The Saint Francis University Science Center has a new display hanging in the ground floor hallway. The display, curious as it is, proudly showcases a traditional mark of a pilot who has completed their first solo flight: a shirttail, cut from the back of the each Aviation student’s shirt.
According to legend, the ritual of the “first solo shirttail cutting” dates back to the early days of flying. In those days, there were no radios, intercoms, or any way for a student and his or her flight instructor to communicate. Furthermore, the two pilots could not even pass visual cues to one another, as the instructor sat behind the student to give them an unobstructed view of the sky. In order to direct the student, the instructor resorted to alternative means of communication, such as tugging on the back of the student’s shirt.
These corrections were needed until the student’s first rite of passage: the first solo, where he or she took to the air completely alone. By the successful completion of this flight, the student demonstrated their ability to fly without direction from the instructor: without someone tugging the tail of his or her shirt. To commemorate this, flight instructors ritually removed the student’s shirttail and emblazoned it with details commemorating the event.
Cade Young, a freshman General Engineering major with an Aviation concentration, was the first Saint Francis student to experience this tradition. Remembering his first solo, Cade says, “When the flight instructor, Larry Servinsky, stepped out of the plane and told me to do a lap, I was more anxious than anything else,” but, after successfully completing three takeoffs and landings, he came back to earth: losing the back of his shirt, but gaining his first taste of soaring on his own.
Cross Edwards, a freshman Management major and Division I volleyball player, followed in early February. As he started down the runway, Cross remembers the initial terror of flying by himself, but also how it was quickly replaced as he realized: “I was free in the air to make any decision I wanted.” Free in the skies, Cross eventually relinquished the skies and returned to the ground, having gained freedom at the price of his shirttail.
These shirttails with the student’s name, the date of their first solo, the model and FAA registration number of the aircraft they flew, their takeoff/landing location, and the name of their primary flight instructor are now hung in the Science Center. They are relics of the students’ first solo flights and are displayed in celebration of this, the first major milestone of what both students hope to be their careers as pilots.