Brian Lansburgh does the honors in the traditional shirttail snipping ritual after Cammi Benson’s solo flight. photo provided
Brian Lansburgh does the honors in the traditional shirttail snipping ritual after Cammi Benson’s solo flight. photo provided

Every pilot remembers the first time they took to the skies without the security of an instructor sitting beside them. The solo.

"It's all up to me now."

That's what 16-year-old Cammi Benson said to herself, as she maneuvered through her first solo flight last Friday, April 4. It was a day she will always remember.

Benson, a sophomore, is the first student to solo out of the new Aviation Science program offered at Sisters High School this year. The course is a science elective running the entire year, integrating the study of aerodynamics, physics, chemistry, navigation, and meteorology to prepare students to pass the rigorous FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) private pilot written exam. The curriculum is an online ground-school generously made accessible to students at no cost by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Young Eagles program, and Sporty's Pilot Shop. Benson and the other students who have completed all three terms of the class will be taking the FAA written exam as their course final in June.

In addition to the academic study of the ground-school, students pursuing their private pilot license must train in an actual aircraft with a Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI). Brian Lansburgh, who lives at the Sisters Airport Airpark, has been a CFI for over 30 years. FAA requirements state that a student pilot must be 16 in order to solo. Benson logged 54 hours of dual lesson time with Lansburgh prior to her 16th birthday, making her eligible for her solo flight this month. She first started flying in Lansburgh's 1948 Cessna 140, then advanced to a more stable Cessna 172 for her solo.

"I think Cammi may be the youngest student I've taught," Lansburgh said. "It's been a pleasure, and an adventure. She has taken to it like a young fighter pilot. There are certain maneuvers which she does better than any student I've ever had. Just as with language, we really ought to be teaching flying at a much younger age than it's normally taught."

Benson underwent the traditional trimming of the shirt tail in the wake of her flight.

The tradition of the instructor cutting the shirt tails of the student after their first solo originates from the days when pilots were trained in tandem aircraft, where the student sat in front of the instructor. Before enclosed cockpits and headsets allowed them to talk to each other, the only way an instructor could get the attention of the student from behind was to tug on their shirt tail. Once the student demonstrated he no longer needed the assistance of an instructor by soloing, the shirt tail was cut off.

In order to earn a private pilot license, a student must complete several steps: They must pass a medical exam from an FAA certified physician, they must pass the FAA written exam, and they must pass a check-flight with an FAA examiner. While Benson could solo at 16, she will not be eligible to take the check-flight until she turns 17 next year.

Lansburgh has big plans for Benson over the next year.

"We have a whole year to hone her skills," he said. "She will do some cross-country solos, night flight, and instrument training. Sailplane time will really teach her coordination and energy management. We'll throw in a little aerobatic training and maybe some seaplane experience as well. Formation flying will also be on her plate. I really want her to be the best pilot in Sisters, and she's got a head start on it right now."

"I wasn't that nervous to solo in the plane," says Benson, who also just got her driver's license. "I felt very well prepared, since I've done it a hundred times with Brian right there next to me. He hasn't had to correct any of my mistakes for awhile, and I knew if he'd let me go up by myself, he thought I was ready. I think my mom was more nervous than I was."

"Cammi does a lot of things that worry me," said Benson's mom, Julie. "She ski races, she rides fast horses, and now she flies."

The goal of the Sisters High School Flight Science class is to provide an integrated science offering that also enables students to reach a real-world goal of earning their private pilot license by the time they graduate. Mastering this material requires both academic study and cockpit experience. And while the academic ground-school curriculum is free to students at SHS, flight instruction costs must be met by individual students.

Benson and other flight science students have applied for scholarships and grants to offset the cost of flight instruction. Science, engineering, technology, and developing a strong work-ethic are all part of the educational program - and the program needs contributions to be sustained.

Private tax-deductible donations to assist students in meeting these expenses can be made through the Sisters Schools Foundation/Sisters Science Club.

"Sisters is the coolest high school! I get to do all those things. I race on the alpine team, ride on the equestrian team, and now I get to fly," said Benson.