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.