Phillips with father
6 min read

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.

Phillips with father

Teaching a parent to fly is not easy.

“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.

Written test

The FAA written test is stressful, no matter how old you are.

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
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22 replies
  1. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    What a wonderful story! In our young minds, our parents are supposed to be perfect. I didn’t teach my dad to fly; we actually learned together…same airplane, but, wisely, different instructors. It was humbling to watch Dad, the stoic, wise and confident man that I believed in so strongly, as he struggled with his dream. He failed his first private check ride. But he prevailed, and we bought an airplane. As I got older, I became aware of his wisdom in investing in my flying lessons; he was a single parent, and there were plenty of things far less healthy for a teenager to be doing in South Florida in 1971. But the parallel lesson was in re-focusing my image of him as human and fallible, a very useful endeavor as I tentatively approached adulthood. It turned out that, in the grand scheme of things, he was, as always, still one step ahead of me.

  2. Leon Helmuth
    Leon Helmuth says:

    Beautiful story, very sensitively written. This is an inspiration to someone who also has a dad that wants to learn to fly. Perhaps it can be done whilst retaining parental relationships after all. :)

  3. Jack G
    Jack G says:

    What an entertaining story! You are such a good writer! And what a wonderful experience that must have been – to teach your dad to fly!! Thanks so much for sharing that wonderful time with us in such a cleverly written way!

  4. Glenn
    Glenn says:

    Very nice story! As a flight instructor, I tried to teach my daughter how to fly, but after 3 lessons, she decided it wasn’t for her. I also got my first taste of flying from my Dad. Your writing is great!

  5. Laverna Marshall
    Laverna Marshall says:

    Thanks for a wonderful story Shirley, I had the opposite experience. My Dad was an instructor for the Glider program the Army had for the Normandy Invasion, Dad taught glider flying to young men by practicing spins to a heading… Night! I was in for it! He expected me as a teenager to be really good. Ah yes, yelling was the order of the day, this was 1953! No radios, only basic instruments. Many times we landed with me crying!
    I’m sure Dad thought, good grief what is going on. We were flying a TG-3 Glider then, eventually he gave up and turned me over to another instructor at our airport. I did get my glider rating as a teenager….went on with my PPL in 1971 then ended up towing gliders for the club I was in. Dad was instrumental in teaching me how to soar, I can still hear him in the back seat saying, “don’t let the thermal throw you out”! I’m now 83! Those times are to be cherished, happy I flew with Dad a lot, and later on in higher performance sailplanes. I’m sure you will always cherish your Dad’s gift of being your first student. Not many instructors can say that!

  6. Rama
    Rama says:

    This is such a beautiful account, Shirley.

    I just got my own Private Pilot license realizing my girlhood dream.
    My inspiration , my cheerleader and mentor in this journey is my 25 year old son who coaxed, handheld and kept up my morale through all the rough and tumble of flight training.
    He currently has a multi engine instrument rating Commercial Pilot license and I’m honored and delighted to hear him say “ Mom-You really owned every minute of that flight ! “ after I chose him to be my first passenger on a cross country to San Diego from Van Nuys negotiating three Bravo airspaces enroute!

    Life is beautiful indeed!

  7. Sudhir Kidyur
    Sudhir Kidyur says:

    Wow! A fascinating story. Inspirational. A daughter teaching her father to fly. A rarity. And the humility is very touching. Aviation is a wonderful world.

  8. Gonçalo Greguol
    Gonçalo Greguol says:

    What a delightful story. I wish I could’ve taught my dad to fly. Well, maybe I’ll teach my son one day. Thank you for sharing, Shirley.

  9. Bryan
    Bryan says:


    Such a great story…my dad also nudged my aviation pursuits along, and was my first non-CFI/DPE passenger the day after I passed my PVT way back when. Unfortunately, because of some medical issues back in the day, he was refused even an SI Third, but that didn’t stop him from hanging out at the field and bumming a ride with me whenever I was free.

    After I earned the CFI, he claimed the left seat of my Cherokee, and, to be honest, even though he would never go on to “officially” become a pilot, he sat through our ‘drome’s ground school, studied the CPC Red Bag books, and, after hours of instruction (courtesy of my CFI rating), I would have had zero problems soloing him…in fact, his crosswind techniques, stalls, ground reference and general stick work was on par with someone who had already had their cert.

    We did multiple cross countries, too, for both business and pleasure. Precise navigation (he was old Navy hand…)…all the bits and pieces we have to pass on to our charges he drank deeply from. It would have been an honor to have signed him off for his ride.

    Sadly, though he never held the cert…he was a pilot…and flew west having had the experience of controlling an aircraft in flight in ’17.

    Thank you for your story…and treasure the memories!


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