Your connection with the sky

Eleanor Flies: First Flight with Dad

There’s no shortage of reasons to learn to fly.  One of the best is sharing flight with others.

I’ve taken each of my kids to the airport since before they could walk.  My son, Nicholas (callsign: “FOD”), has known how to operate a flap lever in a Cessna 172 since he was three.  My daughter, Ella (callsign: “Deadly”) reached for the throttle with her right hand the first time I loaded her into the left seat of a C-172.

I took FOD up in a Cessna Citation Mustang (a light business jet that seats six) on a demo flight at AirVenture Oshkosh three years ago when he was seven.  And I took him up again in a TG-7A motorglider with my airshow team in August for some formation practice.  But, up until now, I’ve never taken up Deadly, who's seven now.  So I set out to do something about that.

Last Saturday, we got up hurt-early and drove down to Detroit City Airport (KDET), where the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum keeps the TG-7A motorgliders that we fly for Young Eagles rides and in airshows to raise awareness of the museum’s educational missions.

I walked around the aircraft with Deadly in tow, showing her how to check the oil, sample the fuel, check the hinges and push rods, and check the dozens of other items on the preflight checklist.  I once had a USAF lieutenant colonel tell me that I looked like I was conducting a pre-buy inspection of my aircraft instead of a preflight inspection.  I took that as a compliment.  In a way, I am buying the aircraft every time I take it up.  If there’s anything wrong, I sure don’t want to find out about it when I’m up in the air, especially over the unlandable terrain of downtown Detroit.  Bad PR for the museum.

Preflight complete, Tuskegee flight lead Mark Grant helped me to pull the aircraft out.  I strapped Deadly into the left seat and explained how to operate the intertial lock lever and how to open the canopy and egress from the aircraft in case that became becessary.  Deadly needs a couple of pillows to be able to see well enough and her feet can’t get to the rudder pedals.  But she can reach all of the controls that matter.

I explained to Deadly everything that would happen on the flight.  Who we’d talk to, why I did what I did, what the sensations would be, and what she’d see.

I slid in, strapped myself in, started up, and taxied out to the runup area.  A runup and brief conversations with ground and tower later, and we were on the displaced threshold of Runway 33.

“You ready to fly?” I asked?

“You bet!” she said.

I fed in the throttle and kept the stick in my gut.  A few seconds later, I let off the stick and the tail came up.  And then we rose from the runway.

The plan was a short flight out to the Detroit River about four miles from the airport with a couple of circles around Belle Isle before coming back.  First flights are best if they’re kept short and don’t involve anything surprising or what some pilots call “sporty.”  That was the primary reason for turning the prop at sunrise, before the wind had a chance to come up and before thermal heating could make it bumpy at the lower altitudes at which we’d be flying.

The air was as smooth as glass.  I gave Deadly the stick and coached her through straight-and-level flight and a couple of turns.  Out over Belle Isle, we flew long, stately racetrack patterns up and down the length of the island.

The tower called to say that a Cessna bizjet would be between out location and the airport on a left base for the runway and asked if we might stay there over Belle Isle for a couple of turns to give the jet time to maneuver.  No problem.  And it gave me a chance to spot the jet and point it out to Deadly.

Just before we were ready to head back in, I asked Deadly if she might like to feel what it’s like to go a little light in her seat.  I got an enthusiastic “yes,” so I entered into a descent to build kinetic energy, pulled up, and pushed over the top to about +0.5G.  Just enough to watch her hair start to rise a little and get her light in her seat.  Perfectly safe and reasonable maneuver with less than 50 feet of altitude excursion.  BIG reaction!  (The good kind.)  One more of those (light parabolas are fun the first couple of time, but don't press your luck with a new passenger) and we turned back to the airport.

I called up the tower, got cleared in, and I pulled off a pretty good landing. Deadly stayed on the controls with me the whole time.

Of course, I needed to explain to Deadly the quality of the landing.  I could have scraped a wingtip, ground-looped the aircraft, and come sliding in sideways in a hail of asphalt dust and she wouldn’t have been the wiser.  But a good landing and an explanation of the procedure are always great conclusions to a first flight.

We taxied in and put the aircraft away, then headed for home.  From the back seat, after a few minutes of silence, Deadly looked up from her book.

“Dad, can we do this every Saturday morning?”

Yeah.  Mission accomplished!

I fly for many  reasons.  This flight was one of them.  It illustrates a few things that are important to you as a student pilot or as a person who’s interested in learning to fly.

