Inside Cowboys Brandin Cooks' unique hobby of piloting planes

Brandin Cooks takes Micah Parsons and Stephon Gilmore on a flight (0:33)

Brandin Cooks, who is a licensed pilot, takes Cowboys teammates Micah Parsons and Stephon Gilmore on a flight before their game in Seattle. (0:33)

FRISCO, Texas -- Looking back into the blue sky as Dak Prescott's pass rose high along the right sideline during a Dallas Cowboys minicamp practice, Brandin Cooks sensed he needed to pick up speed.

His head went down. His legs powerfully churned as the rest of his body remained calm. Within a blink of an eye, he accelerated away from a defender and made the long catch. It was a sign that his greatest physical trait -- his ability to fly -- remained, even as he is entering his 11th NFL season.

Growing up, Cooks' trainers and track coaches always mentioned airplanes when they talked about that acceleration.

"We used a term a lot, like, 'Oh, that guy's floating,'" Cooks said.

Cooks laughed at the memory because now he knows what it really means to be floating.


He earned his private pilot's license in 2021, and he owns a 2016 Cirrus SR22 Turbo aircraft.

Cooks was 9 when he first got on a plane, flying by himself from California to Pennsylvania for a USA Track & Field meet.

"I really didn't think nothing of it," Cooks said. " I didn't think to be scared. I didn't think to have fun.

"I remember looking at [my mother] and I remember her making a big deal. She'd never been on a plane. I think her first time she was on the plane was when I went to college. So she was like, 'You've got to understand how special this is.'"

It wasn't until he was selected in the first round of the 2014 draft by the New Orleans Saints that he got hooked on aviation. Tight end Jimmy Graham took Cooks up in his single-engine plane and showed him the Superdome from a completely different view.

"Got in the air," Cooks said, "I fell in love."

AFTER BREAKING HIS left thumb as a rookie, Cooks was introduced to Dr. Eric George, a renowned hand specialist, who performed surgery to repair the injury. Cooks calls George a mentor. The doctor owns a Bombardier Global jet, although he is not a pilot. He and the Cooks family have traveled to places like New Zealand and Singapore.

Cooks would often sit in the jump seat with the pilots and ask questions about lift coefficient, the design of wings, range and speed.

"He was just fascinated with it, loving it," George said. "It wasn't as a thrill-seeker. He was the academic guy, asking questions. I remember my pilots telling me when he was going for his license, 'That's going to be tough,' and he passed them all. My pilots were impressed.

"I think he likes the sky. He likes to get his feet off the ground."

The trek to being licensed and owning a plane took time.

Cooks was focused first on establishing his NFL career. After putting up six 1,000-yard seasons for four franchises, earning two Pro Bowl appearances and playing in two Super Bowls, he began his piloting journey in 2021 while he was with the Houston Texans.

Cooks went through a series of classes and had 40 hours of flight time before earning his license to become Visual Flight Rules (VFR) rated, which means the pilot can operate in clear weather, using landmarks as guidance. Not long after, he went through an intense 14-day class to be certified as Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) rated, which required another 50 hours of flight time.

IFR-rated pilots fly by use of instruments during poor weather conditions.

"He got his instrument rating on his first try, which is hard," Cooks' wife, Briannon, said. "He studied. He was honed in. He had one-on-one teachers. He was focused in. He really needed to know his stuff."

To earn the license, Cooks was put in challenging situations by the instructors.

He had to wear "foggles" that limit peripheral vision, forcing him to rely on the instruments and simulating flying in the clouds. The instructor put him in a descending left turn and he had to adjust the plane correctly.

"You feel it, you look at your instruments, my heading is saying that I'm headed this way and my altitude is dropping, how do you recover?" Cooks said. "Level out. Put that nose up."

He called working through the stalling of a plane, "the funkiest thing because you're purposely making the plane stall."

"My first one you're simulating takeoff," Cooks added, "and that's where a lot of stalls happen because you put the nose up too much. So you're forcing the plane to get to a stall. And it's like pulling pounds of pressure, and you hear the plane -- 'stall, stall, stall' -- and the stall breaks and then the plane just goes. And so then you push the nose forward, add power and you recover.

"But when you see some of these videos, it's one thing to be in the plane, but then when you see the video before you go do the maneuver, you're like, 'Wait a minute, I'm about to be pretty much vertical. I'm not a rocket.' So the stalls are the ones that still to this day, when we practice, definitely gets my stomach for sure."

SAFETY IS AT the top of Cooks' list when it comes to flying. The Cirrus SR22 Turbo is equipped with its own parachute, which the pilot can deploy if he gets into trouble or has an engine failure. The instruments are top of the line.

