The first solo flight is a milestone for every California Baptist University aviation student, and that milestone is commemorated with the renowned tail-cutting ceremony and CBU’s own tradition of pilot “baptism.”
Tail-cutting is an important rite of passage in aviation history, which continues to be passed on today. Flying an airplane takes countless hours of practice, and reaching the level of solo flight is a substantial achievement for new pilots.
Mary McGreevy, CBU flight instructor, explained tail-cutting comes from a tradition started a long time ago.
“It all goes back to when airplanes had tandem seating,” McGreevy said. “The student would sit in the front and the instructor in the back. When the instructor needed to get the student’s attention, he would tug on the tail of the student’s shirt.”
The cutting of the tail marks the day students are ready to fly on their own, no longer needing instruction.
In addition to tail-cutting, the program has an unconventional tradition for new pilots. Upon completion of their solo flight, students are tossed in the fountain at CBU’s Flight Operations Center at the Riverside Municipal Airport.
“It just kind of happened one day,” McGreevy said. “One of the students had soloed, and they decided to throw them in the fountain and from there it just took off. No pun intended.”
The fountain-tossing is not merely a fun initiation process but holds religious symbolism as well.
“We are ‘baptizing’ the student in a way, which is symbolic and of course directly correlates to being Christian, so it’s kind of our own version of baptizing,” McGreevy said.
Austin Apple, freshman aviation flight major, and Kevin Chen, freshman aviation flight major, recently reached this milestone.
“It signifies a big moment in your aviation career that you finally get to (go) solo,” Apple said. “Going up for the first time by yourself, you’re feeling a lot of different things. You’re feeling a little nervous because you don’t have your flight instructor sitting next to you. The plane feels a little empty, but you’re also feeling a sense of fun and excitement because you’re the pilot in command and you’re flying the plane by yourself.”
After the first solo flight, Chen said new pilots proceed back to the flight operations center to take part in the highly anticipated tradition of tail-cutting.
“This is a big symbolic part of what it means to be a pilot,” Chen said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, I know how to fly,’ but I’m also learning the history of flying and knowing that every pilot has gone through this too. That’s really symbolic.”
It is fitting that the first solo flight is commemorated with such a historic tradition after so many hours have been dedicated to the training.
While flying planes may be fun and exciting, it can also be risky and learning to take flight can be hard work.
“You just have to weigh the balance and ask, ‘Is it really worth it for them to fly?’ I think for all of us, we love flying, we love planes and that’s what we want to do,” Chen said.
For students such as Chen and Apple, participating in this small part of aviation history is testament to their passion for flying.
“We love it. That’s why we do it,” Chen said.