Confession: I don’t remember my first solo—even though every pilot is supposed to. The date is immortalized in my logbook, April the 23, 1982. As is the plane, N6633R, a Beach Sundowner, and the name of the instructor who trusted me no to kill myself: John F. Miller.
But the actual flight, which every pilot will tell you was such a powerful experience that they will never forget it, is a blank.
About all I can remember about that day is worrying about my shirt.
You see, there’s a tradition in aviation that your shirt is torn off your back after your first solo. Well, there useto be that tradition. With lady pilots on the rise, its been modified to a more civilized cutting off of your shirt tails instead. It basically symbolizes getting though by the skin of your teeth.
Anyway, my only memory of April 23rdwas Miller telling me to pull to the side of the runway. Then, engine still running he opened the door and stepped out onto the wing. “What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Three times around the patch,” he told me, “you’re on your own.”
I was wearing my brand new—and far too expensive for my budget—tan Arrow pilot shirt, that I had just bought mail order through Sporty’s Pilot shop. I knew if I soloed, Miller would destroy the shirt. “No way,” I shouted over the idling engine, “this is a brand new shirt. Get back in the plane.”
I don’t remember how long we argued, with him crouched on the wing and me stubbornly refusing to solo, but eventually he promised to leave my @#%!&$ shirt alone if I’d just get the hell up in the air and solo the plane.
I could bring another shirt the next day for the ritual.
And so I did. Solo. And bring another shirt the next day. An ugly bright kelly green T-shirt I hated. Years later, when I paid a visit it, along with dozens and dozens of others was still on the wall of the flight school.
I remember all of that. But the flight? My first time in the air by myself? The flight indelibly printed on the minds of all aviators?
It’s a complete blank.