U.S. Department
of Transportation

Federal Aviation

St. Louis
Flight Standards District Office

10801 Pear Tree Lane
Suite 200
St. Ann, Missouri 63074


October 1999 




Thought for the month....We are only an attitude away from success.

A Unique Tradition....I was out at a local flight training facility recently and I noticed the common sight of shirttails tacked to the wall, indicating successful solos. It dawned on me that I had no idea why that particular tradition developed. I remember as a sixteen year old fledgling pilot, anticipating my impending solo flight and explaining to my mother that I would soon be having the back of my shirt torn off. She asked me why, and I couldnít tell her, so she simply told me not to wear a good shirt. I figured it was one of those aviation things I would eventually learn about. I was wrong. Almost forty years later, and I still donít have a clue what it represents.

Unlike many traditions in aviation, it hasnít been handed down from military flying. Military solos seem to follow a different pattern, usually involving a liquid of some sort. Solo day in Army flight training was followed by a dunking in the pool. Knowing what was coming, I thought Iíd be smart so I removed my boots and stuck my wallet and hat in them so at least they would stay dry. After putting up the customary battle, I was over powered by my classmates and heaved into the water. I surfaced just in time to see my boots arching high over my head, enroute to the deep end. So much for prior planning.

A dunking can be thought of as something akin to a baptism, but I never had much luck finding the symbolism of cutting off the tail of a shirt. Perhaps thereís some Darwinism here. Maybe itís supposed to represent the idea of human evolution from pond scum, swimming around in the primordial soup, to shedding our tails and walking upright on two legs. More likely itís what one airplane owner told me after a particularly nasty annual inspection. "Itís a precursor - when you solo you lose your shirttail. If you continue to fly, youíll lose the rest of your shirt."

For awhile, I thought I never would get my shirttail clipped. I was sure it was going to happen soon. I felt I was about ready, and we had completed all the other requirements. On the day of the event my instructor told me we were just going to do pattern work so I knew he was just making sure my takeoffs and landings were satisfactory. Around and around we went. My landings were great, but my instructor wasnít impressed. He just sort of scrunched down in the corner of the Cessna with his arms folded and a bored look on his face that only seemed to get worse as the period dragged on. I began to have doubts. Maybe my flying was so bad that, not only was he not going to solo me, but he might just tear-up my student certificate and tell me to find something else to do with my life. I became so distracted that I failed to pay attention to the ground rushing up to meet me. Prang! We launched back into the air. As we started back down, I pushed in the throttle - too much. Now we ballooned. My instructor no longer looked bored. He was upright and alert, with his hands hovering by the controls. I gritted my teeth as the runway came up for another shot at us but somehow managed to find the right combination of pitch and power and we rumbled onto the concrete.

"Pull this thing over there on the taxiway and give me your student certificate" he bellowed. Instead of tearing it to shreds, he endorsed the back for solo, told me to take it around the pattern three times and not to forget to pick him up on the way in. I guess my slack jaw and puzzled look convinced him that he needed to explain. "Anyone can make good landings. I wanted to see what you were going to do with a bad one before I sent you up alone. If you had messed up your first one, you could have soloed an hour ago."

Back at the office I got to experience our mysterious rite of passage as he cut and ripped the end of my shirt, wrote in my name and the date, and stuck it on the wall with the other solos. Maybe itís appropriate that there isnít any symbolism in it. Flying alone for the first time is such a unique event that it deserves an equally unique ritual to recognize it. Perhaps the tradition of cutting off the shirttail was selected because, unlike a sleeve or something obvious, a shirttail probably wonít be missed. That may be true of the shirttails, but itís not true of the people wearing those shirts. Unfortunately, in all too many cases we can also say that tearing off the end of a shirt often represents the end of flying. Less than half the people who make it to the shirttail ceremony continue to fly and get a pilot certificate. Sometimes itís the cost, sometimes itís the time. Time to study, time to practice, time to move from piloting an aircraft, to becoming an aircraft pilot. However, I think the major factor in the dropout rate is that budding pilots are not nourished and allowed to bloom.

Prior to solo, the student has the one-on-one attention of the CFI. The instructor provides the challenges and the encouragement. After the solo, the real work begins. Time has to be made to get into the books and begin preparing for the practical test. This is when the student really needs a good mentor to keep them focused on the goal. They need to hear positive stories of cross-country flights so they can visualize themselves doing the same thing. And, this is the time they need to be instilled with high standards and a good attitude about safety. Sometimes the CFI fulfills this role, but CFIís often have several students, so maybe thatís when the rest of us need to step in to help.

The new guys arenít too hard to spot out on the ramp. Take some time to meet them and say hello. Maybe invite them to go along on your next flight or pass along some special knowledge youíve acquired about the aircraft theyíre pre-flighting. Arrange to take them on a visit to the local tower or Flight Service Station. Most of the clubs and pilot organizations I work with are great about bringing new pilots to their meetings so that everyone can share in their accomplishments. Donít be surprised if you find your own interest and excitement in flying renewed. The shirttail ceremony should represent the start of a long term association with aviation, not the end to an introduction to flying. The attitude we display will become the attitude we see and weíre all only an attitude away from success.

Upcoming Events

Oct. 16

Spirit of St. Louis Airport, AVMATS.
Helicopter Safety Seminar.
8:30am to 12:30pm.

Oct. 19

Lindbergh High School.
Night Operations, Disorientation and Vertigo.
7 to 9pm.

Oct. 21

Pizza Inn, West Plains, MO.
Operations at Towered Airports.
7 to 9pm.

Nov. 11

Cape Girardeau Airport,
Cape Pilots Club Building.
Operations at Towered Airports.
7 to 9pm.


Safety Program Manager
1-800-322-8876 x 4835

May Day