Scrawled in permanent marker on a scrap of a t-shirt is the scene of the runway at the North Central West Virginia Airport in Clarksburg as Kevin Webb remembers it on August 15, 2018: the day he successfully flew an airplane by himself and literally propelled his career as a student in Fairmont State University’s Aviation Professional Flight program to new heights.
That piece of cloth holds tremendous sentimental value for Webb, as it was cut from the very shirt he was wearing when he completed his first solo flight. Joel Kirk, Chief Pilot and Director of Fairmont State’s Aviation Center of Excellence, said it was a longstanding tradition to symbolically commemorate students’ solo flights in this fashion.
“Before there was radio communication, student pilots would sit in the open cockpit and the only way the instructors could get their attention amidst all the noise was to tug on the backs of their shirts,” Kirk said. “The tradition of cutting the shirt was a nod to that moment when the instructor finally lets the student go on their own and is no longer able to reach out and tug on his or her shirt.”
The tradition has changed slightly over the years as students in Fairmont State’s program who complete their first solo flights are now gifted a keepsake t-shirt signed and dated by their instructor. The significance of the milestone, however, remains the same.
“What they accomplish in that moment is something an infinitely small percentage of the population will ever do,” Kirk said. “That’s the day they become a pilot.”
Kirk said students do not receive advanced notice of when they are scheduled to complete their solo flights, giving them little time to overthink the task before them.
Aviation student Timothy Roy remembers the way his stomach turned one day last October as his flight instructor, Kirk, asked him to taxi the plane he was flying near the hangar and let him out. Roy had just completed four practice landings, and he thought that was all that was on the day’s docket. But Kirk had a surprise up his sleeve: it was time for Roy’s first solo flight.
“When you step out and they take off down that taxi way, there’s nothing more you can do. It’s up to them and there’s no margin for error,” said Kirk. “To this day, my heart just pounds out of my chest while I wait for them to come back safely. It’s an amazing experience.”
The momentousness of the situation was not lost on Roy who was nervous, but confident in his preparation and ability to fly the aircraft. He had, after all, spent numerous hours throughout the semester flying under the supervision of an instructor and had already completed his pre-solo exam.
“For the first trip around the traffic pattern, I was white knuckled,” said Roy. “But I knew he wouldn't have let me fly solo if he didn't believe I was ready.”
Roy drew upon the many hours of practice he had under his belt to complete the test by successfully taking off, maneuvering and landing the airplane three times. With each successful landing, Roy’s confidence grew, as did his realization that he was one step closer toward his future in aviation. Following their solo flights, students must complete additional training hours to obtain their private, instrument and commercial licenses.
“I finally realized I had what it takes to be a pilot,” Roy said.
Roy’s classmate, Lauren Bubarth, similarly recalls the sudden rush of confidence that came over her the first time she independently soared through the sky.
“All I kept thinking throughout the whole thing was ‘Wow, I really am doing this. I’m flying this plane by myself,’” she said. “I felt amazing and just thrilled right after I completed my solo. You could see my smile from a mile away and it didn’t leave my face the rest of the day.”
And it’s precisely those moments that led Webb, who now serves as an instructor in the aviation program while he finishes his degree, to take fellow students under his proverbial wing.
“It is a very rewarding feeling when you sign off a young student for their first solo flight. It’s a very special day for any young aviator and to be a part of it as an instructor is also very special,” he said. “Not only do younger students count on me to be their instructor, but I also hope that I can be a role model for them to look up to. I hope to show them that even though there is a lot of hard work involved in becoming a professional aviator, if you have your priorities in line and are passionate about this field, the rewards are endless.”
Fairmont State’s Aviation Center of Excellence is the first and only Federal Aviation Administration approved Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 141 pilot training center in the state, a designation that enables the program to offer students a structured training program and syllabus, a variety of training aids and facilities and instructor oversight.
“Fairmont State prides itself on offering unique, transformative educational experiences,” said Mirta M. Martin, Fairmont State University President. “And our Aviation program is second to none. This program is an integral component of the University’s ‘talent pipeline,’ funneling hard-working, highly-skilled young men and women into the workforce, where they will, quite literally, soar.”
For more information about the Department of Aviation, visit www.fairmontstate.edu/aviation.