If you decide to go up in a general aviation aircraft with someone to see what it’s all about, make sure you talk to your pilot.  Even if the pilot is your instructor on your discovery flight.  A good pilot will explain everything that he or she expects to happen on the flight.  When to talk and when to shut up.  What to look for (here especially meaning other traffic).  How to operate the restraints and the door(s) or canopy(ies).  And come to an understanding about what maneuvers are okay and what maneuvers aren’t.  I floated Deadly a couple of times because we talked about it and she said that it’d be okay.  If that’s not okay with you, don’t be afraid to say so.  Your first flight should be short and fun and make you want to fly again soon.

If you’re looking for a reason to learn (or keep learning) to fly, the prospect of taking passengers on their first flights is a spectacular reason.  I fly EAA Young Eagles and others whenever I get an opportunity.  If you do it right, you’ll get others interested in aviation and get them on the road to becoming pilots.  Or, if nothing else, you'll help to make them informed citizens and voters who understand the value of GA.

I really, really enjoyed the flight with Deadly.  Along with my flights with FOD, this one was one of my favorite flights ever.

Deadly’s full name is Eleanor Ann Arroway Tupper.  She’s named for the protagonist in Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact.  So you can imagine the kinds of hopes and dreams I have for her.  Making lazy circles around Belle Isle in a TG-7A is just one in a long series of experiences that I plan to give to her.  And I can do things like this because I’m a pilot.

Soon, you’ll be able to do the same.  And how amazing will that be?

Who are you going to take up as your first passenger?  And how will you make it a safe and fun flight that passes on the love of aviation and makes new pilots?  The answers are in your flight training and in the motor skills and judgment that you’ll develop in your flight training.  I’m really excited for you because, if you stick with it, you’ll have opportunities like I had last Saturday.

I’ll never forget this flight.  And neither will Deadly.

9 Responses to “Eleanor Flies: First Flight with Dad”

  1. Your daughter's aviation nickname is "Deadly"?. Bizarre. I call my kids by their given first names when we go flying.

  2. Frank, lighten up. The NICKNAME is probably an inside joke with a good story. Please don't sound like the kneejerk reactionists that are so prevelent these days.

  3. What a fantastic story! It really hit home for me because I am in my x-country stages of flight training for a PPL. I just completed one of the first milestones of a new pilot--the first solo--on 11/24/12, and I am now looking forward to completing my training and sharing the wonders of aviation with others. I think it is really cool that you are sharing the fascinating world of aviation with your kids--albeit in bite size pieces meant to inspire and not overwhelm. Thanks so much!

    p.s. ignore Frank's message above. Apparently he is oblivious to what kids consider fun! --like their own, unique call sign! How cool!

  4. Steve,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with your daughter. I've had my Private Pilot's license for a little less than a year - and I distinctly remember the first time a took up a non-pilot passenger; I was extremely nervous. Fortunately, the good friend that went with me, was patient and curious about what was going on. Answering all his questions help to allay my anxiety and we had a great trip.

    I can't wait to fly with my own children one day.

    Thanks again,


  5. Fantastic story! I love flying with my daughters, but don't do it enough!

    I just took my 3-yr old daughter up for her 2nd flight and my 8-month old daughter up for her first. For the elder daughter it was the first time in the front seat (right side). She loved it, but found that even with the seat of a C-172 pushed all the way back she could reach the yoke with her feet and push, which caused quite a reaction from my wife (in the back seat with the 8-month old) when the plane went into a shallow dive; However, recovery was easy and she didn't do it again. As for the 8-month old . . . she slept the entire time. I highly recommend talking young children up as soon as possible, but not without someone else to help "wrangle" them and not without hearing protection for them.

  6. Thank you for sharing experience of you with your daughter. I really enjoy it.

  7. My oldest daughter beat me into the cockpit. Without any prompting from me, she decided to study Aerospace Engineering in college. "If you are going to build them, do you want to fly them?" met with a similar reaction as Deadly's enthusiastic "yes" (mine was "Really?") My favorite video is my daughter with her CFI on their discovery flight - I dubbed in Alan Jackson's song "Drive" to the audio track and I was totally hooked and was quickly in the cockpit myself. Last month we took our first flight together under my PPL (her PPL is coming but she needs to priortize her focus with college classes). Appreciate the advice on "First Flight" - my youngest daughter at 16 yrs old has yet to have her intro flight. She will get it as soon as I finish the purchase of our first aircraft (yes, beware - experiences like this lead to off-mall shopping sprees!)

  8. It's a pleasure to read this kind of story. My special first flight with a kid started when a 9 year-old girl stood at the fence watching airplanes and gliders come and go. I asked her if she wanted to fly in the glider. She did, and her father gave his permission. Several years later, on her 14th birthday, I soloed her in that same glider.

  9. nice experience u have.
    Thank you for sharing.

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