Learning To Fly

Album: Into The Great Wide Open (1991)
Charted: 46 28
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  • Many people assume that this song is about drugs, but it isn't. Petty got the idea for it when he saw a pilot being interviewed on TV. The pilot said how it wasn't hard learning to fly... the hardest part was coming down.
  • The song was informed by the political events of the time, specifically the Gulf War, as well as the band dynamics - Into The Great Wide Open was a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, whereas Petty's previous album, Full Moon Fever, was a solo album (although guitarist Mike Campbell played on every song and helped produce it). "I wanted that song to be a kind of redemptive song, only in the vaguest way, certainly not literally," he told Billboard.
  • The song was written in 1991 by Tom Petty and his Traveling Wilburys colleague, former ELO frontman Jeff Lynne. It is based on only four simple chords: F, C, A minor, and G.
  • Julien Temple, who also did Petty's "Free Fallin'," directed the video, which shows a young boy in various key moments of adolescence, as he gets his wings.
  • Pink Floyd beat Petty to the title, releasing their "Learning To Fly" in 1987. Their song was also sparked by aviation argot - lead singer Dave Gilmour was taking flying lessons. Pink Floyd was moving forward after shedding their founding member, Roger Waters, so the song is a metaphor for finding their wings without him.
  • The country trio Lady Antebellum covered this on their seven-song acoustic EP iTunes Session.
  • On October 21, 2017, Bob Dylan played "Learning to Fly" at First Bank Center in tribute to the recently deceased Tom Petty. Speaking to Rolling Stone in response to Petty's death, Dylan was uncharacteristically forthcoming, saying, "It's shocking, crushing news. I thought the world of Tom. He was a great performer, full of the light, a friend, and I ll never forget him." Petty and Dylan played together in the Traveling Wilburys.

Comments: 46

  • AnonymousThis song is not about pilots learning to fly ! It’s about aliens, religion traps of his girl and he wished she would just love him despite his alien agenda! He’s truly lost and she knows she can’t save him!
  • Jack501jdo from South Africa, DurbanI'd like to know in Tom Petty's video the original version who is the model with the tattoos and walking barefoot, she acting as a waitress
  • Ryan from Charlotte I love songs that can be interpreted in so many ways. When I listen to this song, I think about my dad who passed away. He’s an angel with wings and I’m learning to fly without him. I’m alive, so I don’t have wings and coming down from the loss is the hardest thing.
  • Greg from Paducah, Kyi agree with most`All the comments, (i.e., of Tom's initial inspiration of a pilot-interview, to the heroin usage aspect, (...the town lit up, the world got still) vs. the onset of the Gulf War & bombing. To heroin or the bombing, you could apply the same', ...they lit`up Baghdad & the world got still;
    Direct from History Ch. > "...All evening, aircraft pounded targets in Baghdad as the world watched the events transpire -live via satellite."
    [We all know how music videos can depict complete abstracts of the artist's original idea or intent.] <0> If the orig. video for "Learning To Fly" was any indication, the simpler side'? ~ Tom was implying, w. typical tongue`n-cheek (pool boy) scene, the typical emotional rollercoaster that is coming-of-age and the sexual thread that runs through it'.
    The portrayal begins w. the boy's moment of intrigue {running away from the confines of his parents}, taking off his 'eye protection' to see the dancing girls & a bomb going off in the distance. This is his 1st 'glimmer' of awareness, ...to his teen years portrayed as a pool boy's puberty being awakened by a long-anticipated moment of temptation, ...to the same kid seen as a young man getting the come-on' by the waitress/bar girl,
    ( all ^ blatant, coming-of-age references in pop culture.)
    The timeline of this boy's life being indicated by the classic, cold war era of Tom's own boyhood in the 50s ...right`on thru to the liberated 60s, etc
    w h e w ~ !! But that's just me, Greg'ry T
  • Tamera from GeorgiaBeautiful song although I must say that my favorite song by Tom Petty is Southern Accents. RIP brother.
  • Romie from Tuftonboro, NhHas anyone heard the live version of this song... Learnin to fly..(over my troubles) but I ain't got wings..(over my worries). Does this change your view that at least these days this song is not about drugs?
  • Ashley from Daphne, AlI think everyone can relate to this song in their own way. It doesn't matter what Tom said the song was about. You are going to hear it in your own way. I don't think there is a right or wrong answer. For example, I am about to graduate college and I have no clue what I am going to do with my life or where I am going. And I find comfort in this song because I feel like it's saying it's okay that I don't have it all figured out right now. I am in that transition stage in my life. One of the most confusing times in my life worrying about my future and what I am going to do with my life.
    "Well some say life will beat you down
    Break your heart, steal your crown
    So I've started out, for God knows where
    I guess I'll know when I get there"
  • Brian from Arlington , VaSometimes in life you have moments where you realize there is a connection, somehow, between different events or feelings. Hearing a pilot talk about it being harder to land probably invoked some deeper thoughts/meanings going on in Tom's life at the time, perhaps a "threesome" of flying, drugs, dreams vs. reality. Who knows? When these moments happen to me, I get that odd feeling of deja vu. On the day I decided I needed to be divorced from my wife, I heard this song on the radio, and I listened to it straight for about 30 minutes on my ipod, and I heard him talking to me about new directions. Everyone will take away something slightly different from this beautiful song.
  • Andrew from Virginia Beach, VaIm sorry, but this song is clearly about heroin. As a recovering heroin addict I can relate to every peice of this song. "started out down a dirty road" First time I shot dope was in a filthy disgusting alley. "coming down is the hardest thing" Coming off of heroin is the worse feeling in the world. "the town lit up and the world got still" thats how it makes you feel. Even the music feels like a heroin high would if it were a song. This song is so clearly about opiates (heroin) its not even funny.
  • Beth from Green Bay, WiRead a interview with Tom Petty said he was watching the first night of the Gulf War with all the bombing and the oil wells on fire. This reminded him of a interview with a pilot who said "coming down is the hardest part" and the reporters were saying the fires of the oil wells were so hot they were melting stone. Tom has a magical way of picking lyrics that have double meanings. I think he wants everyone to keep guessing and to make the song a story - for us to fill in the blanks anyway we want. If you watch his Story tellers on VH1 you will notice he does not like to explain his songs - they speak for themselves - in each of our own imaginations! Yes he may indulge but not everything he writes is about drugs.
  • Jacob from Long Beach, Ca"If any of you people had a clue about flying...you'd know that landing is the hardest part."
    - Larry, Quakertown, PA

