Why Do They Cut the Back of Your Shirt When You First Fly Solo?

Aviation has a proud and pioneering history that prides itself on competence, hard work, discipline, and learning. Learning to fly is one of the most respected, difficult, and inspiring journeys anyone can undertake and the history of flying has a long history steeped in tradition.

Often a student pilot and their instructor will develop a close bond as they navigate the skies together. When an instructor deems a student ready for their first solo flight, also known as soloing, it is a huge moment for both individuals.

The instructor is essentially signing off on a student’s competence and declaring them ready to face the final test in a student pilot’s education, the successful piloting of an aircraft without any assistance.

This first solo flight usually requires a pilot to take off, complete a short journey and perform a full and safe landing totally by themselves. This flight will mark the culmination of all their study and tutelage and is actually very different from flying with an instructor. 

A pilot flying solo has to be able to prove they have the knowledge, skill, and confidence to react to the various challenges of flying, particularly unplanned and unpredictable aspects of flying such as changeable weather conditions, mechanical failures as well as navigation and control. All of this needs to be done without having any advice or assistance from an instructor or anyone else. Some schools may allow instructors to have a radio available just in case the trainee needs urgent assistance, but for the most part, the purpose of the first solo flight is to breed an attitude of self-reliance and confidence in one’s understanding and capabilities.

This first flight is a crucial moment in any pilot's flying career as it builds a massive amount of confidence and proves to a pilot and their instructor that they have the skill required to fly alone. While this can be a scary thought for some, pilots need to be able to face these fears and rise to the challenge in order to complete their training, and the rewards are definitely worth it. 

There are few things more gratifying than completing your first solo, and the celebrations in American aviation are actually quite peculiar and are part of a longstanding tradition that dates back to the earliest flight schools and instructors.

Traditionally, pilots in training would fly aircraft while sitting in tandem, meaning that the trainee would be sitting in the front seat of the aircraft and the trainer would be sitting behind them.

In the early days of flying, there were no high-tech radios, microphones, or ear protectors to help trainees communicate easily with their tutors, and it was common practice for instructors to pull on a trainee’s shirttails to get their attention. Once the pilot was aware of this, the instructor would then be able to shout commands and advice in their trainee’s ear, reducing the chance for crucial information to be misheard or overlooked.

To mark a successful first solo flight, instructors would thus remove the shirttails of a trainee upon completion of their first solo. This symbolic gesture indicated to the trainee and everyone else that the student is able to fly without any hands-on instruction, hence they no longer have any need for their shirttails.

This tradition is continued today and has evolved over time to even include doodles and drawings on the cut shirttails, such as illustrations of the plane the solo took place in, runway codes, tail numbers, airport codes, and even motivational quotes. Some students who have been bestowed with nicknames may also inscribe this on their shirttails, which are often displayed by a flight school as a colorful and unique record of the successful pilots they have qualified over the years.

These traditions are sometimes also combined with a tradition often practiced in the UK, the solo dunking. This involves a bucket of cold water being thrown over a new solo pilot, soaking them and signifying their baptism into the world of independent flying. Some flight schools may only do one of these rites of passage, or both, however, it is probably possible for you to avoid these theatrics if they aren’t to your taste. 

However, these traditions have a longstanding history, and any pilot capable of meeting the challenge of soloing should be proud to continue the legacy of aviation, by their skill and by participating in the longstanding traditions of aviation.