By Harriet Baskas
January 21, 2019
Boy wearing straw hat looking through window to airplane
Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Ask frequent travelers to share stories about flying and get ready to hear tales of missed flights, rude flight attendants, annoying seatmates, and worse.

But ask even the most grizzled road warrior to take a trip down memory lane to their first ride on an airplane and the stories are often sweeter, funnier and, at times, truly heartwarming

Travel + Leisure invited readers to share memories of their first flights and plenty of people took us back to that first tingly sensation soaring off the ground and into the sky.

Here are some of those stories:

Claudia Gomez was four years old when she took her first airplane ride and remembers thinking that the clouds were cotton and worrying that the airplane might get stuck trying to go through the clouds.

Chip Barker was 14 in 1984, when his People’s Express flight from Jacksonville to Detroit had to make an emergency stopover in Newark due to a snowstorm.

“It was a really old part of the airport, with cinder block walls and no jetways,” said Barker, “They couldn’t keep the doors to the building closed, snow was coming inside, and people were sleeping on the floor. Somehow, I still loved the entire experience.”

Liz Drapa flew from Chicago to Poland to visit her grandparents when she was 7- or 8-years-old. “I was so amazed to be on a plane,” said Drapa, “I remember holding my Cabbage Patch doll and the flight attendants being nice to me, inviting me up to the cockpit to meet the pilots, show them my doll, have a glass of orange juice and see how planes are flown.”

Jose Guevara took his first flight on Aug. 17, 2005, traveling from El Salvador International Airport to Washington Dulles International Airport, with a refueling stop in Guatemala. “I was 16 and coming to the United States with my older sister and younger brother after being raised by my grandparents,” said Guevara, “It was my first time on an airplane, my first time in the United States and my first time seeing my mom after 10 years.”

Patricia Riley Corcoran was 17 when she first flew on an airplane, and very excited about her family’s visit to Disney World. “That was 43 years ago, when luggage didn’t have wheels,” notes Corcoran, “And despite my father telling [us] to only pack what we could carry, I packed a very heavy suitcase and remember dragging it through the Atlanta airport to make a flight connection. I learned a lesson the hard way.”

Paula Weder has vivid memories of her first flight and has both photos and paperwork to prove that it took place.

“It was 1991. I was 15 and flying from Pittsburgh to JFK and on to Helsinki as a Rotary Foreign Exchange Student,” said Weder, “My dad walked me onto the plane, buckled my seat belt and hugged me tight. I was gone a year.”

In her scrapbook from that year abroad Weder has a photo of the plane she boarded to begin her adventure, a snapshot of her with her parents at the airport and the boarding pass and bag claim tags for her journey. She also has the invoice for the purchase of her $920 round-trip economy-class ticket from Pittsburgh to Helsinki via JFK airport, flying Pan American and Finnair.

“That flight shaped my life,” said Weder, “I know it was so very hard for my parents to let their 15-year old daughter board a plane and leave for a year, but they did it and it gave me the courage to travel to [four] continents, many times on my own. It showed me how very much of a world there was beyond my hometown, but also taught me how wonderful it is to have that home to come home to.”

Not everyone goes on their first flight as a kid. Karen Dubois Walters took her first airplane ride when she was 25 years old. The flight was from Houston to Las Vegas and soon afterward she made her first international flight to Paris. Now 63, Walters has lost track of just how many flights she’s taken since then, “But I know I’ve visited over 20 countries and many of the 50 United States.”

Future frequent fliers

Rhett Hildebrand was too young to remember his first flight, but his parents have a unique document to mark their son’s sky-high milestone.

Kristin and Tyler Hildebrand were flying to Mexico on United Airlines and, after learning that this was the first time the couple was flying with their baby, flight attendant Paolo Vento offered to make a first flight certificate for baby Rhett.

United and other airlines once routinely issued certificates like this to young passengers, but that amenity long ago went the way of blankets, pillows and complimentary playing cards.

“I’m bringing back the tradition,” said Vento, who has so far personally made about 50 first flight certificates for young passengers and their parents.

Vento has created his own template for the certificate and personalizes it with his signature as purser, the child’s name, the flight itinerary and the name of the captain. After a flight, he’ll print out the document on high quality paper and send it off to the recipient via FedEx.

So far, only children have been fortunate enough to receive one of the Vento’s special travel mementos, but he’s looking forward to presenting first flight certificates to adults on their first journey.

“Especially those adults that have had to work up the courage to just get on the plane,” said Vento.