    I thought the waiting is the hardest part.
  • Kristina from Albuquerque, NmI keep hearing this song on the radio whenever I need the confidence to try to fly--with or without wings. This song gives me so much confidence, hope, and encouragement.
  • Drew from Grand Rapids, Mistart down the dirty road. petty had to make the music scene somehow, probably a rough road at first. Now he's made some great records by this point when he wrote this song with producer jeff lynn. Full moon fever album had been a hit album right before this album. that was a solo album "full moon fever" he also joined the wilburys, played music with some of his heroes before this song..dylan/harrison/orbison. He's finally made it. Hes now become a legend. He's learned to fly. You cant stay up forever though. Making the big time doesn't solve all your problems in life. You still got to eat and all that and breath and be a person. You got to come down sometime. Some say life will beat you down and break your heart and steal your crown. It will. Petty's great though. Great band they are. I miss Howie.
  • Steve from Littleton, CoI think anyone can relate this song to any dimension of their life. This song to me represents my current life and future, and the past.
  • Bob from Hallanedale, FlReading Robert's (Allentown) views and comments about this simple song tells me that he really needs to get a life. I write comments on this site when I take a break from working because I view it as fun and relaxing. I am a Physician/Medical Scientist and do give a lot of thought to "life" because I deal with a lot of Cancer issues, etc, but I agree with Nathan from Canada-Robert almost does ruin a great song. Chill-out dude!
  • Bob from Hallanedale, FlAll you people attempting to "analyze" this song really need to relax a bit. Lance's interpretation is the most pleasant, as this song is pretty low-key, (especially for Tom Petty), and I really think that it's true merits lie simply in the catchy, beautiful musical tones this song provides.
  • Kurt from Detroit, Milike every song, especially petty songs, they are open to many interperetations. this is what makes tom petty songs so special and unique. i beleive that tom petty is talking about his life in general. when he says he is learning to fly, he means that he is learning to dream, but when he comes down he gets a snap back to reality. i guess that some people think it talks about a high, but then again, dont people think this way about every petty song? they need to just give it up. a very beautiful part to the song is, well the good old days may not return, the rocks might melt, and the sea may burn, followed by the chorus. this means that life my not give you what you want. it also means that anything could happen (rocks melt, seas burn) yet you have to get through it in order to make it to better times. some say life will beat you down, break your heart steal your crown. this directly relates to the fact that life is what you make of it. if you dont dream, there is no hope for you. you cant give into the possibility that life is all bad. when it says i aint got wings, it means that he is desperately trying to dream and make the best of what he has, but since he doesnt have wings, he must come down. also it seems that he beleives once he gets through all the bad, he will finally be able to get his wings and never come down. beautiful song
  • Dave from Liverpool, United KingdomMusic is what you make of it. Personally, I think this does exactly what it says on the tin - it's a song about flying.

