On the field, Jonathan Jones is the best and longest-tenured member of New England’s defensive secondary. He also is the beneficiary of a new $19 million contract.
But the Patriots cornerback also is making a name for himself above the gridiron.
Jones has been working toward earning his Private Pilot’s Certificate, which he’ll receive if he passes his final exam on April 15. The 29-year-old first took flight last July and kept up with the coursework throughout the 2022 season.
“A lot of my teammates called me crazy,” Jones told NESN.com on Wednesday. “They all knew I was doing it during the season because they’d see me studying and everything. They were like, ‘There’s no way you’re going to fly.’ But they kind of saw me put in the work throughout the season, and so a lot of them definitely are excited for me.”
The passion for machinery
It’s difficult to find free time during the regular season, especially in Foxboro. But whenever Jones would get the chance, he’d get back in the skies to sharpen his skills.
“Not a lot of people knew,” Jones said. “On my off days or getting done with practice, I might get a few hours in and go fly. I’d fly out to the Vineyard and Nantucket and then fly back. It’s a different perspective and I enjoy it. I enjoy the challenge of learning. That’s just kind of who I am as a person — I enjoy learning new things.”
But the thrill of taking on an exciting challenge isn’t the main reason Jones got into flying. In some respects, pursuing aviation was part of a natural progression for someone who’s always been fascinated by the feats of human engineering.
“I love machines,” Jones said. “I love 4-wheelers, dirt bikes, boats, jet skis, cars. Anything with a motor in it, I love it. And so, it’s something I always had an interest in. I kinda gave up — not gave up on boating — but kind of transitioned off the lake. I moved off the lake and was like, ‘What else can I get into? What can I do?’ And then I got to getting back into aviation.”
Jones doesn’t yet own his own small plane, but hopes to in the future. He also might use the in-house tools at his disposal, like the incredible Microsoft Flight Simulator, to replicate the experience while at home.
“I was on the verge of building my own flight simulator,” Jones said with a big smile. “I haven’t got there yet but I’ve had the itch to do it.”
A natural pilot
Jones’ experience and ability with other modes of transportation made for a seamless transition to the cockpit.
“It felt un-normally comfortable,” Jones said of his first sessions. ” … It was like, ‘Alright, yeah, I can do this.’ And I think for me, having a lot of knowledge of machinery and moving machinery (helped). I had a motorcycle all throughout college, and that was one of the first things (the instructor) noticed.
“When I started turning, he was like, ‘Do you drive a motorcycle?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I had a motorcycle in college.’ And he was like, ‘I can tell, just by how you lean and bank with the plane.’ So, a lot of those things were synonymous.”
Jones’ instructor oftentimes had little to do when the two went out for flying sessions. And nerves never entered the equation when it was time for Jones to fly alone for the first time.
“They were gone,” Jones said. “My instructor would always say, ‘I’m wasting my time in here.’ Because he would just be sitting back. I’d kind of run through everything, he might give me a pointer here or there. So, when I took my first solo, it just felt normal. I had been doing everything on my own leading up to that. So, not too many jitters. Not too nervous. Just more excitement to be out there and finally have that accomplishment.”
The learning curve
But it hasn’t all been easy. Jones, like all wannabe pilots, must develop a deep understanding of weather patterns and how they can impact his flights.
“I didn’t expect to get a meteorology degree — that’s been different,” he said. ” … I’m over here looking every morning with a different perspective on the weather now. Like, ‘Oh there’s a high-pressure system, alright.’ Things like that I didn’t pay attention to before, but aviation has brought out a completely different side.”
Weather is one of the primary factors in creating different kinds of air turbulence. And make no mistake: Like the rest of us, Jones doesn’t like when planes start getting whipped around the sky.
“The turbulence gets you,” he said. “Some of the crosswind landings at the last minute. You’re going here and the wind hits you, and you’re kind of almost sideways for a second. Those get you the first time.”
Unlike commercial flying, small-plane aviation can be a bit of a free for all, particularly when pilots are working around smaller airports. There’s far less required communication between aircraft and pilots don’t always have assistance from workers on the ground.
“I think being out at a non-tower airport by yourself — it gets busy,” Jones said. “I went over one day to this non-tower airport, there was a lot of traffic that was over there. … You’re on your P’s and Q’s a little bit more than when you just go in and everything’s laid out for you and you’re talking to a tower.”
And, just like driving on the road, operating a small plane at a low altitude can subject pilots to people who aren’t worried about anyone else.
“There’s a lot of people who, let’s say this: They don’t use their turn signals in the sky, either,” said Jones, who offseasons in his native Georgia and plans to fly to Block Island, R.I., when he returns to New England.
That could prove challenging. One local pilot recently told NESN.com that the flying environment around the tiny island can be like “the Wild West”.
A balancing act
To say that Jones has a lot on his plate would be an enormous understatement.
In addition to training for next season, being a father, renovating his property and pursuing his pilot’s license, Jones is among the most charitable players on the Patriots roster. You’d have a difficult time keeping track of all the community work he does throughout the year.
He was a finalist for the 2023 NFLPA Alan Page Community Award and was named the Week 12 NFLPA Community MVP. Earlier this month, Jones spoke at Big Sister Boston about the importance of supporting females. Next week, he’ll be honored by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Believe us when we say the list goes on and on.
