AOPA’s Rusty Pilots Seminars

All too often, we complain about things that go wrong in the aviation world. We fail to look at the big picture—that despite all of our complaints, we still have access to the greatest aviation system in the world. This series of articles entitled “When things go RIGHT,” aims to point out the SUCCESSES in our industry.

by Jim Hanson

Last summer, Albert Lea Airport, Inc. in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and our associated flight school, Accelerated Aviation Instruction, decided to host an AOPA Rusty Pilots Seminar. The goal of the Rusty Pilots program is to return lapsed pilots—those who for one reason or another haven’t flown in years—to the cockpit. It’s a laudable goal—many pilots have had to take a break from flying due to finances, family commitments, health reasons, or work. They may have had only a few hours when they started, or they may have been fully licensed, but they never forgot that they were a pilot at one time, and their interest in flying remained strong. “Once a pilot, ALWAYS a pilot,” is the old adage. “Once you can ride a bicycle, you will always remember how to ride it. It may require some coaching and retraining, but you will always be able to get “back in the saddle.”

WHY have these pilots not returned to flying before? Some cite uncertainty: “I don’t know if I’ll remember how to do it…” “I don’t know if I can pass the medical…” “I thought I’d have to start all over again…” “I still can’t afford a plane anyway.” Some even cite the old excuse, “My wife won’t let me” (usually as a way to deflect the real reason). In running multiple FBOs over the years, I’ve heard most every excuse, yet most lapsed pilots would LOVE to be able to fly again. AOPA has made it a point to answer questions about returning to fly with a series of Rusty Pilots programs to tell people how to get back into flying through AOPA’s “flying club” initiative to make flying affordable, and through “education” to tell former pilots about the changes that may have caused them to stop flying in the first place.

The Rusty Pilots program is “low hanging fruit”–an easy and relatively fast way to increase the number of active pilots. According to AOPA, this new program has already been responsible for returning more than 4,400 pilots to the cockpit. A visit to the AOPA website made the program easy to set up, list the sponsor, the location of the seminar, and what facility would be used. AOPA gave tips on how to organize and promote the seminar, and even agreed to help promote it! In our case, AOPA booked the seminar 3 months out. We held it on Saturday, November 4, 2017.

True to their promise, AOPA promoted the seminar, and we had 16 pilots pre-registered, but that was only for pilots that AOPA was aware of in our local area. It is up to the sponsoring organization to promote the program within its community.

We were unsure just how many might attend, so we set up the hangar for 30 attendees. AOPA scheduled Great Lakes Ambassador Andy Miller to conduct the seminar. AOPA would provide the instructor and printed materials for attendees. We would provide the space, tables and chairs, and light refreshments. Cost per attendee is $69, but it is FREE to AOPA members, and AOPA membership just happens to also be $69. In other words, join AOPA and begin receiving all of the benefits of membership—the magazine, seminar material, telephone consultation – all designed to make it easy for a Rusty Pilot to get back into flying!

Despite rain and drizzle, we did get our expected 30 attendees. Andy set the crowd at ease. He would show them how to get back into flying, introduced flying clubs and other affordable options for flying, and reassured them that getting back into flying was indeed an attainable goal. Rather than 3 hours of lectures (Andy described that scenario as “death by PowerPoint!”), he set a realistic scenario…a projected family trip of a few hundred miles. He masterfully wove into the narrative some of the requirements and changes that may have happened since the pilots were last active—licensing requirements, medical procedures (Andy set most people’s minds at ease by thoroughly explaining the options, including “BasicMed,” and the fact that over 23,000 pilots are now flying under the new program.

Andy reviewed aircraft documents required, pilot currency requirements, and aircraft inspections (including owner-performed maintenance). He segued into airspace requirements, ATC procedures, and the use of onboard avionics and tablets for charting purposes. I started to take note of the group dynamics; there was a notable shift of confidence in the room as Rusty Pilots realized, “Hey, I can do this!” In good ground instruction form, Andy asked questions of the group to make sure they understood, and his questions were immediately answered.

Andy continued on his metaphorical journey, taking the group into other changes since they were last involved, including radio procedures, requirements for entering controlled airspace, runway incursions (an FAA hot topic), and other real-world procedures. The group was so involved that they went 2 full hours before breaking for coffee and snacks, and all were in their seats at the end of the 10-minute break, eager to get on with the figurative journey.