    If people want to look for druggy references in it then feel free. You can do that with any song from Ave Maria to Take Me Out to the Ball Game
  • Zak from Versailles, KyTom Petty Didnt write this, its an old blues song by muddy waters
  • Mark from Athens, GaNot about drugs? You can't be serious. I was at Ft Lewis Washington on my way to the Nam in the summer of 68. We went to Seattle and scored acid, ate it and took the bus back to the fort. When we got back we were peaking so we grabbed a radio and went to the laundry room. When we turned that radio on we learned that Bobby had been shot. How Petty knew this and put it in the vid I don't know but if that kid isn't doing acid in the club I'm not who I am!
  • Mike from Cincinnati, Ohits about tripping... learning to fly, but i ant got wings... coming down is the hardest thing. the rocks might melt, and the sede a may burn... now asi
  • Soutiman from Mumbai, IndiaIt's a catchy song, period.
  • Johnny from Los Angeles, CaI did just think it was about drugs, but the song sounds too upbeat to be about that.
  • Patrick Hamilton from Braintree, Englandhaha, we're 'dumb' but you can't spell 'you're' correctly.

  • Jason Gebauer from Conyngham, Payour all dumb....i play music for a living.....i wrote a song once because i saw a man walking down the street with his daughter......you all get way to in depth
  • Patrick Hamilton from Braintree, EnglandSo is it a clever attempt at making us think its about drugs? or is it a double reference? or just a straight out great song?

    (btw, great (i know i know i know its simple and cliched) solo)
  • Larry from Quakertown, PaYou people are stupid. The very first thing says Tom Petty was interviewed and said it's about a pilot. Just like it says "Im learning to fly but I aint got wings
    Comin down is the hardest thing
    Im learning to fly around the clouds
    But what goes up must come down"