"I call myself a cautious flyer to this day," Cooks said. "Even though I'm IFR rated, my minimum is still, I want it to be a VFR day if I'm flying by myself. Yeah, I'm not flying bare minimum planes that a lot of people are doing. That's not what I'm doing."

Even though he can fly solo, he will have a co-pilot when he is with his family or friends.

"Just to have another set of eyes," he said.

When an Instagram post appeared of him flying teammates Stephon Gilmore and Micah Parsons around Seattle before a preseason game last summer, some were surprised, including owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response.

"One thing I want to do is chastise Cooks for getting in that airplane with the best part of the team and flying up there with them, looking around Seattle," Jones said. "Boy, I'm glad I didn't know that was going on. But I would have to tell him part-time pilots, in my mind, are not the way to go."

At that time, a lot of folks didn't know that Cooks had his pilot's license, and he had a co-pilot with him that day. Cooks' contract does not prevent him from flying.

"At first I was nervous because I was like, 'Was [Jones] joking?'" Cooks said. "So when I saw him, I go, 'Oh no worries, I'll be flying your plane next.' We just laughed about it, right?

"But I did tell him, 'Look, don't worry. I had a co-pilot with me. I'm not going around just taking guys up by myself.' Although I'm very comfortable doing that, I think just out of respect for guys and their families, it is just smart. I always say, 'Hey, that extra set of eyes.'"

Teammates have asked him about flying. Tight end Peyton Hendershot mentioned getting his license. Kicker Brandon Aubrey's wife, Jenn, is an American Airlines flight instructor, and they would like to fly with the Cooks family. Guard Tyler Smith went to an aerospace/aeronautics camp in high school and flew in a Cessna with an instructor. One day he, too, would like to fly with Cooks.

"I thought it was really interesting," Smith said. "For Brandin to learn to fly, he's been working at it. I know there's a lot of hours and instructions. I definitely want to fly one day, but I'm going to chill right now."

Prescott quickly joked, "No," when asked if he wanted to fly with Cooks, but then quickly said it would be fun.

"I trust him," Prescott said. "I know the guy that he is. I know how he is with football, and ... that he's a helluva pilot in just the way he approaches life."

GROWING UP, COOKS never thought of flying planes. Now, the Oregon State alumnus wants to expand minority access to piloting through scholarship programs where he lives in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.

According to a 2023 US Bureau of Labor & Statistics Report, 3.9% of 211,000 commercial pilots in the United States identified as Black.

"I really want to make it more accessible to minorities because I think it's a whole other world out there that my community and my culture, we don't talk about," he said. "We talk about sports. We talk about certain things, but I don't really think we talk about being a pilot, and I think it can be so fulfilling."

Cooks' end game with flying is simple. He doesn't want to become a commercial pilot or fly private planes. He hopes to soon upgrade to a Cirrus Vision Jet SF50 G2 that is a little bigger and can fly longer distances.

"To just have the freedom to pack up the family and be able to go where we want," said Briannon, who has been challenged by her husband to get her license, as their sons, Maverick and Dash, get older. "Anything in his life, he wants to excel to the max of what he can do."

AFTER THE COWBOYS' minicamp, Cooks flew back to his home near Portland, Oregon. Soon, the plane will be parked until next offseason.

"Football season starts, there's no distractions," he said. "With some hobbies, people still go out and golf or whatever, but there's no flying a plane. Maybe the bye week. Maybe."

Until it is time to leave for training camp in July, Cooks will enjoy seeing the world from a different perspective. Cooks said his most meaningful flight was from Portland to his hometown of Stockton, California, with his son, Maverick, just to share the time together. Briannon mentioned flying above their house as it was being built near Portland, as well as a quick trip recently around AT&T Stadium and The Star from the Addison (Texas) Airport.

But his favorite trip is to the San Juan Islands in Washington to their family cabin. The Olympic Mountains off to one side, Canada to another. On the descent, Cooks sees Orcas swimming through the channel.

"You can get a couple of seconds to just take in God's creation," Cooks said.

There is a peace and a solitude he finds in the air that is as rewarding, if different, as the adrenaline he feels playing in front of thousands on Sundays.

"Definitely football has catapulted me to be able to do a lot of these things, so I'm definitely fortunate and blessed in that aspect," Cooks said. "But a kid from Stockton, California, has seen the world and is continuing to see the world. And I think when you really wrap your head around that, it's like, 'How can you not be inspired to travel?' You know what I mean?

"It's awesome."