Along the way, Andy slipped in quick references to good aircraft operating procedures, cloud clearance minimums, and many of the other questions normally associated with a Flight Review. To assure that the group understood the subject, he occasionally would bring up questions on the screen for the group to discuss. Andy discussed changes to the FAA itself in using training for rehabilitation, rather than enforcement actions, and the use of the Wings program (the Rusty Pilots seminar itself is eligible for Wings credit), all helping to put lapsed pilots’ minds at ease.

At the end of the presentation, he invited questions, and it seemed that everyone had at least one. The most common theme was medical certification—one of the reasons that had kept pilots grounded in the first place. Andy was ready with answers, and took the group through many possible scenarios and showing where AOPA was ready with free advice for their situation. Several people mentioned that they were unsure whether their own physician would sign off on BasicMed medicals. Andy informed them where to download the medical checklist from AOPA, and an informational brochure for physicians not yet familiar with BasicMed, advising the attendees to submit it to their doctor a week before their examination. Something I was not aware of…AOPA even has a “Doctor-to-Doctor” consultation service (no charge) where if a physician is unsure about doing BasicMed exams, AOPA’s doctors are available to help educate that physician so he or she will be willing to do the examination. AOPA is really doing all of the right things in helping to get pilots back in the air!

At the end of the seminar, Andy provided the all-important signoff, “I certify that John Doe has received 3 hours of ground instruction in the areas required of a flight review 14 CFR 61.56(a)(1) by participating in the AOPA Rusty Pilots Seminar at Albert Lea Municipal Airport (KAEL) on November 4, 2017,” and affixing his name and CFI information. The applicant can take that sign-off to the instructor of their choice to complete the flight portion of their Flight Review.

As I watched this masterful demonstration, I couldn’t help but think, “This is the way Flight Reviews SHOULD be conducted, even by individual flight instructors. It is a system that puts the pilot at ease, it is non-threatening, it focuses on changes and what pilots need to know, it is a reminder of things they may have forgotten, it is structured (instead of “what should we talk about?”). At the end of the presentation, the applicant has received all of the background information, and is encouraged to simply ask the instructor completing their Flight Review questions they may be unsure of. All they have to do is complete the flight portion.

Afterward, I asked Andy if this was a “canned” presentation, or something he had come up with. He explained, “AOPA came up with the idea, brought the people together, provided the audio-visuals and a framework for me to follow, but leaves it up to the individual presenters to explain the material.” I couldn’t help but again think, “This is the way things ought to be!”

I asked Andy about other AOPA services available to aviation groups in the same vein. He explained, “Yes, we have ‘Forming A Flying Club’ seminars, where we discuss why and how to form flying clubs. AOPA has assisted in the formation of 61 flying clubs to date (27 so far in 2017 alone as of this writing), thanks to this new program.” I asked for other specific new programs, and he answered “Yes, we just did a Safety Seminar on ‘Fly-By-Night’ at over 100 locations across the country, and we’ll have a new seminar on ‘Collision Avoidance’ that will be shared across the country starting in January.

These are great programs, and aside from imparting knowledge, they are great entertainment!

If you are a fixed base operator, flight school, flying club, or aviation group, consider sponsoring one of these seminars. It’s a good social mixer (one of the things that is still lacking in aviation), and as your elders may have told you, “You might LEARN SOMETHING!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the fixed base operator and airport manager in Albert Lea, Minnesota. He is in his 56th year of flying, with over 30,000 hours in 342 models of airplanes. He flies airplanes, single and multi-engine seaplanes, gliders, helicopters, balloons, taildraggers, and ultralights, and is type-rated in six jets. He has been a contributing editor to Midwest Flyer Magazine for years, usually about the state of the aviation industry. He can be reached at his airport office at 507-373-0608, or via email at

Accelerated Aviation Instruction specializes in one-on-one flight instruction. They dedicate an instructor and airplane to YOU until your course is finished—usually in a matter of DAYS, not months. While specializing in advanced courses (Commercial, Instrument, Multi-Engine, Airline Transport, and all three Flight Instructor courses), they do offer an accelerated Private Pilot course. Contact Accelerated Aviation Instruction at or 507-383-5710 to discuss costs to take you from where you are now, to where you want to be!

Andy Miller is a nationally recognized aviation educator, and is the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) Great Lakes Ambassador. Based in the region, he works with flying clubs, flight schools, airports, secondary schools, and aviation organizations to increase the number of active pilots. He travels to events and meetings around the Great Lakes in N104UC, one of AOPA’s Reimagined Cessna 152s, as part of AOPA’s “You Can Fly” initiative. Reach Andy at

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