Shirt Tails
Remembering Our First Solo Flight(s)

Shirt Tails<br>Remembering Our First Solo Flight(s)

Shirt Tails
Remembering Our First Solo Flight(s)

Learn with your brain; Remember with your heart.

Our pilot ranks have shrunk over the last four decades and the aviation alphabet groups (EAA, AOPA, GAMA, NBAA, etc.) have made a concerted effort to get more younglings interested in flying – and I’m all for it. How could we not assist in exposing future generations to the attributes of aviation? Plus, there’s strength in numbers: political influence, economic efficiencies of scale in manufacturing, fuel distribution, insurance underwriting, airport funding, and a myriad of other tertiary services afforded a large group. And as a nation, we need a pilot-pipeline for the military, Part 135 operators and Part 91 instructors, the airlines and our space program. But learning to fly appears to be more strewn with obstacles than ever before: COVID, the cost of airplanes, fuel and maintenance, lack of instructors, product and personal liability and airspace complications. 

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.

Helen Keller

In addition to the above hurdles, has the process of learning to fly become a bit too clinical? Perhaps my grandparents had similar thoughts concerning the big band sound vs. rock and roll. And no, I didn’t listen to Glen Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington or Tommy Dorsey on my Walkman. Admittedly, this impression of today’s flight training comes from an airline pilot near the end of a 30,000-hour career whose restricted radiotelephone operator permit says 1972. Also, my opinions and writings about aviation often lean towards the emotional gratification that flying elicits more often than aviating techniques or training. 

Who’d-a-thunk that so many GA pilots would routinely fly single-pilot jets and prop-jets in the flight levels? GA airplanes have become more complicated in power, avionics, speed and the airspace environment in which we operate. The upside to a more clinical approach to training is our best-to-date situational awareness, access to real-time data (especially navigation, engine parameters and weather), fuel efficiency and our ever-improving safety record. And our safety record has occasionally been a newsworthy topic for the less technically informed public.  

Train Wreck

A disaster or failure; a disorganized, problematic, or chaotic person or thing; an incongruous situation. 

With cameras literally everywhere (including the proliferation of inflight Go-Pro and snooping drones) and images and stories attained by them distributed worldwide in minutes or seconds, the last thing GA needs is bad press. While there were indeed some astonishing gaffes at Boeing, we could argue back-and-forth about the media’s part in the grounding of the 737 MAX. It used to be that the most dramatic of crashes was a train wreck. So much so as to create the metaphor of “train wreck” to describe the highest order of vivid, intense and dire of outcomes. The analogy could describe everything from a bad marriage to an election, golf game or a ruined Thanksgiving dinner. 

Due to air travel popularity and its elevation over (pun intended) train travel, the ambiance of relaxing train travel has succumbed to the sometimes tense and arduous, but high-speed and economical airlines. And now, videos (even TV shows) of sensational air disasters populate our media, becoming the new train wreck. But even so, “airplane wreck” doesn’t roll off the tongue nearly as colloquially as does “train wreck.” So, the train wreck metaphor has wings (I couldn’t resist), and for now, a colloquial confrontation of metaphors will never leave the station (again, couldn’t resist). 

Besides the effects of poor pilot performance on public opinion, we all understand the benefits of clinical-like training: pilots and pilot hopefuls must navigate the expense to rent or buy, the cost of the aviation support system, hull, engine and liability insurance, time constraints, airspace restrictions, traffic congestion, a wide range of aircraft performance, and the time needed to learn all of the above. A clinical approach is more efficient. And we must take this approach because s*** (um, stuff?) happens in airplanes. We’ve all seen it (those that have and those that will), and the flip-side of the airplane romanticism coin is the boogeyman side. At the very beginning of our flight training we didn’t know him very well – someone had to introduce us.  

Remember When?

During the first eight to ten hours of flight instruction, we train students and experienced pilots in a new airplane about aircraft control, emphasizing airspeed, AOA, takeoff and landing, aircraft systems and failure modes of said systems, including engine failures. And we teach newbies how to talk on the radio because you can’t go anywhere these days without talking to “The Man.” This training regimen has been the case in every airplane I’ve flown from single-engine GA to Air Force trainers and fighters, to multi-engine transports. 

