We spend a lot time preparing for solo flight. Now let’s talk about actually soloing – flying on your own, prior to earning your private pilot certificate. Solo flight is a key difference in how we approach learning to fly versus learning to drive. In most cases I’m aware of, drivers are unable to drive by themselves until they have earned their drivers license; not so with flying!
In order to earn your private pilot certificate, the FAA mandates a minimum of 10 hours of solo flight. I view solo as a transition, accomplished in a controlled manner, between the safety of flying with an instructor, and your ultimate goal of earning your pilot certificate and being able to carry passengers with no oversight. I find that many pilots need more than that minimum 10 hours to both meet solo cross-country requirements (5 hours minimum) and become confident in their own capability.
I do not “schedule” the day a student pilot will solo. You’ll know you are getting close once you have done all the necessary steps (all maneuvers, medical, pre-solo knowledge test, phase check, etc) and are flying the airplane with very little correction and coaching from your instructor. I look for the student to have had several flights in a row with no critical issues in flying the pattern; I need to know that you are able to fly the pattern, land, and communicate without me intervening (that doesn’t mean the landings are perfect, but they all must be safe). As we reach solo, we are spending most of our time flying in the pattern at our home airport. If the student is flying well through a number takeoffs and landings (soft field takeoffs, simulated engine out landings, slips, and go arounds) and if the conditions (traffic, wind, clouds, visibility) seem good, then after one of the landings, I ask the student if they want to go on their own. This step requires the student to take ownership of solo. I’m not telling them they are going to solo, but I’m telling them I feel they are ready. If the answer is “yes”, we taxi over to transient parking and shut the airplane down.
With the airplane off, we discuss what is going to happen and I make necessary endorsements in their logbook and on their student pilot certificate (medical) and ensure they have their picture ID. The endorsement for solo will include limitations on conditions that must be met when they get to unsupervised solo. This first endorsement is good for 90 days; students need to track when the 90 days will expire and ask for a new solo endorsement before the 90 days.
Here’s the outline of the topics I cover prior to the first solo:
- After I exit the airplane, I want them to start the plane normally, get ATIS, request taxi, do a runup, a normal takeoff and a normal landing. Go arounds are always allowed. If the first landing was good, they feel good, and the conditions have not worsened, they may do up to 3 landings to a full stop (no touch and goes at this point).
- I will be listening on the radio and able to talk if needed. I confirm the operation of my handheld radio prior to leaving the airplane.
- The airplane will fly different without me as ballast – quicker climb to pattern altitude and slightly greater tendency to float on landing
- After they finish, taxi to our normal parking area
It’s not uncommon for students to do go arounds or to do fewer than 3 landings. That’s not a problem. The point of this first solo is to establish that you can do this on your own. While you fly, I listen, watch, and take pictures and video to document the day!
Subsequent supervised solo flights
Depending on the student, the second supervised solo flight may be similar to the first – some flying together, followed by solo flight. For students progressing more quickly, the second supervised solo flight may be 3 solo takeoffs and landings at the beginning of the lesson with me watching from the ground, but not involved in the preparation. In that case, I have students taxi to transient parking, shut down, and then I hop in for some maneuvers in the practice area – steep turns, slow flight, and stalls.
Surprisingly, I find that some training organizations/instructors do not allow unsupervised solo; students must be “dispatched” on every solo flight. While I can understand this does reduce the risk of students taking off in conditions in which they shouldn’t be flying, I feel that its critical that students build and demonstrate that ability to self decide when they should and shouldn’t be flying and to slowly remove the “safety net” of constant instructor oversight. During this phase, obviously being conservative is a good idea. My goal is for students to reach a point where they are confident to execute every maneuver on the practical test standard (except instrument flight) while flying solo and to understand when conditions may be outside of their capabilities.
Once students have demonstrated the ability to start a flight out in the pattern on their own, I normally release them for an unsupervised solo flight in the pattern. At this point, I ask that students not do touch and go landings.
I give students two sets of solo limitations. One set is for staying in the pattern at El Monte. The limitations specify a minimum visibility (often 4sm), a minimum ceiling (often 2000′ AGL), a maximum crosswind component (often 5 kts) and maximum total wind (often 15 kts). Students need to be able to estimate cross-wind components from the reported wind direction, velocity, and gusts. If the ATIS announces conditions that do not meet the limitations, students should stay on the ground. However, just because the reported conditions meet the limitations is not a guarantee that the student pilot should be flying solo. Visibility can be worse than reported, clouds can be lower than reported or have non-ceiling coverage that is still a problem, or conditions can be gusty, unstable or changing for the worse. If conditions change and exceed limits, students should land and call it a day. The second set of limits apply for solo students to leave the pattern and go to the practice area for maneuvers (with higher visibility and ceiling requirements). Students must also understand cloud clearance requirements, as well as terrain and obstacle clearance requirements.
After students have some experience in the pattern and in the practice area, I may allow them to practice touch and go landings solo or endorse them for landings at one or more nearby airport (e.g., POC, CNO, or CCB).
Students doing unsupervised solo should always have a plan of action – what do they plan to practice, what level of performance is expected, and how long should it take. I consider 2 hours a normal limit for a single solo session. After a solo session, I ask that students send me a summary/debrief email, detailing how much time/how many landings they logged, what the conditions were like, what types of takeoffs, landings and maneuvers they practiced, what went well, what needs work, and what they feel they learned. This planning and self evaluation is a key skill for a pilot that wants to be safe and improve. The evaluations allow me to concentrate where improvement is needed and to see how well students understand their performance.
I ask that students do a mix of unsupervised solo flights and dual flights. At first the dual flights will expand on the maneuvers that students may do solo. After some solo experience, we usually move to also meeting the night and dual cross-country requirements.