The lights on the dome of the state capitol rose higher out the window of the Cessna 150, as we settled over the city just north of the airport. We seemed to hover for a moment, like we were in a helicopter. I loved flying at night, but this lesson was not going as planned. I was a new flight instructor, and the student pilot flying from the left seat, nervously watching this unfold, was my father.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,” he yelled, attempting to be heard over the noise of the engine. We had no headsets or intercom in this barebones training aircraft, so all communication involved some level of yelling.
“It’s ok, Dad,” I yelled back as the high-pitched squeal from the stall warning horn reminded us of the precarious situation we were in.
“That was my fault,” my father said, but I knew it was not. In stark contrast to our father/daughter relationship on the ground, in the air I was now responsible for his safety. Dad was one of my first students when I became a flight instructor at the age of 20, and my inexperience was apparent in the vague instructions I had given from the right seat. When Dad failed to raise the nose high enough to climb after our aborted landing, I had directed him to, “Get it up!” He reached for the flap lever, and moved it from forty degrees to zero in one quick movement. The airplane responded predictably to the sudden loss of lift, and we teetered on the aerodynamic edge of flight.
“You didn’t mean the flaps, did you?” he said, as we sat momentarily suspended, before slowly regaining our lost momentum and starting to climb. Today we look back and laugh at our miscommunication, but at the time it made me question my decision to honor my promise to teach my father how to fly.
My father was the one who introduced me to aviation by buying me an introductory flight when I was 14, and then giving me the cash to buy my first flight manual and E6B. He had been interested in flying ever since he loaded ordnance onto AD Skyraiders as a Marine stationed in Korea. Nearsighted and not academically inclined, he never flew in the military, but the experience spurred his dream of one day becoming a pilot.
After that introductory flight, I promised my father he could be my first student when I became a flight instructor if he could convince my mother to let me take flying lessons. Once I became an instructor, we made a pact that in the airplane he was no longer my dad, but my student, and that he would heed what I had to say. I agreed to not censor my comments to spare his feelings, and that I wouldn’t take offense if he cussed in the airplane when he got tense.
Dad required a lot of patience because he was meticulous when it came to checklists. He made up his own checklist to add to the one in the airplane for engine start and before takeoff. On lined notebook paper that he laminated and attached to his clipboard, he wrote out all the details he feared he would forget, like the exact phrasing of how to call for a traffic advisory or a reminder to check the brakes after leaving the parking spot.
On our first few lessons we spent so much time on the ground while he double checked everything that I had to calm myself by remembering that it was all time I could put in my logbook. Once airborne, my dad initially suffered from airsickness, requiring us had to end our lessons early—spending less time in the air than we did on the ground. Still, I was getting free flying time, and he was getting flying lessons for just the cost of the airplane rental. Our symbiotic arrangement worked—most of the time.
We had surprisingly few disagreements, but one came up on his first solo cross country flight. I was relieved when he called to say he had landed safely at the destination, but then Dad admitted he made an extra stop along the way. He had landed at an airport we had flown into several times together because there was an ice cream stand within walking distance. It was not an airport I wanted him to fly into alone yet. The runway had a big dip in the middle which made the landing flare tricky at best. Realizing I was irate at his unauthorized excursion, he started to explain that he had landed there only to confirm it was the airport he thought it was.
“Well, Dad, that’s a pretty lame excuse,” I seethed into the phone. I reminded him the airport name was spelled out in big white letters on the taxiway that were readily visible from the air.
“Get back in that airplane and fly straight home without any more stops,” I ordered. If he made any other detours he kept them to himself, much like I had remained mum about some excursions I had once made as a new driver in his Ford Granada.
The other time that things got heated between us was when he kept procrastinating about taking the written test. After many months of taking practice tests, I finally told him I wouldn’t fly with him again until he took the test. He still has the piece of paper showing his grade of one-hundred percent in a frame on his desk. I only got a ninety-five.
It was a humbling experience for my dad to make all the typical mistakes of a student pilot in front of his daughter. He once started circling aimlessly during a lesson on pilotage. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was looking for the intersection of two rural roads that were highlighted in yellow on his neatly folded chart. The visibility was superb that day, and his next two checkpoints, a large lake and an airport with two paved runways, were clearly visible up ahead.
“Hey, Dad,” I said, losing all pretense of professionalism after his third circuit to locate the obscure roads. “Instead of making me nauseous looking for that road, how about that big lake right there? Do you see that?”
“Oh,” he said, clearly embarrassed, as he realized his mistake. I assured him he was not the first student pilot to attempt to navigate by the tiny things he imagined would be so obvious from the air—but were not.
I went on to fly seaplanes, gliders, and jets because Dad bought me that one airplane ride at 14. Dad got his private pilot certificate and bought an old Cessna 150. On one of our first flights together after I was no longer his instructor, I was pregnant with his first grandchild. This time I was the one who was nauseous, thanks to the morning sickness that snuck up on me without notice. Dad confidently headed us back to the airport, even talking another pilot into letting us land first, and made a smooth landing despite the distraction of my barfing in the right seat. He still tells everyone who will listen how I taught him how to fly, and I brag about how he was my only student to get a perfect score on the written test.
Shirley Phillips started flying lessons at fourteen and earned her private pilot certificate on her seventeenth birthday along with her identical twin sister. She holds an ATP with a type rating in the Airbus A320, and is a flight instructor in multi and single-engine airplanes and gliders. Previously she was a professor of aeronautical science at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire, where she still resides on the approach path for the runway. She has a MA in science writing from Johns Hopkins University and has published articles on aviation-related topics in The Atlantic, AOPA Pilot, Flight Training, and other publications.