All the names listed have one thing in common: They soloed in 1977, and their solo shirt-tail was tacked onto the wall of their flight school, a proud memento of an unforgettable moment.
The airport has since closed and the flight school with it, but the shirt-tails remain. A Virginia pilot would like to reunite them with their owners.
Jim Stevens of Norfolk, Virginia, recalls that the former South Norfolk Airport in Chesapeake, Virginia, was an aviator’s paradise in its heyday, and the little flight school was in the midst of the excitement. The airport’s two turf runways buzzed with taildraggers and trainers. The longtime owner, Don Wilson, believed everyone should be able to learn to fly, and he kept instruction and rental rates low—a tradition that continued for years. During the 1960s and 1970s, a Piper J–3 Cub could be rented for $7 per hour, and a person could earn a private pilot certificate for about $500.
“There were days when not just one person would solo but several,” said Stevens, a retired airline pilot. In the 1970s and 1980s, his father, A.M. Stevens, ran the airport and the flight school, and Stevens and his four brothers worked there mornings, evenings, and weekends.
“We maintained the runways and the airplanes,” said Stevens. “It was seven days a week for us.” The flight school operated several aircraft, and kept instruction and rental rates low so that enlisted men and women stationed in nearby Norfolk could afford to learn to fly.
Keeping with a long-held tradition, flight instructors would cut students’ shirt-tails after a first solo, and these shirt-tails would be labeled, decorated, and posted on the wall at the airport. Another tradition was that whoever witnessed a solo would buy a Coke from a machine in the building. They often bought A.M. Stevens a Coke as well.
“Whenever he was on a diet—which was quite often—he would have them buy a Coke but he kept another bottle that he would pretty much sip from all day,” Stevens said. His father would put the unopened Coke back in the machine at the end of the day. “He could make 25 cents,” he said.
The airport and the flight school were labors of love for A.M. Stevens, his son recalled. “He just loved it. He reinvested every penny he had in the flight school.”
Each of Stevens’ brothers—Guy, Tom, Joe, and Ray—had their own niche within the flight school. Guy, for example, handled many of the administrative tasks, including answering the phone. All the Stevens brothers soloed on their sixteenth birthday, including Joe, who had been deaf since he was a young child. Joe learned to fly in a J–3 Cub and eventually joined the elite fraternity of pilots who are hearing impaired. Tom became an aircraft mechanic who worked for Piedmont Airlines, operated his own shop, and also opened a flight school. Jim became an airline pilot, flying for Southwest Airlines, until his retirement in 2019.
South Norfolk Airport closed in 1985, and the only traces that remain are photos and chart snippets found on the “Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields” website. A. M. Stevens died in August 2019. While cleaning out his dad’s house, Stevens discovered two garbage bags full of solo shirt-tails. He couldn’t bring himself just to throw them away, and ever since, he’s been using social media to make connections, posting the names on groups in the region.
“It’s a legacy,” Stevens said.
Nancy Duncan happened to be scrolling through Facebook one day when she spied a familiar name posted in a group called I Grew Up in Norfolk. The name was Laura Punte. Laura Punte is now Laura Punte Barnett, and she is married to Duncan’s son, Scott Barnett.
Duncan contacted Stevens and retrieved the shirt-tail—this one was in a frame. She wrapped it as a gift and surprised her daughter-in-law. “I wish I had taken a picture. She was just totally amazed,” Duncan said.
Barnett didn’t go on to earn her pilot certificate—but her daughter, April Barnett, did learn to fly. April Barnett graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. She’s now a captain in the U.S. Air Force, having received her wings in 2018. April Barnett will become the caretaker of the shirt-tail, Duncan said.
Russ Porter III found out from a Facebook friend that his name was on that list of solo students. Porter soloed on his sixteenth birthday in a Cessna 150 in 1975.
“I was going [to the airport] with my dad every other weekend,” Porter said. He did the requisite three takeoffs and landings, and after one of the landings he forgot to take out the carburetor heat before the next takeoff. The airplane’s anemic performance startled him, but he remembered to adjust the carb heat and all went well after that. Porter’s dad, Russ Porter Jr., was sitting on the fence watching and waiting. “I saw a big grin on his face,” Porter said.
Porter didn’t complete his flight training. He got as far as the solo cross-country—admitting that pilotage and dead reckoning got him a little lost until he spotted a water tower—but his father died in 1977 and there was no more money for flight lessons. He said he cherishes memories of spending time with his father at the South Norfolk Airport, and is happy to have a token of those days.
Stevens continues to track down long-ago pilots. He took some shirt-tails down to Triple Tree Aerodrome’s annual fly-in in South Carolina in September. He’ll keep putting the names out there in the hopes that he can deliver the sacred scraps of cloth (and some framed certificates) to their owners.
If you soloed at South Norfolk Airport in the 1970s or 1980s and would like to see if your name is on the list, contact Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman.