How Tom Petty’s ‘Learning to Fly’ Became a Quiet Redemption Song
Four years after an arsonist burned down Tom Petty's California home, the singer and songwriter was more than ready for a new beginning in 1991.
But he was far from bitter after the incident. As he was writing Into the Great Wide Open, his eighth album with the Heartbreakers, the lead single for the LP, "Learning to Fly," offered a hopeful philosophy.
"Everyone has tragedy in their life," Petty told ABC News in 1991. He was inspired by a pilot, who said the hardest part about flying a plane was coming down from the air. "You can lay down and let the tragedy overwhelm you, or you can fly above it, and I think that's sort of what I'm trying to say in that song. I don't say that I can fly - I'm learning. Also, we're expected to do a lot of things that we're not necessarily equipped for."
Into the Great Wide Open was the first time Petty introduced two parts of his creative world to one another. Petty wanted Jeff Lynne - who had produced Petty's debut solo album from 1989, Full Moon Fever, in addition to being Petty's bandmate in the Traveling Wilburys supergroup - to work on the next Heartbreakers record. He hoped his longtime band would be on board with the decision.
“‘Learning to Fly’ was a Jeff Lynne production,” guitarist Mike Campbell told Rolling Stone. “Tons of acoustic guitars on it, layered really thick, strumming away. My favorite part was the little drum break at the end: dica-dica-dic boom-boom. I got off on that a lot. That was fun. ... That’s the miracle of the song. There’s really not much to it. It’s really simple music, simple lyrics.”
Watch Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' Video for 'Learning to Fly'
That simplicity, and the message of perseverance, resonated with fans. "I've gotten a lot of different mail on it," Petty said in the 2005 book, Conversations With Tom Petty, "different people who were inspired one way or the other in life by that song, and they send me letters about it. I'm proud I wrote that song."
The song was a favorite at Petty's live shows, where the frontman would often step away from the mic and let the audience sing the chorus. "That's been one of our most popular songs," he once said. "We still get a lot of requests for that in movies, and people always want to hear it in a show. People embrace it."
His peers embraced it, too. Not long after Petty's 2017 death, his onetime Wilburys bandmate Bob Dylan and occasional collaborator paid tribute with a rendition of the song during a concert encore.
Watch Bob Dylan Cover Tom Petty's 'Learning to Fly'
Petty's personal life wasn't in the best place in 1991. His first marriage was starting to unravel, but his songwriting pulled him through as he put one foot in front of the other, he said.
“I feel like ‘Well, I’m still here, you know,’" he told Rolling Stone shortly after the release of Into the Great Wide Open. "And that’s more than some people can say. I’m still here, and I’m still doing something.”