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Born to Fly

But when should training start?

Is it possible to start flying too young?

We’ll answer that with another question: Are some people born to fly? Are there kids for whom, no matter when they start, learning to fly will be easy and safe? Are there tiny babies with twists in their DNA—maybe carried over from a former life as an eagle—that say they will spend their life in the air?

If you look around at young people in general, then at young people who fly, it’s easy to find contradictions, but not answers. We are bombarded with stories of youngsters who, on their sixteenth birthday, solo three or four airplanes. Every one of those kids beams at the camera with enthusiasm and handles the reporters with confidence. Born to fly? Hard to tell, but it certainly seems that way.

For each of those media marvels is there a large number of young people who started to fly but quit because they were more interested in, say, enjoying childhood than being a sprouting aviator? Keep in mind, too, that we have no follow-up studies that tell us what became of the soloed-on-my-sixteenth-birthday wunderkind. The question of when to teach a youngster to fly has nothing to do with whether they can acquire the skill or not. In fact, they’ll often embarrass the older generation with the speed at which they are able to learn. But if we push a kid to fly—especially one for whom the spark isn’t generated internally—do we risk souring him on something that could have become a passion if we had given him a few more years to mature?

Putting it in other words: How many kids pester their parents into letting them learn to fly, and how many parents push their kids into learning to fly? There’s a critical difference there.

Certainly most parents who fly would like to see their offspring fly, although this seems to be more true of dads than moms. We all strut a little taller when we can say our kid just soloed or earned her pilot certificate. Too often, however, this is our dream, not our children’s dream, and sometimes we haven’t thought it through.

Two questions

There are only two questions about someone who wants to learn to fly, and they apply to potential pilots of any age—but they’re especially important for 14- to 16-year-olds:

  1. Are they mature enough to handle the responsibility and risks?
  2. Do they really want to learn?

The federal aviation regulations permit glider students to solo at age 14, and powered airplane students can solo at age 16. However, we really need to look beyond the minimums at the realities and make the judgment accordingly.

When it comes to maturity, anyone who has raised more than one teenager will agree that individual teens mature at wildly different rates. In most families, siblings are often so different they might as well be from different species. For that reason alone, it’s impossible to say that a child will have developed the maturity to handle an airplane at a given age. It has to be done on a case-by-case basis, and the parents usually aren’t capable of making that judgment.

The only common factor that applies across the board to this age group is the fact that their hormones are increasing faster than their common sense. But different youngsters handle it differently. All of them are discovering themselves and the opposite sex, both of which are guaranteed to confuse. Still, many young people at that age are rather mature. Some would be judged mature for any age. A number of programs have shown that exposure to aviation can stimulate a young person’s interest in math and science. But the potential for improved academic performance should never be the reason to nudge a young person into flying; it seems to work best as an incentive when peers are involved, and the youngsters have to want to do it.

Assessing individuals

One of the problems with bringing young people into aviation is that parents may be the worst people on the planet to judge their own child’s maturity or passion. As a parent, it’s always interesting when someone comes up and says, “I just love Bobby. He’s so mature and respectful.” Our response may be, “Are we talking about the same Bobby? Our Bobby? You have to be kidding!”

We’re not exactly revealing a secret of behavioral science when we say that the teenager who storms around the house and is convinced his parents are idiots often relates to the rest of the world quite differently. Here too, however, there are huge distinctions between individuals. We have to ask ourselves whether a kid who is angry at the world and rails at school authority belongs in a cockpit. At the same time, an argument could be made that putting him in a cockpit may be exactly what he needs. But that’s a really tough call. Someone who is not part of the family dynamic needs to decide when a kid is, or is not, capable of flying at a given age—but who?

Enter the experienced flight instructor.

What we’re about to say may sound prejudiced toward older, more experienced instructors, but it’s not meant to be. Trying to sense a kid’s level of maturity and separating that from the ability to fly is a challenging endeavor. Can a high-time, 40-year-old instructor do that better than a 20-year-old CFI?

You’d think that when it came to judging maturity and cockpit suitability, older would be better. However, it could also be that a younger CFI, closer to the same age, might see things the 40-year-old would miss. Questions, questions. The fact that he has sat in the cockpit with a wider range of student types than a younger CFI might give an older CFI a better perspective on the issue.

Do they want to?

After we’ve determined the relative maturity level of a teenager comes a more important question: Do they actually want to do it, or are they just trying to please a parent? Will the parent know the answer to that? Deep down in his heart, he probably will, but if the answer isn’t what he wants it to be, he may well ignore it. The reigning logic is, “They’ll like it. They just don’t know it yet.”

Kids generally fall into one of three categories when it comes to whether or not they want to learn to fly. The first is a kid whom you have to chain to the hangar door to keep out of the cockpit. The passion, the interest, the drive—it’s all there.