Thankfully, some of the traditional, happy side of the coin celebrations of learning to fly, particularly the first solo, remain in practice: drenching the student with water or cutting off and displaying the back of his or her shirt. It’s a practice both instructors and students look forward to and is practiced around the world. After you have completed your flight, your instructor congratulates you and cuts off the tail of your shirt, which then joins other shirt tails on a wall of the school. The act of cutting the tail symbolizes your accomplishment and instructor’s faith that you can fly without needing help – and you know all about those traditions. But did you know…

Dead Bug

The mighty M-10, Mooney Cadet.

Another option is called the ice bucket challenge and is a more “exuberant” celebration. Alternatively, the pilot could be thrown into a swimming pool or dunk tank. In the military you may be tossed into a dunk tank, asked to eat a raw chicken egg, shell and all, or other dead or alive things (crickets, worms, ants, etc.) with and without
jalapeno or habanero peppers. Then, of course, there are the semi-surreptitious fighter pilot traditions that occur at the O-Club (in my day it was the modern-day, refined version of an old western saloon). These occur in the evening and may involve drinking, singing, playing a highly modified and physical version of billiards called “Crud,” the throwing and breaking of things, as well as verifying that you respond properly to code words like “Dead Bug.” 

My first GA solo was in a Mooney Cadet (almost hit a party balloon on downwind), my first jet was a T-37 (almost forgot to restart the right engine after the IP hopped out), and my first in a fighter was the F-16 (just trying to “not screw the pooch”). Our first solo flight is something memorable to all pilots. And it should continue to be celebrated with the best (safe and politically correct) traditions. 

Following my F-16 solo.

Your Airworthiness

Of course, there is no soloing in the Part 121 world. But whether we are new to the airplane or have flown it for many years, at the airlines and in other multi-crew endeavors, we have a partner to police our compliance with procedures, decision-making and piloting techniques. There are no traditions or celebrations for soloing an airliner, but as in other brotherhoods, airline pilots have stories to tell and ways to celebrate professionally (i.e., no eating strange things or breaking stuff). 

And with two pilots, tact is essential when keeping each other from slipping off the rails while flying and when off duty. Nowadays, they have labeled this lovey-dovey, kumbaya approach to coordinating with the other pilot: CRM (Crew Resource Management). One MD-80 FO often highlighted my know-it-all seniority, missteps, and occasional brilliance using his signature quip. With a royal acknowledgment of my requests, his assessment and opinion of nonstandard or critical events, as well as deeds well-done, was announced with the retort: “Yes, Your Airworthiness,” or “I disagree, Your Airworthiness.” “Nicely done, Your Airworthiness,” or, “Your turn to buy, Your Airworthiness.” It was CRM at its most effective level of functionality. Greg has since retired (early), and I miss him. 

The meaning of life is to give life meaning.

Viktor E. Frankl

I’m grateful that my family didn’t allow me to wander aimlessly, looking for the meaning of life.

My grandma, grandpa and a neighbor introduced me to the attributes of academia. My mom – time management, etiquette and chivalry. My dad – hunting, music, golf and flying. And now, I’ve spent my entire life flying airplanes, trusting but questioning academia, always using the best leadership and chivalry I could muster and applying a good effort towards etiquette. The views, the freedom, the intellectual and emotional gratification of aviation are all priceless. The most inspiring ones often being spiritual, the “touch the face of God” moments that only we pilots are occasionally afforded. When you have one, savor it and then share it with others. 

Pay it Forward

If you want more kindness in the world, put some there. 

Zero Dean

In the world of GA, we are most often alone in our decision-making, regulatory compliance, application of flying techniques, and to catch our own mistakes. We have no one to tell us when we fall outside of parameters or completely off the rails – or to call us “Your Airworthiness.” Strict checklist discipline as well as continuous training and self-evaluation are critical in the endeavor to maintain our personal airworthiness. It’s this level of professionalism that will help us in GA to stay safe and avoid a train wreck. But let’s try to have some fun along the way and pass our love of flying on to the younglings; they’re out there. It’s still possible to see an occasional car parked at the airport fence or near the FBO with folks watching airplanes come and go. Perhaps 2021, our post-COVID year, will be another new beginning for GA – and with our help, some pilot younglings as well. Happy New Year, my friends.  

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