6 min read

I’ve been flying with my dad for literally my entire life, growing up in the back of different airplanes while he flew me and my three brothers on family trips. Occasionally, I got to move up front to the right seat. A look through the family photo albums finds the obligatory picture of me in the cockpit with my dad, yoke in hand, smiling from ear to ear. It’s pretty clear I thought my dad was a superhero back then, and 20 years as a pilot myself haven’t changed that opinion much.

John Zimmerman and Jim Zimmerman

Two generations, one cockpit.

In fact, I wouldn’t be a pilot in the first place if it weren’t for him. I can clearly remember one day when I was 15, as we drove to the airport for an afternoon of boring holes in the sky, when he casually asked if I ever wanted to learn to fly, not just ride along. As obvious as it may seem now that I might get my pilot’s license, at the time it sounded utterly ridiculous. I replied with typical teenage apathy–something to the effect of, “sounds pretty cool; we’ll see.”

2000+ hours later, I can’t imagine life without aviation in it. More importantly, I can’t imagine my relationship with my dad without flying. We’re a handshake family, not a hug family. That’s not a criticism–my dad and I are close and get together often–but we aren’t the type to talk on the phone every night about the latest gossip. It’s just the way we are. So flying is a connection for us, a shared passion and a meaningful way to spend time together. It forces two stereotypically unemotional guys to open up a bit.

It’s not about a single big event, but rather a series of quiet moments that need no words: a sunrise flight in a taildragger or a hard IFR trip where we work together like two old pros. A crisp approach briefing before shooting the LPV at night? That’s real father/son bonding, the kind you don’t read about in Hallmark cards.

There have been memorable flying trips to the Bahamas and even more trips to Oshkosh. Both of these are special places, imbued with memories of days spent living in a sort of flying fantasy world–filled with fun flights and spirited story-telling. To this day, every time I eat a soft serve ice cream down by the homebuilts at Oshkosh, I can see myself with my dad as a 14-year old. It was all so new and so mystifying, but he guided me around like he built the place.

Beyond the fond memories, learning to fly was a unique chance to learn some grown-up lessons from my dad. Teenagers hate being taught by their parents, and my dad was not my instructor (a good idea for both of us). But flying is serious business, so I couldn’t help but go to him for advice and lessons. VORs in particular were mystifying for me, but after a few impromptu ground lessons, my dad explained it all. I even learned what “omni” meant. That kind of lesson never would have happened with math homework.

Zimmerman family at Oshkosh

One of many trips to Oshkosh, a special place for father and sons.

The more I learned, the more I realized how accomplished my dad was as a pilot. I knew he had been flying for a while, but it wasn’t until I started lessons that I understood how difficult it was to fly an ILS to minimums, single pilot, in a piston twin–with four kids in the back. Or the soft touch it took to land a Cessna 180 in a gusty crosswind.

That’s respect that most teenagers don’t like to admit they have for their parents. It brings to mind the famous Mark Twain quote: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Flying made that process much shorter for me–it was obvious he was no fool and it didn’t take me seven years to admit it.

My dad also pushed me as a new pilot. Importantly, this was never done in a “tiger mom” way–forcing me to fly because he was living his dream through me. Instead, there was just a quiet, lead-by-example manner that showed how rewarding flying could be if you stuck with it and didn’t settle for mediocrity. That example motivated me throughout the up-and-down ride of flight training, and it trickled down to other parts of my life, from school work to sports.

It’s a lesson I hope to put to use with my two kids. Flying will always be a part of our family’s life (who else gets to take the school principal for a helicopter ride from the soccer field?), but it will never be forced on my daughters. If they learn to fly, I will be a willing accomplice. If not, I will have no sense of disappointment. They have to want it for their own reasons.

John Zimmerman with kids

The next generation?

Now that we’re both getting older, I’m trying to return the favor for my dad. A few years ago I jumped into helicopter flying, and he has been my most eager passenger. While claiming he’s too old to learn new tricks and get the rating, he’s brought his characteristic curiosity to the process. Every time we fly, he’s asking questions about how different systems work and why helicopters operate the way they do. I’m certainly no expert, but I feel like the instructor as I explain cyclic vs. collective. He’s certainly no teenager, but he brings the same enthusiasm as the most wide-eyed student pilot.

The R44 has added a number of unforgettable flights to the logbook, including a birthday ride from his back yard last year. With a combined 70 years and 10,000 hours of flying between us, you might think there would be nothing that could impress us. But as we climbed out vertically over the trees and waved to the neighbors, we both smiled like kids on Christmas morning.

Last year, we flew the helicopter to (where else?) Oshkosh. This time, though, I was the PIC and he was the passenger. As we buzzed past Chicago at 500 ft., enjoying my dad’s famous in-flight catering, I couldn’t help but think that these flights won’t last forever. My dad is in great health and I plan on flying with him for many years to come, but I try to savor each flight a little more with each passing year.

That’s because flying is simply more fun with a copilot, and no one is better in the right seat than dad. Maybe some day my kids will agree.

John Zimmerman
4 replies
  1. Ben
    Ben says:

    I must say this was spot on. I just started training for my PPL, and my thoughts were exactly the same. My father and I also attend Airventure every year and camp out for the week, it’s something I look forward to every year.

  2. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Thanks John. Just wish my father had been around after I finally managed to get my PPL. He was a major contributor to my ever developing love of aviation, (he was never a pilot, but a WWII waist gunner/radio operator on B-24’s in the Pacific, then an air traffic control supervisor in the USAF, until he finally retired in ’65.) He and I used to go to all the airshows wherever he was stationed, and I even ended up working on, (but not flying,) some of those planes we watched.

  3. ginny wilken
    ginny wilken says:

    John, thank you! I envy you this wonderful lifetime of experiences. I fly because of my dad and early rides with him – then none, except one when I was a young teen. He cannot have been current, but somehow rented a plane, and we did several very illegal maneuvers, I later learned. He died young, and I didn’t start flying until decades later, after my mom passed away too. I often think how much he would love my present life with airplanes, and each year on his birthday I try to go flying with a portrait photo of him tucked in the right seat shoulder harness.

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