Pro surfer Michael Dunphy doesn’t do anything by halves, whether he’s hitting the waves or learning to fly. Dunphy started surfing when he was six years old, started competing before he was 8, got his first sponsorship at age 9. He topped the North American rankings with an exciting victory at the World Surf League (WSL) North America Qualifying Series (QS) in Barbados in 2022. He was drawn to surfing by the challenge of mastery and the feeling of freedom. Those same loves have now led him to piloting and a dream of giving back to the surf community.
Pro surfing is a demanding job, with constant travel to competitions around the world, fitness training, and working with the sponsors that every pro needs. But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the pro surfing tour in 2020, Dunphy found himself in Florida with some time on his hands. His girlfriend’s father, a pilot, offered to take Dunphy up in his plane, and he fell in love with flying. He says, “It’s such an organic thing, being in the air. Pretty soon, I was jumping in the plane with him every chance I got.”
Dunphy is a student pilot now, studying with a flight instructor friend he met during COVID, flying mostly in his friend’s Cherokee 150. He has soloed and passed his written exams, but the pro surf tour started up again just as he was closing in on his pilot’s license. Now he tries to get into the air every time he’s home, to rack up the hours he needs and do his checkride.
Dunphy says surfing and flying are different in some ways. “In surfing, we follow the storms to get the great waves. Flying is the opposite: you avoid the storms. But the aerodynamics of flying are very comparable to the ocean. You need to work with potential and kinetic energy. Plus, they both have this amazing feeling of freedom, and they both have a wonderful, tight knit community of committed people. Everyone has each other’s back.”
Asked whether flying has given him any new perspectives on surfing, he laughed. “Yeah, a pilot friend of a friend in Santa Cruz took us for a flight over Monterey Bay not long ago. Seeing a bunch of sharks in the Bay from the air definitely gave me a new perspective on surfing there!”
Dunphy’s dream is to combine flying and surfing. He’s flown to places in Florida for day surf trips, and his goal is fly to the Bahamas and Caribbean islands close to Florida in order to pioneer new surf spots. “It would be a blast to take some of my surfer friends and go explore. That would be a bucket list trip. My big goal is to fly to the Bahamas. It’s an untapped area. Such good waves, beautiful water, not many people.” Long term, he could see himself piloting as a next career.
Dunphy wholeheartedly recommends that would-be pilots follow their curiosity. “If you’re drawn to it, if you’re curious, embrace it and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Enjoy every part of learning. Enjoy the new skills. Be open to the experience and new way of looking at things.” (Even if that new perspective involves sharks.)