    If any of you people had a clue about flying...you'd know that landing is the hardest part.
  • Ken from Los Angeles, CaWes in Midland, TX first sentence hit the nail on the head. Only Tom Petty might (on a sober day) be able to tell us the meaning, maybe. So many of us think that music stars, by default, are smart, profound, &/or soulful. When many of them are not really that clever or poetic. I think the ambiguity in countless songs is not because the writer is so "deep", but rather he just can't express himself well. (Oh, those veiled meanings, what introspection... NO - just bad rhymes.) And when they sing of their hardships, it's often soaked in such self-absorption - they will never know true pain, as so many anonymous folks who live & die in obscurity. The words mean what they mean to you. I like the song, but let's not deify celebrities.
  • Elie from Londonamazing song i love it and rob i think youre reading too much into it
  • Mike from Los Angeles, Cajust an amazing song.
  • Nathan from From The Country Of, Canadawow robert from allenidunnotown almost ruined a very good song by a very good artist
  • Jim from Toledo, OhRobert, from allentown, you are a freakin nerd
  • Kindra from Princeton, NjA friend of mine always told me this song is about smoking crack.. I tried to figure it out by reading the lyrics and it made some sense, so that is why I looked this up today.
  • Anthony from Dalles, Txi have to agree with John from Waterville. isnt that why a song writer writes a song, so whoever listens can connect with it in some way?
  • Anthony from Dalles, TxI may be reading to far into this but i think its about him starting off with nothing all alone, then gaining everything, and losing it all learning its alot harder to lose what you have worked to earn than to earn it. but thats just my look into it.
  • Andy from Pittsburgh, PaPriscilla- the pilot on the television may have inspired the song, but that fact doesn't rule out symbolic meaning behind the idea. I think the final words of the song simply signify the impossiblity of living an ideal life for an extended period of time... a recognition of mortality maybe.
  • Priscilla from Lonelytown, TnI like this song. It's hard to believe that he wrote this song when watching tv about a pilot. It seems like it would be talking about something else.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesNo relation to the Pink Floyd 1987 hit of the same name, but to an extent I think it tries to convey the same meaning - of someone trying something out for the first time, finding it all hard to come to turns with - (in the words of Tom Petty's version) "I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings", but at the same time being (in the words of the Pink Floyd version) "stretched to the point of no turning back", not paricularly enjoying the experience but realising that you have come far to go back, and refusing to give in (again in the words of Pink Floyd's version "condition grounded but determined to try"). Tom Petty's version is, I believe, a way of saying don't look down, and don't relent even if you make a bad start as envisaged by the line "started out on a dirty road, started out alone" from Tom's version. I really like the way that the two songs, which have the same title, are, musically, poles apart, yet, either by design or default, somehow convey the same message using very different words.
  • Jade from Chippewa Falls, WiI agree Lance, I think that people who try to live a dream like, becoming a movie star or singing or dream about dating a movie star finally realize that it will never come true. The hardest thing is to come down.
  • Juan Carlos from Toluca, MexicoIt is interesting, at least to me, the meaning we give to the same thing dependig (probably) on our experiences. Some of you talk about a nuclear holocaust, etc. I do relate this song with a story told by someone who passed away...
    I must say I'm from MÃ?xico and because of that, I'm probably getting wrong with some phrases on the song... feel free to correct me... There is a real-life story about a girl that loses her life on a car accident... she was 21 and she was a mom of a 3 year old baby. The accident happened early in the morning (2:00 a.m. more less) when the only lights we see are from cars and from the city. she was driving all alone just with a baby chair on the passanger side... I never knew her but since I read the story... every time I hear "Learning to fly" reminds me to her... almost all the song matches with her story... at least to me. I imagine like if she was telling her story on a song... from moments before the accident happened when she was alive, and then when she passed away... she was driving on the road all alone early in the morning when the accident happened. that matches (at least to me I repeat) with the begining of the song... have u heard the phrase "the show must go on?".. "The town lit up... the world got still..." "I?m learning to fly but I ain?t got wings..." it is supposed that when we die we go to heaven... isn't it?... in figured sense, then we fly without having wings... "Comin? down is the hardest thing..." I agree with Lance (in different ways) "... Hence the "coming down" which i think refers to being hit by reality..." not for her (in the way I see the song) but for her family and all those who loved her and/or met her... even the last part of the song is a little different from "but I ain?t got wings" to "around the clouds"... "I'm learning to fly around the clouds..."... it is also supposed that those who died are watching us from above... isn't it?... We live thinking we will never die... and we make plans for going out to a party... go to football... to go to a concert etc... yeah yeah... we'll see next week... but we never know if next week is going to come... and what we live today is unique... and yesterday is the past... will never come back... the good old days may not return. We, and I say we as human been, still wondering how it feels to cross the line from being alive to pass away... some people talk about their experiences from being death for seconds and then come back... but that's a thing that everyone of us will know someday... what goes up must come down... we were born, then we'll have to die someday.. that's a rule of life... and we will never know how it feels until we get to that moment.... This girl drove her car on the freeway without imagine that a few moments or miles later she was gonna die... "So I started out for God knows where...
    But I guess I?ll know when I get there..."
    However... the best meaning of the song is just as John says.... "...The lyrics are about whatever you want them to be about..."... Feel free to correct me... Peace every1 and drive carefully...
    Juan Carlos - MÃ?xico - vaughaning@yahoo.com
  • John from Waterville, MiThe lyrics are about whatever you want them to be about. Thats what Tom would say.
  • Brett from Anchorage, AkThe song is about taking on a new experience that might be harder to handle than you want it to be but you've begun your journey and there is really no turning back. it's about the trials of life. for instace it might be about tom petty dealing with being a rock star. He has no instruction book or a road map on how to handle it, but some how he got there and he has to figure out how to manage this new life that is his. or it might be about being a new parent; blindly trying take care of a new child. you make mistakes but you learn from them. life is usually normal and thats what most people get used to, but sometimes it deals you a whole new set of cards that you have to learn how to play. you might win or might lose. or you might lose a hundred times before you win. and that's what the song is about. it is not about nuclear holocaust.
  • Robert from Allentown, PaI find that the lyrics do suggest nuclear holocaust. There are a number of reflections and applications that ensue. I'll say beforehand, that the writer presents/views the same path from varying scales as he must, since therein is the link of relevancy between the macro and micro, even individual. Let's look at it all interlinearly:
    "Well I started out down a dirty road
    Started out all alone"
    As individuals, upon becoming adult, we start out, alone, you know the mistakes you made back then, I think I can leave things there ("irresponsible youth"). As societies reach sovereignty, especially in the Western sense of "great nations", they often achieve their "greatness" by nefarious means. They always keep it (if they do) by those means.

