How Titans QB Ryan Tannehill conquered the skies, found serenity in summer flight school

Nick Retterer needed an excuse.

It didn’t have to be believable. He could’ve said he had a charley horse or remembered he left the stove on or had just gotten the shocking news he’d been cast as Marvel’s next Spiderman. Whatever it was, he knew Ryan Tannehill was going to see through it.

So Retterer settled on a classic: From 1,000 feet, in a low pattern over Nashville, Retterer told Tannehill he needed a bathroom break. So they descended from the heavens to the boring, old ground.

They landed. Retterer, Tannehill’s flight instructor at Harmony Air, got out of the plane. His not-so-subtle ruse was a success.

“I say, ‘You know what you’re doing,’ ” Retterer recalled to The Tennessean. “‘Watch your crosswind. Watch your traffic. I’m going to be up in the tower with you.’ ”

Thus began Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s first solo flight.

He sat on the runway for "probably like 20 minutes" before being cleared for takeoff. "You're kind of anxious at that point," Tannehill said. Retterer climbed the control tower, put on his headset and assumed the role of air traffic offensive coordinator. With his instructor in his ear, Tannehill soared.

Titans QB Ryan Tannehill poses in front of plane in summer 2023, the summer he earned his private pilot's license.
Titans QB Ryan Tannehill poses in front of plane in summer 2023, the summer he earned his private pilot's license.

It was just a couple of laps in a standard flight pattern. But for a veteran NFL quarterback trying to recapture prominence in 2023 — starting with Sunday's season opener against the Saints in New Orleans — his first solo flight represented much more than a chance to see the earth from the perspective of the stars.

There, Tannehill found serenity.

How he became Flyin’ Ryan Tannehill

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark or even eagle flew –

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The untresspassed sanctity of space

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God

In those six lines from his 1941 poem "High Flight," Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot and poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. captured the exhilaration and peace of flying.

“You’re enjoying beautiful scenery but at the same time you’re kind of locked in on the task at hand,” Tannehill explained. “So it’s an escape in that regard. And I think an escape is important. Whether it’s golf or flying or driving, everybody has something different. Especially if you want to be high-functioning at something, you have to have some sort of an escape to allow you to get away.”

Ryan Tannehill poses with flight instructor Nick Retterer, who helped him earn his private pilot's license this summer.
Ryan Tannehill poses with flight instructor Nick Retterer, who helped him earn his private pilot's license this summer.

Tannehill says he’s always been interested in flight. For practical reasons. He and his wife, Lauren, like whisking their kids, Steele and Stella, on memorable vacations to remote locations. Flying to isolated Bahamian islands on small, so-called “puddle jumper” planes helped pique Tannehill’s interest. So did a long conversation with the pilot who flew him to his surgery last winter.

Getting a private pilot’s license became his offseason project. Pro Football Hall of Famer and one-time Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson connected Tannehill with Retterer, who had handled Hutchinson’s instrument training, an aviation certification that goes a step beyond getting a private license.

And in Tannehill, Retterer found the most willing and participative student he has ever taught.

“When this guy came in, he had an iPad with an Apple pencil, probably similar to what he’s used to when he’s playing, and he’s just writing notes,” Retterer said.

Retterer, who studied aviation at Middle Tennessee State, estimates it takes four hours of studying per night to zoom through flight school as quickly as Tannehill did.

The way Tannehill tells it, his first few months of 2023 were wall-to-wall booked. He’d go to the Titans facility in the mornings for rehab and physical therapy, followed by a weightlifting session. After that he’d head to John C. Tune Airport in Nashville and fly for a few hours, then head home and hit the books again.

Coming off offseason ankle surgery — an injury that had cut short his 2022 season — he had to pass a physical before he could start flying. Once he passed and got up in the air with Retterer in his SR22 Turbo Cirrus aircraft, though, Tannehill was gobsmacked.

"We get up in the air, a couple thousand feet off the ground, and he looks out the window and he said, ‘Man, this is awesome!’ " Retterer said. "He just started grinning and laughing like he just had a little kid get a toy or something like that.”

The similarities are obvious

If anyone understands the similarities between football and flight, it’s Chad Hennings. In the 1990s, Hennings won three Super Bowls as a defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys. Before that, he was a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

“Preparing for a mission, I would sit down with my wingmen,” Hennings said. “We would brief particular areas where we were going to deploy to. We would brief overall communications. We would brief how we were going to execute our specific mission which we were tasked with. What would happen if we were under emergency procedure? What our divert bases were. If the weather was bad. What if we had a mechanical malfunction, how were we going to communicate?

