Edited by Brett Zukowski, ATP, DPE, co-owner of USAeroFlight Pilot School in Greenville, South Carolina
Whether it takes 15 hours or 35, the first solo flight is a big deal for both the student and instructor. For the student, it’s a time when their hard work pays off. They have the moment to gain the confidence necessary to move on to the next phase of pilot training. If you’re like most instructors, you know that your student is ready when you send him up for his first solo. But how do you really know? When does that defining moment occur?
There are instructors who say it’s just a feeling; but feelings are often subjective. Some would say it’s all in the FAA’s ACS standards. Others say that it’s more about attitude and decision-making. Some instructors are more aggressive than others, sending their students up sooner rather than later. Still others wait for the right weather conditions/attitude/airplane or a certain confidence that the student exudes.
Which of these instructors is right? Probably all of them.
There are obvious features surrounding a student’s readiness to solo. This includes meeting the requirements in the FARs, consistently landing safely, etc. Then there are less obvious ones: Showing good decision-making skills and attitude. In truth, all of these are part of determining when a student pilot is ready to solo.
Some criteria are not ours to decide. The FAA requires specific training before a student may solo. This includes receiving and logging training in certain topics and performing certain flight maneuvers. Students must have at least a third-class medical certificate, a student pilot certificate, and the required endorsements from a flight instructor in his logbook.
FAR 61.87 lays out requirements for student pilots. They must Receive and log training on maneuvers specific to the aircraft’s category/class. Further, knowledge must be demonstrated of Parts 61 and 91, the airport, and the aircraft they will solo from. Students must complete a written exam administered by their flight instructor.
Stick and Rudder Skills
Once you’ve passed the FAA’s paperwork test, it’s time to see if your student can really fly. Procedures and checklists are taught; but the true test lies in how well the student can maneuver and control the airplane. (Coordinated rudder!) The student must demonstrate proper emergency procedures, consistently stable approaches and landings, and ease with the environment and radio communications necessary for the chosen airport.
Solo Flight Fundamentals
A student who is ready to solo understands:
- The fundamentals of flight
- The relationship between pitch and power
- The proper aircraft configurations for different phases of flight
- Angle of attack
- Rudder use and left turning tendencies
Does the student know how to recover from a stall? Do they know how to troubleshoot a low oil pressure gauge or a failed alternator? Can they make a successful off-field approach and landing in the event of a power failure? The student must be familiar with common emergency procedures before they fly solo. They must be able to demonstrate the procedures for a successful (simulated) power-off approach and landing.
Approach and Landing
Approaches and landings are a frequent sticking point for students. The pattern is a busy place. Flying toward the ground during the approach can cause anxiety. The student is ready to solo when the patterns and approaches are consistent and stable.
A stable approach is when the aircraft maintains its approach airspeed and on glide path. For the approach airspeed standards vary; but a good rule of thumb is +5/-0 knots of variance. The on glide path refrains from being too high or too low. When not maintained, the student should perform timely and proper corrections.
The student also maintains a stable descent rate, with proper aircraft configuration (flaps, gear, cowl flaps, etc.) before a ½-mile final (for a small airplane). The landing flare should be on centerline without any side-loading and with the main landing gear touching down first. The student should put in proper crosswind correction and should know how to recover from a botched landing.
An occasional subpar approach is not a full reflection of the student’s ability to make safe landings. More important is the student making go-arounds after an unstable approach. This goes for any time the certainty of a safe landing is in doubt. The student ready to solo recognizes the need for a go-around and initiates one without hesitation. They do this without the instructor demanding so. The student who resists the go-around or tries to “save” a bad approach is not ready to solo.
Airport Environment and Radio Communications
For the chosen airport, the student should be familiar with:
- The entry and exit procedures for the traffic pattern
- Local landmarks and airspace
- When it’s necessary to extend the downwind leg or make a 360-degree turn for spacing. He should understand how the radios work in the aircraft and what the proper radio terminology is.
It is necessary for the instructor to test the student’s ability to make wise and efficient decisions. They must also gauge the student’s tendency to be impulsive:
- Are they timid or over-confident?
- Do they make good decisions on their own, without prompting from their instructor?
- Do they respect the sky, the airplane, and the tradition?
- Does the instructor trust the student pilot to follow instructions?
- Are they ready to understand and accept the obligation of pilot in command?
How will you know? (Only by scenario-based training – or, “SBT”). Without asking permission, the student will bear responsibility for the decisions made on every flight. Even now, their instructor will have begun thinking of the training/adventure that lies beyond the student’s first solo.
If the student meets all these requirements once, that is not enough. It must be consistent, on-demand. A solo-ready student shows no need of the CFI for any of the requirements. They navigate the traffic pattern with ease and confidence. They are ready for their first solo — on a day with a quiet pattern and light winds!
Remember, there is nothing better than a healthy safety margin in flying. Do not rush the first solo. The student may not be ready after completing all the FAR required tasks. Continue on to other lessons (shorts, softs, higher cross-winds, even dual cross county). What do they gain? Confidence and margin! There is some cultural pressure today to solo as early as possible. At times it is good to complete all the solo work at the end of all the dual as a capstone event. Consider the first several solos as “floating” solos. Continue on in the syllabus of training past solo if weather, student readiness (margin) or other circumstances dictate. Some schools make a policy to wait until all dual is accomplished and the student is check ride ready to fly solos then take the check ride! This is maximum margin although many students are ready for solo much earlier.
Leroy Cook writes:
“The amount of flight time accrued before solo is entirely an individual matter, influenced by frequency of lessons and luck with weather. I have sent students to fly solo in six hours and in 40 hours. It all depends. There was once a tacit understanding that a student would solo after eight hours of dual or else someone wasn’t doing their job. In the days of Piper Cubs and Aeronca Champs, life was simpler, airspace was unembellished, and the pace of traffic slower. With only stick-and-rudder skills to be learned, eight hours was plenty of time. Not so today; either I’m not as good an instructor as I used to be, or there’s more to teach. I tend to think it’s the latter.”