An Ode to Solo Flight

Well … maybe not an ode … that would infer poetic skills that I lack.
Regardless, first solo is usually the one aspect of flight that, while recalling the epic moment, glazes over the eyes of grizzled, gruff, experienced airmen. In many lives, it is the defining moment. Once you have left the face of the earth in an aircraft, solo, and returned safely, you are never again the same.
What is it that makes it so? Consider this.
The history of manned powered flight began on December 17, 1903, when Wilbur and Orville Wright launched their Flyer on four flights. How many have soloed since? In the billions of people on earth today, how many have soloed? In the history of the species and all that have lived before, how many have achieved that remarkable feat?
Population of world today? 7,400,000,000 … that’s seven BILLION, four hundred MILLION. Pilots in this country today? Slightly less than 600,000. Are there a million pilots in the world today?
Now … in the history of flight – to date, 113 years – how many people have piloted an airplane? Sure, there were a lot trained in WWII – were there a million? Three million? We do know that more than 40,000 US Airmen died in WWII. According to, at its peak in 1944, there were 2,372,000 members of the Army Air Force – obviously, not all were pilots … very few, in fact. You needed a navigator, a radio operator, a bombardier, and gunners. In a B-17E or F crew, there were 2 pilots in a 10 member crew. Even fighters – pursuit ships – had a chief. And every air base had all the support staff: mechanics, admin, guards, anti-aircraft gunners – all of them airmen.
According to Wikipedia (a factory filled with fun factoids, some of which can be believed), there were less than 3,000 military airplanes in 1939. By the end of the war, America produced 300,000. The rest of the world produced something more than that figure. So, let’s say that there were 750,000 aircraft built in WWII – would there have been four times as many pilots? We’ll ballpark that maybe 3,000,000 pilots flew in WWII.
In the 26 years prior to WWII, how many pilots might there have been? In the thousands? In WWI? Tens of thousands?
And throughout history, how many billions of people have lived?
The point is, that as a percentage of world population, today, the pilot population is a smidgen. Let’s say there’s a million pilots out of the 7.4 billion people on earth. Do the math: that number is .0001351351. Something slightly more than 1/1000th of a percent.
So after one of my students solos, I tend to get excited – sometimes more excited than my student. I am wrapped up in the history of flight, and the significance of my student’s achievement – and try to explain to my student the uniqueness of what she, or he, has just accomplished.
“You are now the sister of Charles Lindbergh, the brother of Amelia Earhart, the grandchild that Wilbur and Orville Wright never had. You are a SOLO pilot.”
(I don’t, however, go so far as to cut up one’s shirt and write on it. Destroying personal property leaves me cold and initiation rituals make me angry – as a college kid in the 60’s and needing the strange bond of a fraternity to increase my self image, I tolerated the ritual … but, in today’s world, ritual is best left to religious fanatics and those too stupid to think for themselves.)

Solo pilot, think of it: Louis Bleriot, solo across the English Channel; Charles Lindbergh solo across the North Atlantic; Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, Wiley Post … hell, even Doug Corrigan’s “Wrong Way” solo flight from New York to Ireland. Think of it. Solo pilot. Makes my hair stand on end. You, the solo pilot, through skill, persistence and a single-minded focus on learning how to control a heavier-than-air-machine, has ascended into the sky and safely returned to earth. It’s awe inspiring, life changing.
The sad part, of course, is that so many groundlings don’t get it, don’t understand its importance – and sometimes those groundlings are our significant others. Oh, well. ‘Tis, after all, their loss. Your accomplishment stays with you for the rest of your life.
Solo flight changes your outlook on life. You find new friends with the same passion. Those new friends share their experiences, invite you to share other experiences, introduce you to their friends with different experiences, and the circle grows. Those of us with this bug – aviation … this disease, this obsession, this never-ending source of joy – surround ourselves with others with the same passion, who continue to open us to new aviation exploits. We are such a small, select group that when we meet others new to the group we tend to gather them to us like converts to a previously unknown religion.
We are viewed by groundlings with interest and a touch of suspicion – like a strange insect discovered in the garden. Since they cannot understand the attraction to the perceived “danger” of the sky, they are uncertain how to relate to us. Which is okay because we know that if everyone were drawn to the sky, think how truly dangerous it might become. We don’t mind being viewed as outsiders – perhaps it’s part of the draw. We’re unique and, in some ways, delight in that uniqueness. There are many – the majority … hell, virtually everyone – who don’t understand our attraction to the sky. We are okay with that. We’ll remain the “few” – it’s far more interesting than being part of the “many”.
Solo pilot. You are unique. Ain’t it grand? Aren’t you proud?

Posted in Whimsy