"Welcome to the club" - those four words were all my Instructor said to me after my first solo.

After years of dreaming, I had finally joined a club that only a few can claim membership in. When he asked me how I felt afterwards, all I could come up with was "Pretty Damn Awesome“.

My Instructor and I went around the pattern three times. After the last landing, he got out, endorsed my logbook and student certificate for solo and then told me to go do 3 takeoffs and landings by myself. Then he added "Don't break my airplane"! Thanks for the pep-talk...

THE BIG QUESTION

Most student pilots eventually ask their flight instructor "When am I going to solo"?Student Pilot First Solo Flight

Sometimes it's because they think they are ready - at least in the their mind. At other times, the student asks out of a growing fear that their first flight alone might be before they feel ready for it.

For some reason, there is a misunderstanding that the first solo is supposed to happen on some schedule, after a pre-set number of lessons. The reality is that it's entirely based on the student and is determined by frequency of lessons, student skill and more often than not - luck with the weather.

I've sent students to fly solo with as little as nine hours, and in one case - as many as 130 hours.

But whenever I'm asked the big question, I give my student the simple answer: "When I'm no longer needed in the airplane, I'll get out".

Benefits of Flying Solo
  • It builds confidence in the student's mind.
  • It’s more efficient because the CFI can't interrupt the student's train of thought by running their mouth from the right seat.
Goals of Solo Flight
  • To prove, to the student and the rest of the world, that enough knowledge and skill has been attained to allow command of an aircraft.
  • Before starting the next phase of training, when time will be occupied with cross-country navigation, several hours of solo practice will be needed to polish up on basic flying skills - something that can easily deteriorate.

ARE YOU READY?

Your instructor will let you solo when you're ready, and not before. Remember, no one can come up there and help you get the airplane down; you're completely dependent on the skills you've brought with you.

Here are three things that I look for in a student before determining if they are ready to fly solo.

1. The Small Things

There comes a time when a CFI needs to shut up and just observe how a student responds to a problem. I won't solo a student who still waits for me to prod them along on things. If they have to be reminded of small things constantly, what's going to happen if they have a real emergency on their solo?

2. Go Around

For me, a good sign that a student is ready to solo is a go-around initiated without any action on my part. It may have been the student's screw-up that caused the need to go-around, but I know I won't have to worry about them breaking themselves or the airplane because they tried to save the landing or froze up on the controls.

3. Consistency

Consistent results shows skill development. As an example, here is what I look for in the way of consistency with landings:

  • I want to see the airplane arrive at the designated touchdown point, at the correct airspeed, aligned with the runway, and configured properly.
  • The flare should take place at about the same height each time.
  • Any ballooning tendency is stopped - before it gets out of hand.
  • The airplane is held off the ground until it reaches a semi-stalled state.

If my student does this three times in a row and has a prior history of this, then I'm confident that they are ready to solo.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Weather

Windsock

I don't push the weather. I only solo someone when the winds are not a factor, ceiling and visibility are high and stable, and precipitation is not threatening.

There also has to be at least two hours of fuel left in the tanks and an extra hour of daylight remaining - past the expected finishing time.

Communication

Communication must be available. I keep a handheld radio with me for urgent communications, if necessary.

That being said, I don't talk to my students while they are in the air unless some un-planned event makes it necessary. After all, if a student is going to need my coaching to get the airplane back on the runway, they shouldn't be flying solo to begin with.

Never Assume Anything

I never assume that a student is going to solo on the next lesson. We all have bad days once in a while, and if my student happens to be off his or her game that day, I simply keep my mouth shut and put off the solo until later.

DEALING WITH NERVES

I've had students who've refused to solo. Hey, it happens and that's OK - sometimes they have to think it over and prepare for it mentally.

For the student, it's important to remember that you are simply doing the same thing you've been doing over the last several hours leading up to this moment—lining up on the runway, adding power, lifting off into the climb-out, and maneuvering around the pattern to end up on a stable final approach.

The only thing different about flying solo is that there isn't a sack of dead wait sitting in the right seat.Click To Tweet

HOW I HANDLE A STUDENT'S FIRST SOLO

Every Instructor is different and some flight schools have their own procedures, but this is how I usually handle a student's first solo.

Since I've been teaching full-stop/taxi-back circuits up to this point in the student’s training, I won't be doing anything unusual that would clue the student in or raise their heart rate until I ask them to stop taxiing - while still on the taxiway.

I'll simply look over and say something like: "You're doing everything on your own. I'm not actually accomplishing anything here, so why don't you go out there and give me three takeoffs and landings by yourself?"

Barring any strong protests or anxiety attacks, I'll add "Just keep doing what you've been doing“.

Then after making a quick endorsement in their logbook, I get out and walk away - So long, see ya later and don't break my airplane.

And where do I go while my student flies solo?

Again, all Instructors are different, but I like to stay visible --beside the taxiway or runway.

This allows me to see how the takeoff and climb-out look, as well as the landing. It also allows me to be able to walk up to the aircraft during the taxi back to the runway for a quick pep talk or to give a thumbs up as they taxi by.

After the last landing, I have the newly created Pilot pick me up on the taxiway.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The first solo flight is a mental challenge more than anything else. Once it's out of the way and you've proven to yourself that you‘re a Pilot and not just a student, you can really begin polishing your flying skills and learning new things.

And as for when you solo: send me a message so that I can welcome YOU to the club!

 

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Most student pilots eventually ask their flight instructor
Shawn Hardin
Shawn is a Commercial Pilot and active Flight Instructor. You can read more about him here.
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