    "And the sun went down, as I crossed the hill
    And the town lit up, the world got still"
    Here the writer leaps to the end; from the beginning. At the simplest level, the mood is steeped in irony, setting the mood with sunset on a cityscape as a strider stops, when cresting a hill and turns to gaze. At the personal metaphorical level, it points to a tardy victory realized only at the end of the day. At the widest level, it presents an image that points to out meteoric rise in technological prowess relatively recently and by some predictions very near ... the end of our meteoric rise.
    "I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings coming down is the hardest thing"
    Here as always ther are multiple levels of interpretation all simultaneously valid, like a fractal. At the widest angle, I would say that it expresses the possession of knowledge, absent requisite wisdom and it's likely result; much the same as a toddler with a loaded pistol. We have figured out how to destroy millions of lives in 18 minutes, but we aren't very sure when. Arms control is a failure and sooner or later any group of sufficient size and wealth will probably obtain the means to do exactly that. In the mid 20th century, there were one or two. How many are there today? We are learning to command these enormous forces but we direct them in a manner revealing our lack of wisdom directing them.
    "Well the good ol' days, may not return
    And the rocks might melt & the sea may burn"
    So complete will be the devastation, that society as we know it today may not be possible for thousands of years, if ever. That world will scramble our DNA worse than huevos rancheros in a California diner on a busy Sunday morning. We may never recover. The clock could be set back far further. Frankly, biodegradable bio-chems are a much better alternative (did I just write that?).
    Well that's enough for this installment. I think you get the point.

  • Julia from London, Englandi agree with Lance's interpretation, beacuse it's actually what i initially thought when i heard the lyrics. it's about coming to terms with life and learning how to live, despite many fallbacks that you experience. " started out on a dirty road/ started out all alone" it means that he started out on bad times, but he finally learns to accept them " i'm learning to fly,but i ain't got wings"
    oh yeah, a great song
  • Wes Childers from Midland, TxThe message of the song is smothered in ambiguity. Yes, the song can be interpreted as being about the realization of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. It can also be interpreted as one person's ode to emotional escapism as the character fantasizes about the past and a better way of life, before begrudingly having to return to reality. Another widly accepted belief is that the song is indeed the first-person account of the plight of a drug user. The character laments the fact that his euphoric feeling will ultimately subside after a small amount of time. Finally, the most widely accepted of theories regarding the song is that of a young man who experieces the trials and tribulations of growing up in a post WWII nuclear-era world. Key images in the music video ,as well as certain lyrics included in the song, tend to lend credence to the latter interpretation. However, the music video also gives a subtle nod to the aforementioned theories above. As for the "true" meaning, listen to the song again, and judge for yourself
  • Lance from Fort Collins, Coi think this song is about having a dream and then realizing that the dream is never going to come true. Hence the "coming down" which i think refers to being hit by reality. Not "coming down" from a high as many people think. He's saying how he is Learning To Fly, meaning he is learning how to live. What does everybody else think?
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