Question of the Month: How Do I Get Back into General Aviation After a Career in the Airlines?

The theme for this month’s edition of Club Connector is based around professional pilots as members of flying clubs…how clubs and general aviation can offer a welcome change to the work of professional flying, but also the value to other club members of having commercial pilots as part of the membership.  In Club Spotlight we feature a couple of clubs that are lucky enough to have professional pilots in their ranks, but the other side of the coin is helping professional pilots rediscover the fun, camaraderie and cost sharing that is flying clubs…hence this Question of the Month.

We’ve written a lot about transition training previously in Club Connector and we always caution that “transition” doesn’t always mean upwards.  Whilst it is common for pilots to transition upwards as hours and experience grow—and the desire for speed and distance gnaws at your wallet—it is really important to think of any change of equipment as a transition.  In an earlier QoM, we talked about how transition training should an integral part of expanding the club fleet, and in episode 17 of Flying Clubs Radio, Drew shared what his club, the Free State Flying Club, did when they added a Cessna Cardinal to their fleet…sharing the stable with the Cessna 172 that the club has owned and operated for more than 30-years. 

Steve has also cautioned about the trap of thinking that a downward transition is somehow easy and straightforward, for example, moving “down” from a C172 to an LSA, such as a Van’s RV-12.  Check out this article for just a few examples of the differences that will likely bite you if you just hop in.  Hey, if it has wings, you can fly it…right?  Wrong!  Try taking this attitude on an unsupervised flight in a low-mass, high-drag ultralight and you’ll get the picture quickly and painfully!

You probably know about AOPA Rusty Pilots, but did you know that it is a sister initiative to Flying Clubs in the You Can Fly program?  The You Can Fly program, which is funded by donations to the AOPA Foundation, comprises a continuum of four initiatives, High School, Flight Training, Flying Clubs and Rusty Pilots, and we often find links and overlaps between the initiatives.  Of interest here is the relationship between Rusty Pilots, Flying Clubs and the topic of this QoM—professional pilots in flying clubs.  Steve and Drew from the Flying Clubs Team work closely with Donnie Mackay, who heads-up the Rusty Pilots Initiative, as flying clubs are without doubt the best way to ensure that newly non-rusty pilots don’t get rusty ever again.  Clubs offer a wonderful place for ex-rusty pilots to reengage with general aviation and to enjoy the camaraderie and cost sharing that defines flying clubs.  By the way, we also work with the High School team to promote the idea of flying clubs in the high schools that use the AOPA curriculum, and with the flight training group, where we tirelessly defend the roles of flight schools and flying clubs.  As you’ve heard us socialize before, schools get ‘em flying and clubs keep ‘em flying…two quite different and distinct operational (and business) goals.

Now, just as we’ve suggested that transition training is important in all directions, up, down and sideways, we’ll now make the case that “being rusty” doesn’t just apply to someone who has not flown for a few (or more) years.  Any time that any of our skills deteriorate, we become rusty.  The FAA knows this and give us the gifts of 90-day currency requirements and the flight review…so what about a professional pilot with thousands of hours, but in one category of operations, such as freight, air carrier, airliners and so on?  Dare we suggest that such a pilot who wishes to “get back to their roots” and return to general aviation is, in fact, rusty? 

Why, yes…we so dare! 

Beyond all the jokes about not flaring your C152 at 50-feet AGL, there are some serious implications around the transition from commercial operations to those in a flying club.  Most definitely there will be aircraft transition training (for example, from the day job Airbus A320 to the weekend Cirrus SR20) but think about some of the other aspects of getting back into general aviation, and specifically, doing so in a flying club.  Here are some things to think about if you are planning on such a return to general aviation:

  • If you join an existing flying club, you will be the new member, irrespective of your hours and seniority. Take the time to learn about the club’s rules and operations…every club is slightly different, and all are very different from commercial operations.
  • Pay it forward. Offer to be involved with the management and running of the club, perhaps to assist the club’s safety officer…but don’t be pushy. Again, you’ll have the most experience in corporate flying, but the least in general aviation if you just are getting back into it.
  • Be humble. You’re probably used to commanding a crew, but fellow club members are peers and equals. Seek mentors to help with things that you haven’t had to worry about for years.
  • Think about what the dispatch team does for you in your day job and create a list of things that you now must do. Here are some examples:
    • Getting a weather briefing
    • Preflight planning—the plane, the mission and you
    • Filing your own flight plans
    • Searching for TFRs and NOTAMs
    • Flying VFR
    • VFR charts
    • Airspace and the NAS
    • Non-towered procedures
    • Fuel management
    • Weight and balance calculations
    • Airplane performance
    • Using portable EFBs, Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, etc.
    • Filing IFR
    • Single-pilot IFR
    • Post flight procedures—as basic as how to clean up the plane after each flight
    • …and so much more…!

Sound overwhelming? Well, you are not never alone. Visit the You Can Fly website and that of the Air Safety Institute (also funded by the AOPA Foundation) for a wealth of resources, articles, information, videos, webinars, quizzes, courses and so on that will quickly get you back in the groove of general aviation.  A really good place to start is here—the ASI Back to Your Roots page.

But wait…it gets better…

The Rusty Pilots team is expanding its reach into other areas of “rustiness” including Rusty IFR, and, in the context of this article, Back to Your Roots, which will be an on-line course aimed specifically at encouraging professional pilots to return to their roots of general aviation—perhaps as a member of a flying club, perhaps as a CFI at a flight school, perhaps as an advocate for getting youngsters interested in aviation—or perhaps “just” as a GA pilot in the world’s most accessible aviation system.

Keep an eye out for more information on these programs—coming to a screen near you in the very near future!

AOPA Foundation You Can Fly Program

If there is one thing you can count on, it’s the You Can Fly team providing resources to help you own your aviation journey, whatever it is.  Want to support high schools teaching STEM with an aviation focus?  Want to recommend your local flight school and learn about a new app that will standardize flight training and put the learner in the driver’s seat?  Want to join or start a flying club?  Want to get back in the left seat after years of wishing?  Getting ready to retire from your professional flying job but can’t face the thought of not flying?   Well, you’ll find resources on all of these on the You Can Fly website.

Through the continued support of the AOPA Foundation (and from donors like you) all of the You Can Fly initiatives have visionary plans and goals to help protect and expand your freedom to fly.  Please consider doubling your impact by supporting the You Can Fly Challenge, which has the potential to reach $5M in 2021 to keep these initiatives working for you.

Fly lots and fly safely!

Stephen Bateman
Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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