Plane & Pilot
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Young Geniuses

When do you get too old to be a prodigy?

Everyone learns at different rates. This is painfully obvious to all flight instructors. Most of learning is nothing more than repetition after a firm conceptual base has been laid down, and those who learn fast need fewer repetitions. A chosen few have that special something and need no repetition.

As an instructor, I can remember exactly two students in nearly four decades of instructing who had that special ingredient. With both of them, there was no repetitive teaching. I’d say it or do it once, and they had it cold. It was as simple as that, and it was spooky. It was as if they were aliens and could tap directly to my brain and suck it dry.

One of these killer students was a Navy cadet I taught while I was struggling through graduate school and flight-instructing in a military contract program. He was so good, I was ready to solo him at four hours, but didn’t dare; the boss would have had my head. So, we kept on moving up the syllabus until at the usual ready-to-solo time of eight hours, he was the equivalent of a 30-hour student. By the time he got his private-pilot license at 35 hours, this kid was ready to jump in a fighter and go for it. It was scary! It was the same situation as with the young guitar player—he had been introduced to his ideal medium and took it from there.

But is this kind of demonstrated genius only for the young? Is it really impossible to teach old dogs new tricks? As one who’s working his way into old-dogdom, I’d have to admit that there’s a certain amount of truth to it, although I’m certain that Grandma Moses (art master), Colonel Sanders (business genius) and Bill Piper (no introduction needed) wouldn’t agree, as they didn’t even begin what would become their crowning achievements until late in life. Until then, they were living the life experience and looking for some place to invest what they had learned.

I can’t really explain how much I enjoyed watching that young giant play guitar, even though it drove the stake of underachievement right through my soul and spirit. Every time I look at a disgustingly young and adolescent genius, however, I keep reminding myself that even the Kentucky Fried Chicken Colonel Sanders didn’t start to really cook until he was in his late 60s. This is good because it gives me a little more time to get my stuff together. With that being the case, I’d better get serious about learning to fry chicken because I’ll never learn to fly or play guitar like the super kids.

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at


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