Time for a New Shirt: Why we cut shirttails after first solo flight

I finally freaking soloed!

Me hamming it up in the flight deck after my solo.

That’s right. I did everything by myself. I successfully took off and landed without my instructor in the airplane with me. He was on a hand radio to keep in contact with me though.

You know, just in case.

It started perfectly with the perfect weather. I mean, there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and the weather was stupid hot because that’s just what happens in Texas.

It took me a few more hours than I was hoping to solo, but it happened. I got stuck for a while. I had good flights, but I kept having hard landings. In my last lesson (before I soloed that is) my instructor and I diagnosed the issue with me not transitioning my eyes after I broke off the descent. This caused hard landings and a rough time for a few flights.

But we figured it out, and after that, I had nothing but smooth as butter landings. Which led to my finally soloing!

With my instructor in the airplane with me, I had 5 good touch-and-goes. One was a little off centerline, but it was still smooth.

As I turned base for my 5th landing, I made my radio call. Then my instructor corrected me and said, “Actually, that’s a full stop for 11H (the airplane I was in).”

So, I landed and got off the runway. My instructor hopped out and I went to the hold short line. I held up until he got on the radio and gave me the okay. 

I took off and landed 3 times after that!

All full stops so that my instructor could give me little tips between. Mainly it was only small tweaks like, “make sure you land more on the centerline.” or “make sure to use more rudder in your turns.”

I did have 1 go-around on what was supposed to be my last landing. 

As I came around for final, my speed was pretty low. I noticed this and tried to add some throttle to keep me up in the air while I lowered my nose, but I was too close to the ground and it made me start porpoising in the air. I didn’t like it and gave full throttle to go around. 

When I did this though, there was a freaking buzzard I just narrowly missed by banking left then right to turn then get my wings out of the way. 

After that weird episode, I had a great pattern and landed smoothly.

Then I taxied off the runway and shut the plane down. Hopped out and had the celebration stuff. Basically, we shook hands, got all the pictures, and then did the American classic of cutting the shirttail for me to decorate and put on the wall!

Why Cut the Shirttail?

My instructor cutting my shirttail

Being the smart man that I am (I’m being facetious here), I brought an extra shirt in case I did get to solo. 

This did get me wondering though, why does such an expensive hobby, or career entry if you want to take that route with it, force people to lose a shirt after they hit such a huge milestone?

I did some serious google-fu and learned that it basically boils down to tradition. 

The lore of the cut shirttail stems from old airplanes. 

Back in the day, airplanes had open cockpits and the instructor sat behind the student. You can still find airplanes like this, but to give you a good idea, it’s like the Aeronca Champ I did my discovery flight in or a Piper Cub.

The Aeronca Champ I did my discover flight in.

These older airplanes didn’t have radio communication, but people still wanted to learn to fly. With an open cockpit, how do you communicate? It’s insanely loud inside a closed cockpit, so an open cockpit makes hearing pretty much impossible. 

That means the instructor couldn’t just talk to the student to instruct but would have to yell, and even that didn’t work all the time. 

The answer: Flight instructors would hold onto the shirttail of the student to help direct them. 

I’m sure each instructor had their own kind of language with shirttail tugs, which only complicated the process. 

After someone would fly solo, they would be demonstrating proficiency in flying an airplane by themselves. This is a monumental occasion for any pilot, so the instructor would ceremoniously cut the shirttail off their student as a demonstration of the student no longer needing an instructor to tug on their shirttails.

We Don’t Change What Works

I’m holding my freshly cut shirttail.

So, I’m for sure super nerdy and love looking at the spiritual and philosophical importance of ceremonies and things of that nature. 

I know, I’m a weird one.

Nonetheless, all of aviation is about constant improvement and safety. 2 things I strongly agree with and try to standby in every aspect of my life.

That being said, there is nothing about cutting shirttails that can really be improved on. I guess you could start doing the ice bucket dumping that is common in other nations, but I like the idea of the United States having something different that sets them apart. 

Essentially, aviation loves the ceremony of it and creating a keepsake for future reference. 

Plus, there are no safety issues that come from it (except maybe a poke from a pocket knife or scissors, but that can be conquered by taking the shirt off first), and the FAA doesn’t regulate it. Basically, there is no reason to change it. I guess you could complain about ruining a shirt, but that’s why the student plans ahead and brings an extra shirt and wears one that’s bad, to begin with.

2 thoughts on “Time for a New Shirt: Why we cut shirttails after first solo flight

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