The other extreme is the “Naw, I don’t want to learn to fly. I want to hang with the guys or surf the ’net.” In either of these examples it’s easy to see who is and who isn’t being forced.

The third group—those who float on a cloud of muted indecision—are hard to figure out.

So many kids between the FAA-approved ages of 14 and 16 may not have drifted into the belligerent, self-assertive stage yet, but they’ve grown out of being the shadow people who actually like their parents. A percentage of these still want to be the person their parents think they should be. They’ll go along with the flying thing because dad wants them to—not necessarily because they want to. This is good and this is bad.

It’s good because exposing them to aviation may well fan a spark. Or it may be bad and generate a huge amount of pressure that the kid just isn’t ready to handle.

Try to picture yourself at that age. The last thing you needed was more pressure from your folks. If you wanted to do something yourself, that was cool. But, if you had to buckle under and do something just to please them, it really ticked you off. This is exactly how we do a negative sales job on aviation.

It’s impossible to come up with a guaranteed sales pitch here, but it certainly should involve a lot of empathy and understanding. If you sense resentment toward flying, back off and let them see it from a distance. Don’t force. Take them and their friends for trips (impressing their friends is a serious sales tip); hit an airshow or two. Let them see the fun aspect of flying and hope that they decide on their own to try it out.

Do not push. As parents, we don’t know for sure what’s happening under those surly little brows, but it’s a fact that passion and interest are never the result of coercion.

Training options

Let’s assume we sense a positive attitude on the part of the teen. What’s the best route?

Gliders offer a lot of pros and only a few cons. One advantage is that you can start the student younger and maybe get aviation inserted into his or her brain before hormonal disruptions start. Also, gliders are less expensive and in some ways easier to learn to fly because the mechanical aspects are simpler and require less technical understanding. Some early glider time always results in a better pilot. Coordination is better; planning and judgment are enhanced. It’s a good introduction to flying for anyone, at any age (see “Gliding Your Way to a Pilot Certificate,” May 2002 AOPA Flight Training).

The regulations don’t specify when someone can start taking lessons—only when they can solo. So, in theory, a youngster can start taking lessons in the family Bonanza at 12 years old, but obviously you need to apply some common sense here.

Although it will vary with the individual, 14 seems a good age to start anything, including powered-plane flight instruction. Since they can’t solo until age 16, that may be jumping the gun. If the boy or girl is enthusiastic about the training, he or she likely will be ready to solo much quicker than Dad was. For that reason, you don’t have to start power plane training until a few months before the magic age.

It won’t hurt to start them earlier, although some may get a little frustrated. Then, when they finally do hit 16, they’ll be more than ready to solo. Some young people will start at age 14 or 15 and fly once a month or so; while the learning might not be as efficient as with more frequent instructional flights, it can keep help to keep the student interested.

In any of these scenarios the instructor is critical. He or she has to be someone who can work well with the energies and eccentricities of the teen-aged mind. While we’re on the subject of suitable instructors, here’s a basic, do-not-violate rule of aviation: Do not try to teach your child to fly. Few marriages are strong enough for one spouse to teach the other—or an offspring—how to fly. Trying to do so almost always guarantees screaming matches that won’t be confined to the cockpit. It has been done, but it takes an extremely unusual family unit to pull it off successfully.

During the learning process, the parent’s role is simple: Butt out! Stay out of it unless your fledgling asks you something directly. This is their training and the last thing you want to do is interject doubt into the instructor/student relationship by second-guessing the instructor over the family dinner table. If you hear something you disagree with, take it up with the instructor and don’t say a word to your child.

If you have a family airplane and are going on trips while your child is in training, don’t try to instruct. Point out the differences between your airplane and the training aircraft, but leave it at that. Let them sit in the right seat while you’re flying and help with some of the cockpit tasks.

Back to the original question: is it possible to start flying too young? The answer is a thoroughly unsatisfying “Maybe, maybe not.” It depends entirely on the young person involved. In addition, it requires a willingness to trust the decisions made by an outside party (the CFI) concerning the suitability of someone whom you are convinced you know better than almost anyone else.

No one ever said raising kids is easy. Neither is raising a new pilot. But the goal is to protect them and give them skills that will stand them in good stead for a lifetime. So, don’t be in a hurry, don’t be overbearing, and above all, don’t be disappointed if the outcome isn’t what you want. Love, after all, isn’t based on the ability to fly.

Budd Davisson is an aviation writer/photographer and magazine editor who has written approximately 2,200 articles and has flown more than 300 different types of aircraft. A CFI for 37 years, he teaches about 30 hours a month in his Pitts S-2A Special. Visit his Web site.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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