In general aviation, it is traditional to cut the shirt tail from the back of a newly soloed student pilot. Like most great traditions, the origins of that celebration have been lost over the years, but we continue the practice as a means of observing a great achievement.
At the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, located on the grounds of Lakeland Linder International Airport in Lakeland, Florida, they do things a bit differently. Shirt-tail clippings are replaced by red clay bricks placed permanently in the walkway that leads to the school’s main entrance. Now in the fifth year of this tradition, the number of lettered bricks is growing.
Keith Smith is the outgoing assistant principal of the academy. As the highest-ranking administrator on site since the school opened eight years ago, he’s seen these students and their predecessors arrive as sheepish young teens, only to leave four years later as confident, accomplished young men and women.
“It’s very rewarding for me,” said Smith of his work at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy as more than two dozen of his students stood nearby awaiting public acclaim. “I am very proud.”
High school senior Andrew Pitman was one of those to be honored on this crisp autumn day. “Aviation has been my dream ever since I was 4 years old,” said Pitman. He is employed part-time at an aircraft maintenance facility near home, and is working on his airframe mechanic certificate while in high school.
In the air, his exploits have been impressive for a teenager. He soloed in a light sport aircraft, a Breezer, in Bartow, Florida, the same field where his grandfather soloed decades earlier.
“I soloed at Bartow so I could follow in my family’s footsteps,” Pitman explained. Achieving the goal of having his name etched into this walkway is an ambition he’s carried for some time.
As part of his high school experience, Pitman won an essay contest that put him in the back seat of a North American P–51 flown by Lee Lauderback at Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Florida. Pitman was impressed. “Compared to light sport, I don’t think a word could describe it,” he said, contrasting the performance of the World War II fighter over the LSA he’s got more experience with. “It was the best aviation ride I’ve ever had in my life.”
The Central Florida Aerospace Academy building was constructed thanks to the generosity and vision of James C. Ray and the James C. Ray Foundation. Many of the students whose names can be found in the front walkway of that building benefited from a flight training scholarship offered by the foundation.
A new tradition has begun, in education, in achievement, and in recognition of that achievement.