From Jewish Educator to Pilot and Flight Instructor

Howard Cooper. Courtesy of Howard Cooper

Alan Zeitlin

Philadelphia resident Howard Cooper, 67, was on the ground, working hard in Jewish education in Boston and Connecticut, running Hebrew schools and Jewish camps. Then he got the itch to get in the air.

I kind of burned out after a number of years, so I started taking flying lessons 15 years ago,” Cooper said. “I continued the training until I became an instructor.”

Originally from Detroit, he founded Jews in Aviation, a community of Jewish pilots, in 2009.
“When I became a pilot, I figured I would join a Jewish pilot’s group except there wasn’t one,” he said. “I was surprised because you can find any kind of Jewish group. There’s one for lawyers or motorcycle riders, but there was none for pilots.”

He said he got connected to Matt Ritter, a Jewish pilot in Toronto and started a website and eventually a Facebook page. He said while they don’t have meetings, they discuss different things online.

A common question he gets is from Orthodox men who want to know if they can be pilots; he said one can get a license, but it would be difficult for young pilots to say they “can’t fly on Shabbos.” Cooper, who is a member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, where his brother, Rabbi Neil Cooper, led the congregation from 1991 to June 2022, said there are a few Orthodox pilots for the airlines.

Cooper opened a school at Northeast Philadelphia Airport and provides paid training for some high schools in Philadelphia. He said he’s recently applied for nonprofit status for his school, Tailwinds Flight Education.

He flies single-engine Cessnas and said students range from some who want to have a career in aviation to those who “have it on their bucket list.”

One has to be 15 to take a written test, 16 to fly solo and 17 to take a final test.
He said he enjoyed both “Top Gun” movies starring Tom Cruise but said, “It’s not the kind of flying that we do,” as they are not armed or fighting enemy pilots.

He said some people “get the aviation bug” and it is life-changing to fly solo.

“It’s a unique experience controlling the machine by yourself,” he said. “You’re managing a risk, but it’s tested on a federal level. There are not a lot of things where you are held to a clear and specific standard. If you don’t do the moves right, they don’t pass you.”

He said if people are reasonably healthy and have a passion for it, they can be trained to be successful.

“But it’s not for everybody,” he said. “We know the dropout rate in the United States is about 80%. For some people, it doesn’t work for them for whatever reason.”

Many train part time and will take six to nine months.

With so many technological advances, some think it could be a cinch to fly and wouldn’t require that much focus. But Cooper said nobody should think technology alone would mean a pilot didn’t have to get proper training.

“GPS is a great tool for navigation,” he said. “Autopilot is a great tool. But at the end of the day, you’re in charge, and it would be a huge mistake to relegate that to technology. But those are tools. They don’t fly the airplane for you.”

Decisions on whether to go or not go based on weather occur, with new pilots not wanting to go early in training if it is too windy or visibility is less than five miles.
He also said that flying a single-engine plane sometimes gets a bad rap because when accidents occur, they get big headlines.

“The biggest misconception is that flying a Cessna is inherently dangerous,” Cooper said. “It can be safe if you are trained. Most of the errors that happen are of a human factor.”

He said some don’t maintain their planes, put too much weight on them or go up in rough conditions.

As for his decision to become a pilot and flight instructor, he said it is extremely rewarding.

“It’s a great feeling of freedom and a wonderful feeling to teach others and empower them to do something that only a select number of people are able to do,” Cooper said.

Alan Zeitlin is a freelance writer.


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