll never forget, like my first solo flight. Del and I did several touch and go’s that day, when I’d land the plane and immediately take off again, go around the pattern, and land again, and again, until after one of those landings he said, “Just drop me off right here.”

“Right where?” I asked him, because we were on the airport’s runway!

“Right here on the grass,” he said, pointing to the narrow strip of grass next to the runway of the moderately busy airport.

I could tell he was serious, and I did as he asked, dropping him off while the propeller of the 140 HP single-engine Piper PA-28 Cherokee was still spinning.

“You’re ready,” he said. “Take it back around.” He pointed vaguely up to the traffic pattern in the sky and slammed the plane’s little door shut before I could say anything.

I remember feeling shocked and tremendously excited. I was 22 years old at the time and knew no fear. In my heart, I knew I was ready, but still, I had never flown a plane by myself. I waved anxiously at Del, radioed something to traffic control, and “floored” the throttle. There was plenty of runway left for the small plane to reach take off speed, and when it did, I pulled back on the wheel.

I was in the air! The ground was further and further below me, and I was yelling at the top of my lungs. I remember hooting and hollering in raw excitement — the sheer joy of living such a crazy moment.

Other memories from that time include landing on the grass field at his farm, doing some night flying, and an introduction to instrument flight with a funny hooded cap that only allowed me to see the instrument cluster. Little treasures, those memories.

Here’s a plane just like the one I’m writing about, a Piper PA-28-140 Cherokee Cruiser.

So I became a licensed Private Pilot in the Spring of 1977, and then I started med school a few months later in June, and got married in February 1978. Suddenly, there was no time or money for flying, and I put the whole thing aside to pick up again some day in the future. Many years later, I realized that day was gone for good.

But maybe not. 43 years after obtaining my Private Pilot license, I found myself at the Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston Salem, NC in search of something other than flying — I was birdwatching. Friends had spotted a Horned Lark, a rare sighting in Forsyth County, and I was there with wife Gail to try to find it. We didn’t, but what I did find were small planes all over the place — old Pipers like what I learned on, Cessnas, a Beech Bonanza which I always thought was so cool, small jets, and a strange little plane, obviously a trainer, with huge side windows, a narrow little tail, and the words “Pipistrel” written on the side. I saw a student and teacher walk all around it, obviously doing a preflight inspection. I saw them climb in and got a brief glimpse of the avionics on the dash, like an iPad, much like a Tessla’s dashboard. They started the engine, and I was impressed at how smooth and quiet it was, which I figured was because of the small size. They cruised to the runway and took off smoothly. My heart was soaring right along with them!

When I got home that night, a couple of nights ago, I looked up the plane to learn more about it, and discovered there’s even an electric version of it in Europe! I was floored. I never heard of such a thing. It has probably been 30 years since I stopped subscribing to Flying magazine, and 20 years since I’ve read one at all. I still love airplanes, but I haven’t kept up with the latest and greatest.

The Pipistrel Alpha

So I did a little more research and discovered, to my surprise, that the Private Pilot license I earned so many years ago, in 1977, is still valid! And I found my actual wallet license buried in a stack of old “important’ stuff I have in the attic. I also found my Student Pilot license and my original Medical Certificate, because you have to pass a flight physical before you can fly. A little more research told me that at my age, I would have to pass a flight physical every two years.

Now I’m really interested. Despite the various physical flaws I’ve picked up along the way during my 65 years on the planet, I think I just might be able to pass the flight physical. I’ve already done the online part of it on the FAA site (also something new since my pre-internet flying days), and I also learned that there are many people flying even in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. I think I’m mentally and physically sound enough to be one of them.

When I mentioned to Gail that I might want to fly again, she replied with an emphatic, “No!” I totally respect that. I wouldn’t want to put our good lives at risk by doing something stupid. This whole idea of flying would require a lot of thought, and my willingness to abandon it for one reason or another. Gail’s concern is reason enough for me.

But there’s no reason I can’t pursue the “idea” of it. I can learn and prepare, even if I never take to the skies again.

I found an AME (Aviation Medical Examiner) who has an office two miles from our house. Isn’t that interestingly convenient, as if the universe is conspiring? If I could pass the flight physical, I would be technically licensed to fly. For some reason, that alone would be psychologically/emotionally pleasing to me.

But the fun part would be in the learning, or re-learning, because so much has changed in these past 43 years.

As I said, I learned to fly in the pre-internet days. So imagine working with paper maps, rulers, and protractors to determine distances and plot courses, and pencil/paper to do aviation math — time in flight, the effect of winds aloft, how much time I had for a given amount of fuel, the effect of the plane’s weight, etc, etc, etc. We learned to “read” the skies, but a pilot had to make a phone call before every flight to obtain current aviation weather. I imagine that now everything is much easier on an iPhone or iPad. That would be fun to figure out again.

And navigation used old analog technology back in my day. In addition to a physical paper map in-flight to help visually determine my position, I used a magnetic compass and learned to use navigational aids like the Non-directional Beacon System, Loran-C, and VOR. I mainly used VOR. I had books and charts to research the navigation radio frequencies I would need for a given trip. Today, GPS has completely changed the game, and the avionics in the cockpit reflect those changes. Same way for the radio frequencies I might need for alternate airports along the way. I’m sure all that information is now a few clicks away on a smart phone or tablet. I want to know all these things!

Here’s what the typical small plane avionics looked like in the 1970s.

Here are the avionics in a present-day Pipistrel trainer.

So, I researched online ground schools and found a plethora of them. I’ll pick one and start the process of learning everything that’s changed in these past 43 years. Technology has exploded in that period of time, so I’m sure there’s a lot of delicious stuff to learn, and I’ll have a blast doing just that, even if I never leave the ground.

But if I ever do, it will be specifically to fly that cool little Pipistrel Alpha!