One More Reason to Fly: Beating the Dumb Dads Club
You won’t find it written in the regulations, but one important flight instructor responsibility has always been recruiting new pilots to the joys of flying. Over time, we CFIs have identified all sorts of hot buttons for motivating our prospects to sign up for lessons—adventure, travel, personal growth, a new challenge, even a mid-life crisis.
There’s no end to reasons why people become pilots, and the more we understand all of the different motivations, the more opportunities we have to attract new people to flying. Recently, I learned yet one more darned good reason to become a pilot—the lack of quality family time in today’s frenetic world.
My kids were on Christmas vacation from school, and the Arizona air was crisp, cool, and blue, when my 15-year-old son, Austin, raised the subject at the breakfast table.
“Hey Dad, do you think we oughta go flying?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Well, let me think about it a second,” I said, a Flight Training article deadline hanging heavy on my conscience.
“C’mon, Dad, it’s vacation, and I don’t have anything to do. You always say you want to fly more often, so let’s get with it!”
Given that small amount of prodding, I phoned to arrange rental of a Cessna 152; we then filled our water bottles, collected our headsets, and headed for the airport.
It was a beautiful day for flying, and we set our sights on the little mountain town of Payson as our destination. As usual on these occasions, Austin claimed pilot duties with me to back him up on the radios, help with navigation, and offer occasional professional advice.
We departed the Sonoran Desert, overflew the sparkling blue waters of Lake Bartlett, and skimmed between the snow-dusted peaks of the Mazatzal Mountains. Little was said because both of us were just groovin’ on the sights and the flight.
Upon clearing the mountain ridges, we passed into the Tonto Valley, scattered buildings ahead among the pines suggesting Payson long before we could identify specific details of town or airport.
The community lies in the shadow of the spectacular Mogollon Rim, snow-covered at that time of year and towering some 2,000 feet almost straight up to the north and east of town. All in all, it’s an incredible flight, especially considering all this happens a mere 49 nautical miles from our home airport.
A call to unicom reminded us of the days when you could radio inbound to reserve a table and order your breakfast—unfortunately the cook at the airport restaurant no longer answers unicom—but there’s still a wonderful family atmosphere about the place, and it seems almost like returning home to fly there.
We soon identified the airport north of town, joined the downwind leg, and, following discussion about winds and the dip in the runway, Austin put the Cessna down in good form.
As we turned from the taxiway to the ramp in this beautiful setting, we noticed a man and his young son watching us from the fence. We exchanged waves and smiles as we walked into the little “restaurant with the million-dollar view.” Austin claimed a table near the window while I went to wash up.
Upon my return, I was surprised to find the man we’d seen at the fence, sitting with his child at the table next to ours and grilling my son.
“Was that you sitting in the pilot’s seat?” asked the man as I walked up.
“Yes,” said Austin. “My dad’s a flight instructor and he lets me sit in the left seat.”
“It almost looked as if you were actually piloting the plane.”
“I was—I even made the landing.”
“Really? Wow, that’s neat! Do you do this sort of thing with your dad very often?”
“Oh yeah, my dad and I fly together a lot—it’s really fun.”
At that point I introduced myself and sat down to join them.
“Nice meeting you,” said the father. “I’m Warren.” He encouraged a shy handshake from his young son. The man then explained how he and his family lived in Phoenix, but often made the two-hour drive to see his wife’s parents in Payson. He peppered me with the expected questions, like how long it takes to fly to Payson—“about half an hour, even in a small plane like the 152,” I told him.
It turned out that on visits to grandpa and grandma’s house, Warren and his kids often ventured to the Payson Airport to watch the airplanes land. Accordingly Warren had many questions about the procedures for flying a plane there and landing.
“Where else have you flown with your dad?” he then asked Austin. Warren listened with rapt attention as my son recounted with pride destinations throughout the Southwest and California. I rarely consider most places we fly as exotic, but the expression on Warren’s face reminded me that to most people piloting your own airplane from Phoenix to San Diego is pretty heady stuff.
Throughout lunch I answered eager questions about what it takes to become a pilot; afterwards the four of us walked the ramp and admired different airplanes parked there. “Sounds like you might really enjoy becoming a pilot,” I said to Warren, shaking his hand as we preflighted for the trip home.
“To tell the truth,” said Warren, “I’ve been looking for a fun activity to get involved in that I can share with my own sons as they get older. Seems like all anyone does these days is work, and I don’t want to let my kids’ teenage years pass without enjoying every moment together we can. Seeing you and your son fly in together today makes me feel that this could be just the adventure we’re looking for.”
With that I collected Warren’s card and we made a date the following week for an intro lesson, his sons to ride along. As for Austin, he stood about 14 feet tall as he loosened the tiedown ropes from the wing struts under the admiring gaze of the younger boy, then climbed into the pilot’s seat.
I’m a lucky guy, I was reminded at that moment—really lucky. Not just because I get to fly airplanes, but because my son likes to do it too, and best of all, he likes to fly with me. Like most teens, Austin generally avoids hanging around with members of the “Dumb Dads Club” like myself.
But when it comes to flying, nobody can keep us apart. In the cockpit we work as friends and equals to do the most professional job we can. Meeting that man at the fence gave me new appreciation of just how fortunate I am to share the special passion of flying with my son, as I so often do.
All too frequently, when prospects come to the airport, we concentrate on selling the “practical” benefits of flying, like getting places faster and saving time. Occasions like this flight to Payson remind me that the best selling points for flying go way beyond practical explanations, to the very heart of what’s important in life.
Flying offers shared adventure with family and friends, and that message must never be forgotten when promoting aviation. Ask prospective pilots what they like to do for fun, and show how flying will allow them and their families to do more of it—together. In today’s world that means a lot, and for pleasure flyers it may be among the most important benefits we have to offer.
Above all, don’t wait to meet prospective students at the flight school. Keep your eyes peeled for that parent lingering with a daughter or son behind the fence, watching the planes land. Invite those kids and parents together onto the ramp and install them as a group into the cockpit. Show young ones how when they turn the yoke, one aileron goes up and the other goes down, and that’s how they would bank the airplane. (“It’s that simple?” asks mom or dad.)
Offer an airplane flight—“right now” if you possibly can—because what parent can say no while the kids stand wide-eyed right there at the airplane? Once in the air, allow everyone a hand at the controls, however brief. We want them to understand that this is family stuff, after all.
Two small figures could be seen back at the fence as Austin and I rolled down the runway at Payson, so on climbout we “waggled” our wings goodbye. “Think they could see us rocking the wings?” asked Austin. “I’m sure they could,” I said.
As we left the pattern and the land dropped precipitously into the Tonto Valley below, Austin turned to me with a smile and shared a high five with his free hand. “Guess we’re pretty lucky getting to do this all the time,” he beamed. “Hey! Want to head down toward Lake Roosevelt on the way home and follow the Beeline Highway through the pass? I like going that way.”
“You bet!” I replied, hoping the intercom would mask the lump in my throat so I wouldn’t have to rejoin the Dumb Dads Club any sooner than necessary.
“Awesome!” said Austin, banking left. “Oh, and dad—think we could fly once more before vacation’s over?”
As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.