First Solo Flight: A Student & Instructor Guide

Like most pilots, I still remember the day of my initial solo flight like it was yesterday.

I don’t remember much about the actual flight itself mind you, except that I was nervous as hell and busier than a 3-peckered goat.

It was June 18, 2003. I had just seven hours total in my logbook, with calm winds, blue skies, 6,000 feet of runway to play with, and the airport all to myself. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I had no idea that I would be making my initial solo that day and my CFI was maintaining a good poker face. We went out to the local training area, just like we always had before, performed a few stalls and other maneuvers, then he put me through a few emergency scenarios. After that, it was back to the airport for some pattern work.

My Instructor and I went around the pattern five times. After the last landing, he told me to stop on the taxi-way. He unlatched his safety belts, looked at me, smiled, and told me to go make three takeoffs and landings by myself. He endorsed my logbook and student pilot certificate, then he got out and added: “Don’t break my airplane!

After my final landing, I taxied back to the ramp and shut down the airplane. I got out, put my headset and other things in my flight bag and began tying down the aircraft. That’s when I caught something in my peripheral vision, which resulted in me tearing ass across the ramp, running like hell for the FBO building.

Why was I running, you ask? Two reasons actually.

First…I noticed two other instructors that were each holding a bucket of ice water, trying to sneak up behind me, as my CFI trailed them with a pair of scissors.

And Second…I had recently gotten married and was meeting my wife and her parents who were visiting us from out of town (they lived four states away from us, thank God) for dinner after my lesson. The “newness“ of being married still hadn’t worn off yet, and honestly, I wasn’t too interested in showing up soaking wet (while also sporting a big-ass hole in the back of my shirt) for dinner with my already disapproving in-laws… But mainly it was because the shirt I had on was one of my favorites.

So I did the only sensible thing I could do; I put my eight years of US Marine Corps training to good use…and I hauled ass…

Once they realized they wouldn’t be able to catch me, they ditched the ice water and scissors. After a round of congratulations, my instructor gave me a certificate of solo flight and then simply said “Welcome to the club”. Those four words were all I needed to hear, and as far as I was concerned at that moment, Chuck Yeager didn’t have shit on me.

And for the two or three of you that want to know; a month later, when I passed my private pilot checkride, I let them have their fun and dump the buckets on me… only I’m not so sure it was just water in the buckets that time. I didn’t want to know what it was, but it smelled like shit.

OK, enough dancing down memory lane.

[bctt tweet=”Your first solo flight is a mental challenge more than anything else.”]

The Big Question

Most student pilots will eventually ask their CFI: “When am I going to solo?” Sometimes they ask because they think they‘re ready -at least in the their mind anyway, and at other times it‘s out of fear that their first flight alone might come before they‘re ready.

Whatever may be your reason for asking, you need to understand that your CFI will send you out to solo when you meet his or her standards, and not before.

My answer to every student who asks me this question is the same: “When I’m no longer needed in the airplane, I’ll get out.”

Common Misconceptions

For some reason, there seems to be a misconception that the first solo is supposed to happen on a set schedule, after some pre-determined number of hours.

For example, a student may think that because another guy soloed at 12 hours, if they don’t do the same thing, they should just give up because they aren’t cut out for this flying thing.The problem with this kind of thinking is that it’s total bullshit.

The second you begin comparing yourself to other students, you‘re setting yourself up for failure. Everyone learns at their own pace and nobody really cares how many hours you have before you solo.

The reality is that it’s entirely based on the student and is determined by a number of things like frequency of lessons, student skill and more often than not -the weather. Some flight schools even require students to have a certain amount of time before soloing. One of the first schools I worked at required a minimum of 25 hours before soloing. No one flew solo until hitting that mark and it worked great.

In 12 years of flying professionally, I’ve flown for the federal government, and as an airline pilot, a charter pilot, and a flight instructor. You know what else? I’ve never had one person ask me how many hours I had when I soloed. Not one. It’s never been brought up in any interview I’ve been in either. Seriously, don’t worry about it, because no one cares and it doesn’t mean a damn thing anyway.

Let me explain why…

Student Differences

I recently pulled out some of my old instructor records and counted how many initial solo endorsements I’ve made over the years. I was pretty surprised to find that I’ve endorsed well over 50 students for initial solo flight. That’s a lot for me, considering during my first few years as a CFI, I focused mainly on instrument training until about four years ago when began focusing on training CFI candidates and CFII candidates as well.

As I went through the names, I came across two former students that I remember well. And for this post, they both serve as perfect examples of student differences and why one student can solo with only a few hours, and the another can take more time to solo than what’s required by the FAA to even get a private pilots license.

Sam & Mike: A tale of two students

Sam (soloed at nine hours)

Sam was 23 years old and fresh out of college. He had the advantage of having great weather, he was able to fly everyday, and had no other real outside distractions; meaning he could focus entirely on his flight training; not to mention that his father was also a pilot and he had been flying with him since he was a child.

Seriously, he had more time in the air (not loggable because his father wasn’t a CFI) than I did, but he didn’t pursue his license until after college. Because he had been flying basically his entire life, by the time he had nine hours logged, I was fully confident in his ability to make a safe solo flight. Sam rolled right through his training without difficulty and finished his private pilot license at just over the FAA minimums.

Mike (soloed at 53 hours)

Mike was in his late 40’s and was only able to fly about once every two weeks. He owned a

successful business, but it required a lot of travel. Add that to the fact that he was also married, plus having seven kids at home and you can understand how he had no time for anything else, much less flight training.

Mike was simply a great guy to be around; always happy and looking for the positive side to everything. Plus, he was a former Marine, like me, so right off the bat we got along great. But each time Mike came in, most of the lesson consisted of re-learning material from previous lessons, which meant he wasn’t making any progress.

