Have you ever stopped to think about why we blow out the candles on our birthday? How about carrying the bride over the threshold or eating turkey on Thanksgiving? While they all likely have a logical origin, these sorts of things are often continued today simply because they are rooted in tradition. Sometimes we know and even celebrate the history of a tradition, but some others are carried on just because it’s how you’ve always done it. In aviation, there are a few traditions that we owe it to ourselves to keep alive.


Cutting The Shirt After The First Solo Flight
My first solo flight probably followed the same format as it did for many other student pilots. After doing some takeoff and landing work in the pattern, my instructor had me taxi back to the ramp. He hopped out of the plane and let me have three takeoffs and landings all to myself. The first solo for a new pilot is a monumental milestone. Leading up to it, the student will be doing everything in the plane on their own, with no instructor intervention. The big difference while solo is not having anyone who can intervene, guide or take over if the need arises. Well, that and the plane takes off and climbs remarkably quicker with the reduced weight. Afterwards, it’s a tradition to cut the tail out of the student’s shirt, often marking it up with “first solo,” the date and the tail number before hanging it up proudly. It’s an unusual activity, but it originates from the older training airplanes like Piper Cubs that have the instructor positioned behind the student. It’s said that the instructor would tug on the student’s shirt to get their attention and communicate (it was loud and radios weren’t always standard). Cutting the shirt tail out is symbolic of earning freedom from the instructor. It’s sort of a “there’s no need to tug on my shirt anymore, so I cut it off.”

Shirt Tail Cut Out First Solo

My first solo was back in 2002.  I somehow missed out on getting my shirt tail cut, so I recreated it for you.  Do you know how awkward it is to write on a square of fabric with a Sharpie?


The Water Salute
There are a few times when the airport fire equipment is broken out for a spectacular display called a water salute. One such instance is when a captain is retiring from an airline. It’s also common when a new airplane is brought into service. After landing, fire trucks on either side of the airplane spray arcs of water for the plane to pass through. Watch it in action here. The origin of this tradition and how it was integrated into aviation is debated, but it appears to have begun in the days when transatlantic ships were being welcomed by jets of water from fire tugs.

Fire Hose Water Cannon Salute

I’m not sure what the difference is between a water hose and a water cannon, but I’m gonna call this a water cannon.


Soloing On Your 16th Birthday
For a young aspiring pilot, soloing the airplane on your 16th birthday is a rite of passage. While you can receive and log flight training prior to then, you must be 16 to receive a logbook endorsement to fly solo (or age 14 in a glider). As a result, many young student pilots train specifically towards this tradition and become well prepared for their big birthday event. Recently, new laws prevented the solo from happening on your actual birthday because of the application process, but the people spoke, and the tradition was strong enough that AOPA fought successfully to have it restored.

16th Birthday Solo Endorsement

This was my actual endorsement to solo. The exact timing of the solo is usually a bit of a surprise, but the endorsement lets you know it’s coming soon.


The Hundred Dollar Hamburger
Finding an excuse to fly somewhere doesn’t have to be complicated.  “How about a burger?” It might seem pretty counter-intuitive to get in an airplane and fly to a different town to grab a bite to eat. After all, there are likely perfectly good restaurants right at home and it makes for a pretty expensive hamburger (around a hundred bucks all in, or at least it used to be). Still, it’s a popular reason to hit the skies because the flight itself is the event, not the food. Having a hamburger at the other end is the icing on the cake.  Or the ketchup on the bun.  No, that doesn’t work. It’s a bonus. Read more about the concept of the hundred dollar hamburger here.

Hundred Dollar Hamburger

I actually didn’t have to fly anywhere for this particular burger, but it’s my favorite one anywhere.  You should fly to my town and try it!


Pancake Breakfast Fly-Ins
On the surface, it may appear that flying somewhere for a pancake breakfast is essentially the same concept as a hundred dollar hamburger. But while some of the underlying intentions might carry over (to fly somewhere), the fly-in differs because the whole idea is to gather with other pilots.  And you can find more than just pancakes at these fly-ins, too. Back in college, when I was in the Flying Club of UGA, we would host fly-ins with other colleges. One such event was with the Georgia Tech Flying Club at the Milledgeville Airport – KMLJ (yeah, rival teams, but we got along). We cooked out, competed in spot landing contests and flew around together. A fly-in can be a simple pancake breakfast for anyone who can make it, or a huge event like Sun ‘n Fun or Oshkosh. To find a fly-in near you, or better yet, one far away that you need an excuse to fly to, check out FunPlacesToFly.

Pancake Fly-In Breakfast

Flying AND pancakes? Sign me up.


We’re in a pretty good place in history. Given that flying as we know it is just a handful of generations old, most of the traditions are well intact and fresh from recent times. We have the ability to not only carry on the traditions of those before us, but to make and share new ones. In the age of technology and communication, sharing is easier than ever. Do you have any aviation traditions in your flying circle? Share them with us in the comments below!

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  1. John

    I enjoyed this post to your blog.

    I have done all of the above, with the addition to the “poker run”. It has been a few years, but in the hot rod car tradition, we all met at the Rome airport. We each put in our cash to enter, then flew off to various airports to pick up our cards. We met later in the day at KLZU airport for lunch and to play our cards. It was a lot of fun!

    Let’s start a new one!

    • Clay

      Now you’re talking my old stomping grounds! I’m very intrigued by this, John. Do explain further. How do the cards get to the various airports? How many do you collect at each one? This sounds like a new yearly tradition. Who else is in?


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