The Joys of Returning to General Aviation

Recapturing your passion for flying

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Airline pilots are of two molds; those who learn to fly in the military, and those who obtain licenses privately at flight schools or universities. I am of the latter type. It wasn’t long ago that I was flying a variety of different airplanes, with a multitude of missions; flight instructing, operating tours, aerial photography, etc. Each day was different, and I cherished that. However, when I donned my first airline’s wings, I retired my GA ones. Those days of different planes to different airports had been replaced. I discovered, it shouldn’t be that way?

Learning to fly can be expensive, and so the thinking goes that once you’re earning a paycheck from flying, you wouldn’t dare go burn more money. However, adding a new category, class or endorsement to your repertoire doesn’t have to be expensive. I earned my ASES with slightly over $2,000 (easily saved with less than $200 a month for a year). You can get a new endorsement (tailwheel, for instance) for a few hundred dollars or a totally new category (balloon or glider) for slightly more than an ASES add-on. The power of adding ratings is that once you have a basic certificate (commercial, for instance), there isn’t as much effort to learn a new aircraft.

Others think of the airlines as the end goal. Once a coveted airline job is obtained, why would one return to the bottom? Put simply, flying GA is not about being better or worse; it is about different. That is how the FAA views it when preaching of currency and proficiency. 

When I went for my seaplane endorsement, I held vastly more hours than my instructor. I had the higher certificate, but I was not the current or proficient pilot in light aircraft. The skill sets utilized daily by airline crews are not exactly the same as those used in general aviation. My struggles with basic tasks were humbling (e.g. saying “Searey” rather than my company’s callsign). Flying light aircraft reminds you that there is more to aviation than the terminal area and Class A airspace. 

One of the most entertaining aspects of the new training was learning to read the water. Water conditions are surprisingly dynamic, even in a lake, and they vary from lake to lake. Unlike airports with an ATIS or AWOS, every lake requires a pilot evaluation. You have to determine wind and sea conditions based on a variety of factors, identify a suitable pattern to approach and landing. (Landing seems like an inappropriate term in the case of a seaplane.). Some areas in a lake may not be viable for landing. After evaluating the lake’s conditions, you must plan your pattern, with consideration for obstacles, traffic, property on the ground and more. There is no help from ATC. Skills taught to seaplane pilots mesh perfectly with airline’s Threat and Error Management (TEM) model of identifying threats and errors and preventing undesirable aircraft states. You also get a lot of time to practice your stick-and-rudder skills. This training will make you a better airline pilot. All of this is done in the congested airspace below 1,000′ AGL.

For so many, a job as an airline pilot makes everything aviation-related just that – a job. What surprised me the most about flying seaplanes is that the pure bliss of flying returned instantaneously. Flying seaplanes is not a “clean” job. You may get wet on takeoff and landing. Hitting the waves at 60mph isn’t as smooth as a hard surface landing, but it is oddly fulfilling. It was all surreal — completing “splash-and-goes” with a 500′ above-water-level pattern, maintaining vigilance for birds, alligators (a true Florida problem), and floating logs. Did you know it is almost unheard of for a night landing on the water? Did you know that glassy, calm water is considered the most dangerous for landings? As a traditional, land-air-land pilot, these were all new facts to me.

Many people will argue that the stress of another checkride may be too much for them. I understand that concern. I always looked up to DPEs and CFIs with a mix of awe and fear, knowing that at any moment they could make me feel like a loser. I was always extremely polite, so as not to attract any unneeded ire. However, after years of checkrides and rising through the ranks, I can say that fear has been replaced with healthy respect. This respect has made the checkride experience enjoyable. I went into my seaplane practical knowing what was expected of me and the examiner. I demonstrated the knowledge, decision making and skills required and obtain the added endorsement. I was well prepared, as was he, and we both went away happy. 

When we were student pilots, we spent our time studying and focusing on the next-step. We didn’t have too much time just to enjoy what we were doing – hurling through the sky. Once we reached employment, commercial or CFI, we were immediately shifted into that employee-employer relationship with aviation, where our passion become our paycheck. For some people, this ruins the fun of flying. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. By adding a new category or class rating, you can learn something new, refresh your skills, see a new side of aviation and regain the love you may have lost. And, it won’t break your bank. 

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