In airplanes, students must be 16 to fly solo and 17 to earn a private pilot certificate. That’s easy, black & white from the regulations. But how old does a potential young aviator have to be to get started learning?
Years ago, as a less experienced flight instructor I would have said that 14 or 15 years old is a good age because teenagers can pick things up quickly if they are interested in the topic. Moreover, the wait to spread one’s wings and fly solo isn’t too long. I also tell potential customers (and their parents) that I began my flight training at 13 but I was obsessed…
As time went on my answer to the “how old to start” question evolved. Now, I respond that young ones can begin flight training when they can operate all of the flight controls in the training aircraft with ease.
I was a “big kid” so it was easy for me to operate the flight controls of the Zenith CH-2000 airplane that I started my lessons in before moving to the Cessna 152 then, very quickly, to the Cessna 172. However, I realize that not everyone is tall when he or she is younger so for some children the wait may be a little bit longer. The use of cushions is of course allowable and helps some students through their training, but relying on a pile of cushions has its own hazards.
Last fall my father told me that a friend of his from work had a son that was interested in learning to fly. My father continued, asking if I would be willing to talk to his father (my father’s work friend). The gentleman hoped that I would be able to arrange a flight lesson where the son could fly and dad could sit in the back seat. I told my father that we could absolutely arrange this and that he should give my phone number and email address to his friend and we could get something set up soon.
As luck would have it, the annual airport fly-in was coming up so my father invited his friend and his sons to the airport to come check it out. That was when I first met Eric. Eric was a bright kid who I could easily see was very interested in learning to fly. The only potential issue was that Eric was only 10 years old! I couldn’t be completely sure, but I’m pretty confident that I hadn’t given a flight lesson to anyone as young before.
I invited Eric and his brother to sit in a Piper Challenger; I could tell that with the help of a cushion Eric would be able to see over the glare shied and operate the flight controls (other than the rudder) with ease. Eric really enjoyed sitting in the pilot seat of the challenger and the quick half hour lesson I gave him on the cockpit, flight controls and control surfaces of the aircraft. After a few emails between Eric’s father and me, we set a morning flight up, in hopes to fly before any New England fall winds gusted up for the day.
On the decided upon morning, I removed some frost from the wings of a KING Aviation-Mansfield Cessna 172, helped Eric and his father into the Cessna and then climbed in myself. We took off and flew for about 30 minutes. The only flying I did during the flight was the takeoff and initial climb and the traffic pattern entry and landing.
The 10 year old, steady-on-the-controls (student) pilot performed marvelously throughout the flight. I was admittedly surprised at how well he did. I expected him to have a touch of “video-gamer” control handling. This is when a pilot over actively makes control inputs as if using a video game controller instead of an aircraft yoke. Not only does it result in flight instructors having to do a lot of work as a safety buffer but it also makes for a choppy ride on even the smoothest day. However, during the early fall morning flight with Eric, there was none of that. Eric’s father, our first class passenger for the day, had a nice smooth ride and was able to enjoy Eric’s flying, my teaching and a great bird’s-eye-view the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium!
Flying with Eric certainly confirmed my changed my view on the “how young is too young to learn” concept. I truly believe that if a child can operate the controls with ease they are old enough to start. Eventually Eric will grow and his feet will be able to operate the rudder, until then I can help on the couple of lessons a year we complete. Of course a 10 year old may fly once every couple of months just to keep the interest for a few years until they are closer to the age 16 solo flight limitation. As long as the flying and schedule are fun, cost-effective and keeps the student interested, it is a “win” for aviation to get our new aviators in the fold as early as possible!
-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9