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The distinctive sound of a flat-four engine overhead got my attention. I looked up to see a low-altitude Cessna flying Northwest, probably climbing out from San Carlos airport just a few miles away. I watched as it climbed and turned to the West, heading over to the coast.

"Bay Meadows departure," I thought, having flown that departure from San Carlos myself. There was nothing special about a 172 out for a pleasure flight on a beautiful California Spring evening—except that its pilot was flying and I wasn't! The horn of my approaching train brought me back to more immediate concerns as I shouldered by pack and prepared to board.

For lots of reasons, I hadn't flown in a long time and I was missing it terribly. I've always made a habit of at least flying some patterns every couple of weeks, but even that had fallen by the wayside in recent months, and I wasn't feeling much like a pilot. At times like these, I've often set up the desktop computer simulator and done some virtual "flying." It's really helpful for instrument practice, although less so for VFR flying, and it's almost useless for landing practice. But still, it's a good way to keep my head (and hands and feet) in the game.

The home sim is remarkably good. It models the physics of flight very well (it was designed by an aeronautical engineer). In theory, I could even customize my simulated airplanes, making their performance and panels more closely match the airplanes I fly, but it would take a lot of time—time I'd rather spend flying real airplanes!

But there's another kind of simulated flying that requires no money, no special gear, no setup and teardown time, and I can do it anywhere. It's called imagination. I find "armchair flying" to be the best form of virtual flying. It's incredibly helpful for maintaining the mental game, which is where our skills degrade most rapidly during a long hiatus. Reviewing the habits and procedures of flight while sitting on the ground reinforces those mental pathways that are at risk of eroding away.

Imagination or "mental rehearsal" can even help to some extent with the physical aspects of flying. If I pay close enough attention, I can recall very vivid details of the sights, sounds, and kinesthetic sensations of various maneuvers, such as takeoffs, climbs, descents, coordinated turns, and even landings. Memory is far from perfect, but it's better than nothing—and even better in many ways than the computer sim.

There are other ways to keep my aviation "muscles" from atrophy, of course, such as keeping up with my favorite aviation magazines and websites and getting together with my buddies occasionally for some "hangar flying," and I enjoy those too. The important thing is to stay engaged with aviation so when I finally do get back in the airplane it feels familiar and comfortable. Still, I'll probably rope a favorite instructor into coming along for some dual—it's just smart.

So when I got off the train and went home that evening, I grabbed my trusty checklist, sat down in my most comfortable armchair, and started making airplane noises.

Well, pilot noises anyway.

"Mixture rich; thottle slightly open; primer: two shots—in and locked; brakes on…"

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