Supporting women and children in need are guiding principles for Jones’ Next Step Foundation. And he hopes that flying can help him be even more active in the community.
“There’s so many things you can do to tie (flying) in with my charity,” Jones said. “I know they have flights with PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society) — they fly animals to different shelters. Kids who may need hospital visits, you get that opportunity to fly them. Maybe they might have a doctor’s visit in North Carolina or something, and out of Atlanta, I could just hop on and fly them over. Just do things like that that I think are dope as well.”
It all makes for a very busy offseason. Somehow, Jones still finds time to go flying four times a week.
“Oh man, it’s long days,” he said. “So, typically Wednesday is my off day. Monday, I’ll wake up, get my workout — lift, cardio — then I’ll pop over to flight school. Do that for a couple hours. Maybe go grab lunch, do another hour or two in the afternoon, usually scheduled around three or four. Might squeeze another meeting in, a call or two, then go back home. Then the next day, it’s back at it again.”
If you’ve ever been in a small plane, you know it’s a far different experience than flying commercial.
Instead of flying above the clouds at around 550 mph, you fly below them at just over 100 mph. It makes for unparalleled views — and unique experiences.
“I flew into Gasden, Alabama,” Jones said. “And it’s not that far of a flight — it’s probably like a 30, 35-minute light — but just peaceful. And then I’m flying alone, and then I’m flying past the airport, and I just see four or five people just fall out of the sky, like skydiving. I’m like, ‘Oh! there’s a skydiver!’ In commercial flights, you don’t really see those kinds of things because you’re well above that.”
Being a pilot provides an enviable amount of convenience. Wake up in Foxboro and feel like flying over to Montauk for breakfast? Go right ahead. You can rent a plane at a local airfield — or take your own — and be on Long Island in about an hour without ever dealing with the hassles of Logan Airport.
“That’s the goal! That’s definitely the goal,” Jones said. “Because I’m here in Georgia, so it’s just a quick flight to Florida or down to Savannah for an afternoon. … Take the family down to the beach for the afternoon, a quick flight. Just, the different life that it opens you up to — it’s definitely worth it.”
Jones added: “It just makes sense. You have that freedom forever.”
What about flying to a Patriots road game if it’s close enough?
“Bill’s not gonna let that happen,” Jones said with a laugh, referring to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “That’s not gonna happen. That’d be a good idea. I wish.”
“It just makes sense — you have that freedom forever.”– Jonathan Jones
It’s not just about convenience, though. Sometimes, Jones just wants to enjoy the scenery.
“Such a better view (than commercial),” said Jones, who’s an avid traveler. ” … The North Georgia mountains, you got the mountain ridge … the Appalachian trail’s down there in North Georgia. That’s beautiful. Just different landmarks you begin to use. Instead of ‘turn right at this store,’ it’s like, ‘OK, that mountain over there, every time I’m close to that mountain, I’m close to the airport.’ “
Pursuing aviation obviously isn’t cheap, but it also isn’t outrageous. You can complete coursework and get your license for about the cost of used a car. The price of a used single-engine plane averages roughly $60,000. Renting one will run you about $150 per hour.
That relatively manageable entry point, along with the smoothness of the instruction process, was part of the appeal for Jones.
“Getting into aviation is not as daunting as looking into the cockpit of a Boeing or something,” he said “It hasn’t been as hard as somebody might think.”
Jones added: “Just the knowledge portion of it I think is what sets people apart. The actual flight lessons, that’s learning how to drive basically all over again. Instead of driving, you’re flying. But the knowledge portion of it is kinda what holds a lot of people back.”
The two-time Super Bowl champion said that former Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks is the only other NFL player he knows of who is pursuing aviation. But he expects more to hop on the bandwagon.
“I think we’ll get a lot more of us once guys start to see what it comes with and — I don’t want to say how easy it is, because it’s not easy at all — but just how accessible it is,” Jones said. “I think a lot more guys would be willing to try.”
If Jones earns his certificate on April 15, he then will try to get his instrument rating by the end of the summer. That will give him the freedom to fly through inclement weather, among other things. His intention is to have everything wrapped up before the 2023 Patriots season starts.
“That’s the goal,” he said. “So I don’t have to do it during the season, so I can kind of relax again on my off days. But it was kind of fun. Because for me, it gave me something else to do. Not saying that football isn’t a lot to do, but just that mental break to get away or have something else to look forward to. Because the football season is a long season.”
Once Jones gets his certificate, he’ll be able to fly with passengers. The end result could be one of the more interesting player-created media projects in the NFL. Think Kyle Van Noy’s “Elite Eatz” YouTube series — but in the sky.
“That’s something that I want to do,” said Jones, who’s been in New England since 2016. “Maybe start like a little blog on Tuesdays, take a teammate up, do my own little segment that way. I think that’s something I can kind of integrate and do.”
“Take a guy somewhere and just have a quick little interview. I think that would be dope.”
But taking off with a teammate isn’t the end game. Jones has his sites set on a more exclusive guest: Belichick.
“If I could get Bill in the plane with me… we’ll see,” Jones said. “Let’s see what we can do.
“I think that’d be the ultimate goal.”