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The most precious student

Should you teach your kid to fly?

Ever since the ink was dry on my flight instructor’s certificate, I dreamed of training my kids to fly. Mind you, I was 22 and didn’t even have a girlfriend, but while others dreamed of their offspring becoming football stars or CEOs, I thought of flights to Oshkosh and Alaska.
CFI or not, many pilots enjoy introducing their children to flying. (Photography by Chris Rose)
CFI or not, many pilots enjoy introducing their children to flying. (Photography by Chris Rose)

Then the little humans came along, and being responsible for their safety and wellbeing completely changed my perspective.

Instructors are confident people. Anyone who signs up to ride along as a neophyte hurtles you to the runway at 70 knots has to be exceptionally sure of their skills. But what if the person throwing the airplane toward the ground is your own son or daughter? Suddenly the emotional calculation changes dramatically, which raises the question: Should you teach your own kid to fly?

I put my kids in the front, let them guide me with their interest, and remain ready if and when they say they want to learn.Longtime AOPA columnist and author Greg Brown taught his son Austin how to fly, which led to the U.S. Air Force Academy and a successful career as a fighter pilot. Greg’s own father was a pilot and owned a Cessna 310, but he and his brothers and sisters always sat in the back. “I never really got an opportunity to fly with him,” he said.

Vowing not to make the mistakes of his father, Brown bought a Cessna 182 he famously dubbed The Flying Carpet, in part to have an airplane that could serve as a family station wagon and potential trainer if his boys ever became interested. As a result, Austin and his brother, Hannis, spent many trips not only bouncing along in the back seat while their mom, Jean, was up front, but also sitting up front and flying. “I let them handle the controls since they were very young,” Greg said. “To not give them the opportunity is a mistake. They’re not going to get turned on to it from the backseat.”

Flying with kids

Nathan Ballard introduced his son, Jack, to flying relatively young, but they didn’t start training in earnest until closer to Jack’s high school graduation. Nathan kept the training structured and formal as a way to normalize the experience for Jack, who went from right-seat passenger in 2017 to private pilot this year. A few years later it was Austin’s turn to teach his dad a few things about the Air Force’s T–6. Greg Brown taught his son, Austin, to fly, but the pair agreed that a finish-up program was best to get him through the checkride.

When Austin expressed an interest in learning to fly in early middle school, Greg started encouraging him with casual instruction on trips, and they would talk about flying at home or to and from running errands. Things gradually became more formal until later in high school, when Greg realized they were at a crossroads. Austin loved to fly and was good at it, but he wasn’t putting in the studying to get over the finish line.

CFI Nathan Ballard recently finished teaching his son, Jack, and he had the same experience. Jack was in high school and flying well, but not regularly enough and not with the determination it takes to finish the course. Before Jack’s freshman year at college, he soloed, and Nathan came up with a plan for him to finish before the fall semester began. But Jack had other priorities. “Once he went to school, he realized he missed an opportunity,” Nathan said.

Both Brown and Ballard had to continually balance the complex web of parent, coach, mentor, and flight instructor. For Brown it meant not pushing Austin, and working with a flight school to have him finish. The school applied the necessary rigor and pressure to finish Austin’s training course, and father and son maintained their relationship. “I didn’t want to poison this beautiful thing we’d done together,” Greg said.

Ballard, who from the beginning trained Jack as he would any other student, decided to take the patient approach and wait for his student to be ready to learn. After his freshman year Jack came home, studied, flew often, and passed his checkride.

But while Brown’s approach was all about playing the long game, planting the seed, and then nurturing the relationship, Ballard attacked the course more formally. Partly, that’s because he had taken a break from flying when his children were young, so they didn’t have the opportunity to be as widely exposed. But it’s also because Nathan believed that Jack was going to be most successful if he were treated the same as everyone else. “I was a coach when my kids were little,” he said. “I learned back then that if you treat your kids differently than everyone else, it’s not a good experience.” So, while they naturally discussed flying at home, they kept the lessons formal to the point of driving to the airport separately. And when they were at the lesson, Nathan said they didn’t talk about cutting the grass or anything else from home.

Not surprisingly, soloing was a challenge. Ballard said he was probably more conservative with Jack than he usually is with other clients, and Brown faced some logistical challenges that meant Austin soloed with the flight school.

There are other unforeseen challenges as well. Students make mistakes along the way, but it can be hard to see your kids struggle and continue to view the situation dispassionately. In Jack’s case, Nathan knew he was going to pass the knowledge test, but not ace it. Nathan endorsed him for the test, and Jack had to discuss those problem areas later with an examiner. Nathan is confident that Jack learned to make the knowledge test a priority in the future. Brown had to balance the need to push Austin without damaging their relationship, ultimately deciding to let a neutral party step in, thereby taking away the pride of going the full distance but keeping everyone happy in the process.

Dads and sons have no regrets. “I would encourage people to give all the dual they can to their kids,” Brown said. “Don’t discount the value, both emotionally and with instructional quality, of teaching your kid.” Ballard said their relationship got stronger as a result of the training. “There was a lot more interaction about a common shared love,” he said. “That has been, and still is, amazing.”

Jack Ballard is now enrolled at Auburn University to become a commercial pilot, and Austin Brown is an U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and has flown F–16s all over the world. He credits his dad’s instruction with getting him on the right path toward his career. “For me it worked out great,” he said. “I really cherish all the time I spent growing up flying with my parents and learning with my dad. I often look back and think about how extremely privileged I was to have my own dad.”

We’ve all seen moms and dads screaming at their kids from the sidelines, badgering referees, elementary school play directors, and even young volunteer coaches. Bottom line: If you are that parent, do your relationship with your kids a favor and don’t teach them to fly. But if you’re an experienced instructor, capable of staying calm as students fling you to the runway, and you want to strengthen your relationship, what better teacher is there than you?

Will my kids be interested in learning to fly? Who knows? Like Brown did with his sons, and like my dad did with me, I put my kids in the front, let them guide me with their interest, and remain ready if and when they say they want to learn. I know they’ll be up for the challenge. I can only hope I am as well.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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