You know that scene in Star Wars: A New Hope when the Rebels are attacking the Death Star and fly through the trenches while torpedoes are whizzing by? After watching that around age 5, Andy Jackson, a pilot at ICON Aircraft in Tampa, knew he was destined to fly.

“And it is every bit the escape and freedom I knew it would be as a child,” he says. “No other job or hobby has this access. I can take off from a runway and land near a beach. Every time I fly I discover something I didn’t know about before.”

That said, if you have the learn-to-fly itch but have been ignoring it for years, maybe now’s the time. From the ICON A5, with wings that fold up like a real-life transformer, to a stunt plane where barrel rolls and tail slides are the norm, it’s easy to fall in love with aviation.

Whether you just want to get a taste on a discovery flight or go full throttle and earn a sport pilot license or private pilot license, piloting an aircraft can be incredibly fulfilling. Chances are, you will never look up at the sky in the same way ever again.

A view from the wing of a small red plane in the air
Sky Combat Ace practices aerobatic maneuvers over Southern California © Sarah Sekula / Lonely Planet

Sky Combat Ace – San Diego

At Sky Combat Ace San Diego you get to fly over San Diego’s gorgeous terrain while practicing combat techniques in a fighter jet. You’ll score some serious Gs by hopping into an aerobatic stunt plane. After a brief tutorial, take over the controls and master insane maneuvers like high-altitude barrel rolls, spins and tail slides (holding the plane vertically before descending down).

For the ultra-competitive, go next-level with an aerial dog-fighting session. Think: an extreme game of laser tag in the sky. Best part is: no experience is needed. Go head-to-head with another plane at hundreds of miles per hour, squeeze the trigger and see smoke come out of the opponent’s plane. This is a great introductory experience to get you stoked on flying.

View from the wing of a small aircraft over water
View from the wing of an ICON A5 © Sarah Sekula / Lonely Planet

ICON Aircraft – Tampa Bay, Florida

You’re bound to get hooked on flying when you learn in an ICON A5, a two-seater amphibious plane that looks like a sports car and maneuvers like a jet ski. For those who may be in the market for an A5, you can sign up for a demo flight for a firsthand look at ICON Aircraft’s Flight Training Facility at Peter O. Knight Airport in Tampa, Florida. If Tampa isn’t convenient, ICON has other training locations across the country.

The A5 was specifically designed with newbie pilots in mind. “A demo flight gives us a chance to demonstrate how comfortable and safe the plane is while being easy to fly,” says Jackson. “We take it through stalls, a relatively common pilot error that occurs when a wing loses its lift. The A5 has a spin-resistant design, so it’s a recoverable mistake versus a dangerous one. That builds confidence in the plane.”

How to score your sport pilot license? Easy. Students can earn the license in a few months or transition to the A5 in a just a few days with land and seaplane transition courses where you’ll learn skills like water landings and take offs, pre-flight safety checks and low-level flying. Get this: when you’re done soaring through the skies, you can easily fold the wings up, put it on a trailer and drive it home; it is made to fit in an RV garage.

“Even after a 20-year military flying career, I am constantly amazed,” says Jackson. “Every flight in the A5 is different. One day it's seeing wildlife, the next it is a lake or river you didn’t know was there. The next day you are pulling up on a remote beach.”

Flights with Land and Sea Aviation bring wild areas like the Chugach Mountains into reach © Michael Heffernan / Lonely Planet

Land and Sea Aviation – Anchorage, Alaska

Learning to fly is cool, indeed. Learning to fly in Alaska? Even cooler. Sign up for a 25-minute Discovery Flight with Land and Sea Aviation in Anchorage to get to know the controls and to see if flying is something you’d like to pursue. The flight, from Anchorage to Eagle River, follows the Chugach Mountain Range. Along the way, the views are of the vast mountains that lie east of the city. Once high enough in the air, the instructor lets you steer the plane.

If you continue on and get your license, your cockpit view will include the Cook Inlet, the Chugach Range, Mt. Susitna, glaciers, volcanoes towards the Aleutian Islands, including Spur, Redoubt and Augustine and even Denali and the Alaska Range.

Inside the cockpit as a man flies a helicopter over a rocky coast
Go Fly Maui takes newbie pilots high over the Valley Isle's coastline © Riley Swanson

Go Fly Maui – Maui, Hawaii

Exploring Maui is a thrill in itself, but getting to know the wild and rugged island in a chopper is next level. Just ask Christian Swanson, who learned to fly a helicopter on a doors-off discovery flight with Go Fly Maui.

“You get the chance to see cliffs and beaches you wouldn't from the road,” Swanson says. “We took the route along Waihe'e up to the Blow Hole, from the southern tip of Maui up along the east coast. At points, we were flying over the open ocean, which was amazing. We even hovered above a playful dolphin for a while, watching it giddily chase a fish through the turquoise water.”

You’ll practice climbs and turns above the rugged Valley Isle. From there, if you decide to go further, you can sign up to get your Private Pilot License.

“I've flown drones and RC helicopters recreationally, and although that may sound nothing like flying a real helicopter, it's enough to spark your interest,” Swanson says. “My skills from those fun activities actually made the jump to the helicopter controls easier. Now, I'm hooked on flying.”

Two men fly a small helicopter low over the ground
Wings Air takes students over the New York region © Courtesy of Wings Air

Wings Air – New York

Wings Air offers Discovery Flights where students take in stunning views of Westchester County, the New York/Connecticut coastline and the Hudson River. If you have no prior flying experience, this intro flight is the way to go. You’ll begin with a ground briefing covering helicopter flight controls, flying techniques and safety procedures.

Then you join an instructor for an adrenaline-pumping 30- or 60-minute, one-on-one flight. The Robinson R44 Raven II is the helicopter of choice for training flights. It’s known for it’s safety, high-performance and versatile platform. Major bonus: students also have the option to bring up to two friends to ride along as passengers and cheer you on.

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