By Robert Wright
Pilots everywhere remember their first solo flight and what came after the congratulatory handshakes and pats on the back from their instructors. Various commemorative traditions have evolved since the first solos in heavier-than-air craft: An unnamed 10-year-old who flew on one of George Cayley’s gliders in 1849, then the more successful controlled gliding flights by Otto Lilienthal starting in 1891, and the first powered and controlled flight by Orville Wright in 1903. One can imagine handshakes, hugs, and cheers back then, followed by notoriety. Since then, other first solos have been more humble, but not to those achieving their first flight without an instructor.
After soloing in a Piper Colt, I distinctly remember my instructor wielding scissors, removing a large patch of my shirttail upon which he documented the facts of the flight, and then signed it and hung it on the wall in the flight planning room. Somehow, water eventually wedged itself into the first solo tradition. In Air Force pilot training, fellow lieutenants tossed me into a full stock tank after flying the T-37 jet trainer all by myself. This paralleled other water initiations when a stock tank, pool, or pond was not convenient; a dousing with a bucket of water, sometimes chilled with ice.
Unfortunately, inner-ear problems coupled with debilitating airsickness separated me from a career as an Air Force pilot. A few too many actively sick, low and slow final approaches without realizing the danger forced the decision of those in charge. But a long military career followed as a meteorologist, staying close to flying, advising and helping those that flew for our nation.
Along the way, I kept my hand in as a private pilot, renting aircraft here and there, sometimes as a member of a base aero club. This interest brought me to the Norfolk Gliding Club on the flat fens of England during an Air Force assignment there. The aero tow was a bit tricky, but I managed to solo from the same runways used by Jimmy Stewart flying B-24s in World War II. Considering my flying background, there was no initiation for my first solo glider flight other than a good pint of warm beer from my check pilot standing around the warm cast iron stove in the clubhouse. I’m sure they had their first solo traditions, but I had not witnessed any, nor had I asked. Maybe warm beer was it, if of age.
A few years later, I was assigned to the land of Otto Lilienthal: Germany. I found the Luftsportverein (literally, air sports club) Eßweiler founded in 1928, not too long after Otto first flew. The winch launch was a little more exciting than the aero tows back in England, but my mentor, Walter, certified that I was safe enough to fly the club gliders by myself. There was no solo initiation for me other than a big bottle of good German beer, but only after all the gliders were in the hangars and their door padlocks firmly clicked shut.
One sunny afternoon when the thermals were good, I witnessed a young German man complete his first solo. His proud instructor walked over to the edge of the wide grass runway and made a bouquet of wild flowers, weeds, and long grass. His hapless student stood by the high-winged glider, waiting for his fate. A preparatory ceremony followed. Club members fell in line behind the instructor. Holding the bouquet in one hand he flapped his arms as if attempting flight and screeched like an eagle. The glider pilot conga line followed his path around the glider and the student pilot, all flapping their arms and likewise screeching.
Finally, the instructor came up to the student and handed him the bouquet. The instructor and all of us, in sequence, shook the student’s hand. He then took up the required position, bending over with his hands on the nose of the glider. We lined up, each to administer one hard slap across the student’s backside. When this first solo flight initiation was over, Walter came over to me and said, jokingly, “We are a primitive people.” Primitive, maybe, but it’s an initiation steeped in the spirit of Otto Lilienthal who gave his life learning the secrets of flight.
Vintage film clips of this unique type of first solo initiation can be seen in this Facebook video starting at 5:45 and again at 6:50 into the video, but the entire thing is worth viewing for a glimpse into early private aviation.