“We would execute the mission and then when we would get back we would evaluate our bomb film or our film when we would be in the target area when we were executing and we would brief, ‘Hey, what did we do well, what did we not do well, how can we improve upon the mission?’ ”

The parallels between mission planning and game planning are obvious. It’s teamwork. It’s communication. It’s being coachable and it’s remembering your coaching. It’s being so prepared for a pressure-packed situation that the pressure doesn’t even register when the situation presents itself.

Then there’s the control tower aspect of it. Tannehill likens the experience of talking to air traffic control to communicating with coaches, mixed with the added comfort of getting guidance from a trusted family member.

“I feel like sometimes you get on the tower at airports and it’s kind of like the wild, wild West,” Tannehill says. “You’ve got crop-dusters buzzing the tower and cutting the line and all that. But when you have ATC you feel kind of like you have a big brother looking out for you.”

Retterer was happy to be Tannehill’s play-caller, coach, big brother or whatever he needed. He’s not a big sports fan himself. He knew who Tannehill was before they met but always looked at him like another student. Now he looks up at Tannehill’s jerseys hanging in bars around town and casually tells his friends, "I know that guy." And his family.

Retterer was flying with Tannehill’s wife recently. Lauren Tannehill described her husband as a beast. She said people like her husband don’t get where they are by “going with the flow.” His success is a product of his competitiveness, his drive, his precision. That’s why Retterer says he has students who have spent 90% more time in the air who still haven’t mastered flying the aircrafts Tannehill has.

And it’s why Retterer thinks there’s more to Tannehill’s mastery of the skies than the similarities between flight and football let on.

“Aviation is a really rewarding experience because it’s individual,” Retterer said. “It’s not a team experience. He’s got that team experience and success. But (it’s) the individual experience of when he gets up in the air, he says, ‘I can leave all that stuff behind and focus on the task at hand.’ ”

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The quarterback in the skies

Derrick Henry might be Tannehill’s wingman in the Titans’ backfield. But he’ll never be his literal wingman.

“Oh no, I’m not going up there,” Henry said. “I pray for him. I pray that he’s safe. I feel like things are going well. But I won’t be up there.”

Titans quarterbacks coach Charles London has a little bit more of an open mind.

“He’s supposed to be really good at it,” he said. “He told me some of the flights that he’s made. But I’m more of a ground guy.”

Tannehill is decidedly not a ground guy. Not anymore. His longest voyage so far was a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a single-engine prop plane with an instructor at his side.

When it comes to speed, single-engine planes are more Tom Brady than Lamar Jackson. The flight spanned 4½ hours. That’s a long time for Tannehill to shrink his 6-foot-4 frame into a pilot’s seat.

And an even longer time for something else.

“Kind of the limit is the bladder at that point,” Tannehill said. “It’s 4½ hours. You can’t stand up. You can’t move. And there’s no bathroom. So I was glad to finally land.”

But what’s bladder discomfort when he achieves his goal? He was able to take Steele and Stella out on a few flights this summer. One trek was all it took for the kids to be as hooked as their old man.

Pilots-in-training are often taught a maneuver called the “steep turn.” It goes like it sounds. In order to test how well a pilot can handle the plane in an emergency, steep turns involve quickly and sharply turning the plane around at a 45-degree angle, a high-performance maneuver testing a pilot's proficiency.

The Tannehill kids weren’t fazed.

“I thought they might be a little scared of that, but they actually loved it,” Tannehill said. “They were like, ‘Do more steep turns! Do more steep turns!’ ”

The kids woke up the next morning with a simple request: "Daddy, can we go flying again?"

So the Tannehills kept adventuring. They went back out to the Bahamas this summer, this time with Tannehill able to fly to some of the remote islands himself. Retterer says he expects Tannehill to begin instrument training as soon as he has the time.

Tannehill has the bug. There’s no cure for passion.

“He’s out there now. He’s got his license. He’s flying places he probably never would’ve thought he would’ve flown in the beginning,” Retterer said. “I think it’s just as every pilot does. I don’t look out and say, ‘Man this is awesome,’ just like I did the first time, but I’ll tell you it never gets old. You’re not supposed to be there. Human beings were never meant to fly. So I don’t think it ever gets old.”

Nick Suss is the Titans beat writer for The Tennessean. Contact Nick at Follow Nick on Twitter @nicksuss.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: How Titans QB Ryan Tannehill found serenity as pilot in flight school