Besides finding time for lessons, he had trouble carving out time just to study each lesson‘s material, not to mention preparing for the written exam. All he knew was that he was determined to get his pilots license, no matter how long it took. And while I respected his determination, continuing on like that was borderline insanity. He was already around 40 hours and really had nothing to show for it.

So, after many discussions before and after lessons, including many phone calls, I was able to convince him to put his training aside temporarily until he could fully devote the time he needed to finish. Once I showed him how he was literally wasting his time and money by not flying often, he finally realized he needed to wait.

Three months later, I got a phone call from Mike. He hired someone to take care of his

business for him while he learned to fly. He set aside two months to fully devote to his training. And once he got going, it only took him a month to take and pass his checkride. He spent the other month on a well deserved vacation.

The Takeaway

So why did I just bother telling you all of that? Because it doesn’t matter if you’re a thousand hour CFI or a pre-solo student pilot, you can learn something from Mike and Sam‘s training.

The only reason Sam soloed before Mike was simply because he was able to fly more frequently, which helped him retain the information better, resulting in him earning his license in fewer hours than Mike. But once Mike got his schedule in order, he soloed a little over 10 hours later. Like Sam, once he was able to fly more frequently, he retained the information better, started making quicker progress, and he earned his license.

The point I hope you’ll take away from this is that pre-solo flight time is not an indicator of the kind of pilot you’ll be after earning your license.

And while I’m on the subject of flight time…As far as I’m concerned, a pilot’s total flight time means nothing and doesn’t impress me at all. I’ve flown with some pretty horrible pilots who had thousands of hours and I’ve flown with some low-time pilots who were absolutely great.

Hours mean nothing. Dedication to your craft and the never ending pursuit of perfection is what makes a great pilot.

CFI Standards & Student Performance

There are two goals and two benefits of flying solo:

Goals:

  • 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 vary easily deteriorate.

Benefits:

  • It builds confidence in the student’s mind.
  • It’s more efficient, meaning that the CFI can’t interrupt the student’s train of thought by foaming off at the mouth from the right seat.

Basic Guidelines To Determine Readiness

All CFIs are different, but I look for these parameters to be met before deciding if a student is ready to go alone.

Basics Skills Mastery

There comes a point where I need to shut up and just observe how my student responds to problems or situations.

I don‘t solo anyone who still needs to be coached or reminded about basic things that I’ve been trying to hammer into them since their first lesson.

Things like airspeed management, altitude awareness, hitting key positions in the pattern correctly, and checklist usage are all examples of basic things that must be performed correctly before I consider signing off for solo.

If I have to keep reminding you of small things constantly, what’s going to happen if you have a real emergency during your solo? Sorry, but I don’t need that on my conscience.

Initiating a Go Around

For me, a good sign that a student is ready to solo is when they initiate a go-around without any action from me. It might have been the student’s screw-up that caused the need to go-around, but I know that I won’t have to worry about them breaking themselves or leaving parts of the airplane out on the runway because they tried to save the landing or froze up on the controls.

In my opinion, making the right decisions, acting correctly, and trying again tells me the student has their head where it needs to be and is ready to solo.

Correct & Consistent Performance

Correct and consistent performance shows me the student is ready to be the Pilot in Command (PIC). For 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, configured properly, within 5 kts of the correct airspeed, and aligned with the runway center line. If these parameters aren’t met, I want to see my student initiate a go-around. Any attempt to “save“ the landing shows bad judgement and decision making.
  • The flare should be initiated at around the same height above the runway each time.
  • Any ballooning tendency should be corrected before becoming a serious problem.
  • The airplane should be held off the runway until it reaches a semi-stalled condition.

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

Weather

I don’t push the weather. I only turn students loose for the first time when the winds are within their abilities, ceiling and visibility are high and stable, and when 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 has to be available on the field and I keep my handheld radio with me for emergency communications, should the need arise.That being said, I don’t talk to my students while they‘re 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, I shouldn’t be soloing them to begin with.

Other Considerations Prior To Solo

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 having an off day, I 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 just need to think it over and prepare for it mentally.

If you’re a 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.

[bctt tweet=”Your first solo flight is a mental challenge more than anything else.”]

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 at this stage of 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?”

If there isn’t a strong protest or an anxiety attack, I’ll add “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing”, as I’m getting out of the airplane.

Then after a quick endorsement of their student pilot certificate and logbook, I walk away without looking back — -So long, see ya later and don’t break my airplane.

Where do I go while my student is flying? Again, all Instructors are different, but I like to stay visible beside the taxiway or runway.

This lets me do two things:

  • I can get a better view of how the takeoff, climb out, and landing look.
  • It allows me the ability to walk up to the aircraft during the taxi back to the runway for a quick talk if needed or to give a thumbs up as they taxi by.

After the last landing, it’s a long walk back to the ramp as my airplane passes by, with a newly created pilot at the controls.

Final Things to Remember

Prior to your solo, remember these things:

  • No one can miracle themselves up there and help you get the airplane down. For the first time, you will be completely on your own in the cockpit and all you will have to work with is the skills you’ve brought with you.
  • If at any time and if for any reason you feel like you aren’t ready to solo, then you need to speak up. Talk to your CFI, then the two of you can figure out if it’s a skills issue or just nerves.

The only thing different about flying solo is that there isn’t a sack of dead wait sitting in the right seat. So just relax, keep flying and improving your skills with each lesson. Once it’s out of the way and you’ve proven to yourself that you are a pilot and not just a student, you can really begin perfecting your flying skills and learning new things.