Return to Service Checklist

Return to Service Checklist

Getting back in the saddle following an extended break.

A few years ago, I began experiencing discomfort in my hips while running. I was training for a half-marathon – my favorite distance race – and was struggling through my weekly mileage goals. Thinking it was a pulled or overworked muscle, I treated it with heat/cold packs, stretching and copious amounts of Advil. Then it started to affect my lifestyle, of which aviation is a big part. Squatting down to look at the underbelly of my plane or to pull a fuel sample became a painful exercise. Loading luggage into the baggage compartment was done with gritted teeth. Climbing up a ladder to clean the windscreen just…hurt. 

One morning at the gym, a friend (and physical therapist) watched me painfully attempt to get through my workout and commented, “You need to visit an orthopedic doctor…I don’t think your problem is muscular.” Much to my chagrin, she was right. Thanks to an unfortunate confluence of heredity and years of wear and tear from running and tennis, osteoarthritis had rendered my hip joints trashed. After a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable with cortisone injections and physical therapy, I surrendered to the reality that I needed new joint hardware. Another hard reality: no more running, tennis or any “high-impact” activity.

So, in 2015, I replaced my left hip. In December 2018, I replaced the other. As I write this, I am on the eve of getting my doctor’s sign-off from all restrictions, allowing me to return to the driver’s seat and the left seat. 

From the FAA’s perspective, there’s no specific time that is required to self-ground following joint replacement surgery. You can resume flying as soon as your surgeon releases you for unrestricted activities and you feel well enough to fly. At my next flight physical, I’ll need to bring my hospital records and a current, detailed status report from my orthopedic surgeon with my prognosis.

I’m go for launch, right? But after a two-month layoff, I hear a whisper of caution. It could be the voice of prudence, or perhaps my inherited Missouri horse sense. Before I jump in an airplane (or more accurately gingerly step) and go boring off into the sky, I stopped to consider if perhaps there was a smart way to return myself to service. To inform my strategy, I reached out to three highly respected CFII’s and aviation safety thought leaders to see what would be on their “return to flight” checklist. 

First, I talked to master instructor and three-time “CFI of the Year” David McVinnie, who also serves as a FAAST representative and on the MMOPA Safety Committee. He had this to say: “Prior to the break, you probably used flows for most of your airborne duties. So, sit down and dry run the checklist line-by-line to refresh your memory – in the cockpit is preferred. If you have a ground power unit, all the better. Make your first flight a short, fun VFR hop. Pick a good friend/CFI to accompany you on the first couple flights. If you haven’t been right-seating during the break, do a flight or maybe two to reacquaint you with the environment. Finally, avoid external pressure flights like an Angel Flight mission at first.”

Tom Turner, who is executive director of the ABS Safety Foundation and who has performed many of my past IPCs, suggested: “First, check that you’re able to enter and exit the cockpit OK, and that while belted in, you have the flexibility to easily reach the controls, fuel selector and other rudder pedals, etc. Importantly, are you able to manually extend the landing gear? A lot of post-op people would be in a lot of trouble if they had a simple gear motor failure because they didn’t consider this. From there, go fly with a pilot or CFI in the right seat. Go through the basic maneuvers and stall series to see if you can fly to at least private standard. If that works, fly some approaches under the hood. This will let you know if you’re rusty enough you need more dual and an IPC.”

Next, I had a conversation with my friend Joe Casey (ATP, CFII, DPE and chair of the MMOPA Safety Committee) who offered me this advice: “I’d definitely return to the cockpit as soon as possible. I’d suggest you return on a day when the winds aren’t blowing so much that a big pedal input is required, and I might not fly a multi-engine airplane that would require a big pedal input if an engine failed. I think you know your body better than anyone: If you think you cannot handle a worst-case scenario, then wait. Taking along a CFI or some other competent right-seater on your first flight is a cheap insurance policy.”

Finally, I talked with 35-year CFII and former airline captain Bill Archer, who has more than 30,000 hours in his logbook. His thoughts: “Back when I was at a major airline, we used a process that I still apply now when asked to help someone get current and comfortable with flying again. First, we’d sit down with his or her logbook to figure out what we needed to do legally per the FAR’s, such as IFR currency, night currency and landing currency. Then we make up an individual training plan (ITP) on what it will take to get the pilot current and proficient. While returning a Part 121 pilot to service is quite involved, what I stress to the Part 91 pilot is that my goal is to help them become as good as they were before they experienced their loss of flying privileges.”

Wow, all great advice! Being a list person, I took their input to put together my individual “return to flight” plan:

  1. Review my currency, checklists, emergency checklists and memory items. Review my notes from past recurrent training and IPCs to jog my memory of my particular tendencies and failure trends;
  2. Fly right seat as a safety pilot while my pilot-spouse does practice approaches. This will refresh my brain to IFR procedures, button-pushing, radio work and flows;
  3. Sit in the left seat while on the ground and review checklists and flows;
  4. Take along a competent pilot/CFI on a calm VFR day to brush up my stick-and-rudder skills;
  5. If the above goes well, don the foggles and shoot some approaches.
  6. If #5 does NOT go well, call my CFI and get an IPC scheduled ASAP.

If you’re a Type A owner-pilot like me, we tend to often find waiting a frustrating but often necessary exercise. (Like waiting out weather or waiting for this stupid hip to heal.) Formulating a return to flight plan not only gave me a roadmap to safely to return to flying, it provided tangible goals I can methodically tick off. 

By the time you read this, I expect to be back in the saddle. Although I’ve hung up my running shoes, I’d much rather fly my fine steed than hit the road any day. Giddy-up!  

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