A Family Adventure


Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

How to become a pilot

February 13, 2012
Emilie Phillips

This post is prompted by a report of the Dallas school system taking the boys but not the girls out to see a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen.

As a kid, I always loved flying. When I say flying, I mean flying commercially because there was no other type. When we went to the airport, I would watch every single airplane take off and land. When we got on the airplane I would excitedly read the emergency procedures pamphlet and glue my nose to the window for every wiggle of the controls and landing gear. I loved takeoffs, landings, and turbulence. Living in a small city served by small airplanes, I got plenty of all three. With all that, though, it never occurred to me that I could fly a plane. Not so much that I did not think I was capable, as that I could not see any path from where I was to flying an airplane. The pilots were just airline machinery. I viewed pilots as if they were part of a dystopian future where airlines created them from test tubes configured to fly the airplanes. I, on the other hand, was a real person, so I couldn’t become a pilot.

I had very little interaction with general aviation. I kind of knew it existed, but as far as I knew, only celebrities [1] [2] or the occasional miss-guided person flew their own airplanes. I was not a celebrity, so that was not a path to becoming a pilot. And, from what I heard in the news, leaving it to the airline automata sounded much safer than attempting it myself.

But I still liked flying. At least I knew how to buy an airline ticket to go on a fun trip.

In college, I finally met someone who flew an airplane. I was interested, but never knew the right questions to ask. So, I left with the impression, that while flying was actually possible for real people, it was the sort of thing that took extreme effort and life-long commitment. Similar to climbing Mt Everest. At that point, my life plan did not include such an effort, but I made a mental note that real people could become pilots.

My next discovery was when Tyson took me up in a small airplane. That was my first experience with a real person actually flying an airplane and not crashing it. I did not immediately rework my mental model of flying, but over time, meeting other people who fly, and going out in the airplane more, I learned that flying is something I could do. It has all the usual trade-offs of interest vs time, money and difficulty. The money hurdle seemed a bit large. And given how difficult flying looked, I assumed the time hurdle would be larger. It was not until I actually started taking lessons that I realized flying really is not that difficult.

So there you have it. I don’t know if someone showing me a movie of blacks standing up for their right to be pilots would have made me realize any sooner that becoming a pilot was a path open to me. But I am certain that not having any role models did bar me from imagining the option.

P.S. Apologies to the airline pilots among my friends, but I still find it mind boggling that you actually have a life and family.

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  • I’ve always loved the sensation of a big jet pegging the throttle to accelerate for takeoff. If I have a window seat near the wings and I can watch the engines strain against their mounting pylons as they drag the airplane forward, so much the better. The sensation of a jet aircraft accelerating is what I imagine the hand of God would feel like. I’ve never really understood how anyone could dislike the experience.