“What kind of a fuel system needs 13 sumps?” I asked myself. The C172 I had last flown only had one in each wing and a t-handle under the belly that shot a stream fuel onto the pavement when I pulled it.

It turns out that this was just the one of many changes that had slipped by me since I last preflighted an airplane. A look at my logbook would tell you that I’ve been a student pilot for 33 years. Most of my 63 hours were earned in the early years, with major gaps since soloing in 1988. Shifting priorities, such as a home, job changes and a growing family had lead me away from flying. It’s a common theme: all it takes is money.

Now, however, the kids are grown and I’m a retired grandpa. It’s finally time to do this for myself. The problem was that I hadn’t sat in the left seat for 11 years. I registered for a ground school course, re-passed the knowledge test and got myself a shiny, new third-class physical.

When I tried to find a flight instructor, I ran up against one of the fundamentals of flight schools: flight instructors are plentiful until the airlines need pilots. Apparently, the majority of CFI’s in my area were building hours, looking forward to the day that they could fly airplanes with bathrooms. After being on a waiting list for several months, I was fortunate to meet Jim, a top-notch instructor, retired from another profession, who instructs simply because he likes it.

But, back to my preflight. While I wasn’t looking, Cessna had obviously made several changes to the venerable 172. How different could it be, right? That’s what checklists are for. The local FBO had created their own checklist, tailored to the way they prefer you handle their aircraft. Personally, I find it to be a clunky flip-book thing that’s hard to keep track of once you’re in the cockpit. Just my opinion, of course.

Jim and I climbed into the aircraft. It felt good to be in the left seat again. Yes, there were some additions to the the panel, but the basic six-pack was there. I could do this.

I adjusted the seat and fastened my seat belt. And we sat there. Finally, Jim turned to me and asked, “Do I need to wear a seat belt?” I looked at him, thinking, “Hey, you’re the CFI. You supposed to know this stuff.” He gave me a blank look and said, “I’m just a passenger here, you’re the pilot.”

Ok. I get it.

Using the clunky checklist, I got the engine started and watched as the instruments climb into their green arcs. We taxied toward the runway. Turning got interesting when I pushed the left rudder pedal to its stop, but the airplane just thought about turning as it headed toward the grass. Oh…left brake, add left brake!

I knew that, but it must have slipped my mind.

Once we went through the run up procedures, Jim said I should announce my intentions to anyone flying in the vicinity. I pressed the mike button…and my mind went blank. Odd, how that works. If Jim had asked me my name at that moment, I wouldn’t have known it. He mimed “two-six” to tell me what runway I was at, but minutes seemed to ticked by while I tried to get words out.

This is starting to get embarrassing.

Finally, we were ready to go. I applied full power. Exhilarating! Then, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening in double-speed. There were too many things to keep track of. This Cessna rocket flew much faster than I could think! As I tried to maintain correct climb speed, I forgot about the heading. Was it left or right rudder to counter P-factor?

All the while I kept thinking, “Hey, I know this stuff!”

We intended to stay in the pattern, but I was 200 feet above pattern altitude in what seemed like a heartbeat. Jim told me to level off, make a left turn to crosswind and announce my intention to enter the downwind for runway 26.

Again with the radio!

Shouldn’t I slow this thing down first? I need to look for other traffic and keep my head on a swivel. The panel! Is the ball is centered?

Really, I know all this stuff!

Jim reminded me that it was time to go through the landing checklist, but I had no idea where the slippery thing had disappeared to. He retrieved it from the floor.

Unrelated snippets of knowledge swirled through my mind like so much confetti as I entered the downwind, reduced the rpm and added the first notch of flaps. Somethings missing…carb heat! I glanced around, demanding, “Where’s the carb heat?” (I’m afraid I may have been yelling by this time.) Jim calmly said, “You’ve never flown a fuel injected airplane before, have you.” It wasn’t a question.

What does that have to do with…? Oh.

When you read about someone falling behind what’s actually happening in the cockpit, they’re describing me. My thought processes lagged so badly I’d swear that my brain was back in the parking lot thinking, “Oooo…airplanes!”

Jim instructed me to prepare for the base leg turn. By that point, I realized that I had completely lost track of the airport. Jim pointed out that the runway was over my left shoulder.

I looked. It was.

Aaargh! I knew that!

Another fumbled radio pronouncement followed by a sloppy turn to base. Add another notch of flaps and reduce speed. Jim assumed command of the checklist.

Bless you.

Turning to final, I spotted PAPI lights to the right of the runway. They hadn’t been there when I flew into that airstrip years ago. For that matter, none of those hangars had been there either…or that road. I recovered a teeny bit of self-respect by making a decent landing. Thanks, PAPI!

To his credit, Jim allowed me make my mistakes without leaving his fingernail marks in the vinyl. To my own chagrin, this pitiful performance was an eye-opener. Getting back into an airplane after time away isn’t anything like getting back on a bicycle. I seriously thought that I could clamber into the left seat and demonstrate just how much I knowledge I had retained. Instead, what I discovered was the importance of practice…something I was woefully short of.

Knowledge and Practice. One reinforces the other.

I got the airplane parked without incident and my logbook got it’s first entry in 11 years. I expect many more entries in the coming months.

I can do this.

Walking across the parking lot, I whistled for my brain. Together, we climbed into the car, relieved not to need a checklist.

Story and illustration by Jerry Thomas