A student pilot experiences many plateaus and barriers to progress along the path to earning the Private Pilot certificate. None, however, are more symbolic than the first solo. Everything before the first solo flight is geared to it — everything after it is based on it. AVweb's series on primary flight training by Tina Gonsalves continues, as we ride along with a brand-new student during her first few flight hours and through her Private Pilot checkride.
March 25, 2002
a wondrous feeling it must be to to fly alone. To have earned a flight
instructor's confidence and to have achieved the skill level necessary for
solo flight. And I was there; I was ready to go. I had the skills for solo
flight. It was the solo landing that had my instructor in knots. And no
wonder; even I was scared witless at the idea of flying and landing solo. I
had 10 hours in my logbook and had latched onto the notion that I should be
soloing soon. It didn't matter to me that nothing about landing the airplane
felt right. I had 10 hours; it was time to start thinking about the S-word. I
was focused on my logbook instead of on my flying.
Regardless of how my inner-Tina felt about flying solo, I started asking
pilots, "How long until you soloed?" I tried to place myself on a
timeline to gauge when I might expect to solo myself. Yes, that was a bad
idea. I knew that then and yet I asked anyway. Thankfully, most refused to
answer the question, although my friend Mike did confess that it took only one
hour until he soloed. He went on to explain that it took his CFI one-hour to
pry Mike off of his neck to get him to fly alone. Then Mike reiterated how
irrelevant it was, and told me to get a life.
Whether or not I should have established a time-based
goal for my first solo is a moot point. It was there and my world started to
spin around the accumulating hours. At first I thought maybe 10 hours would be
a respectable soloing spot. When that milestone passed, I switched to 20
hours. Now there was a time I could really get my arms around. It
seemed like something to aim for. It still didn't matter to me that most of my
landings were spectacles of uncoordinated terror. I'd fallen into a pattern
where I'd lock up on final, trying to hold everything "just right."
I wasn't really flying the airplane; I was simply holding it in one position
until it "crashed" onto the runway. If I wanted to be pilot in
command, I should be piloting the airplane, not simply holding on and hoping
that everything worked out all right.
passive flying contributed greatly to my fear of solo. John, my instructor,
was never going to get out of the cockpit if I kept that up. To be honest,
until I took control, I didn't want him getting out. It was a two-edged sword.
On one side, the logbook said I should be soloing. But on the flip side, I
wasn't ready; I knew that in my heart. The thought of it filled me with fear
but I put on my brave mask and feigned that I was ready, even anxious. When I
was truly ready to fly alone, that fear would be replaced by a focus, people
said. What I needed to remember was that I was learning to fly, not learning
to solo. With one will come the other. When I was ready, this fear will head
right out the window along with my instructor. Okay, maybe John will use the
door; he is a little large for the window of a Cessna 152.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I wasn't going to solo the airplane until I
learned how to land it with some degree of consistency. Landing is probably
one of the hardest things to learn, aside from learning good judgment. It was
easy to practice slow flight and landing at altitude but those same maneuvers
take on greater importance the closer to terra firma I came. The lower my
altimeter read, the higher the moisture content of my palms became. My hand
shaking as I held the throttle belied my confidence and displayed my true
nervous nature. I attributed the quiver to having had "too much
coffee" when in retrospect it was merely not having enough confidence in
my ability to land the airplane without John's intervention.
But I was landing it alone, and without setting off the ELT, or damaging
the airplane. However, it was not without John saying, "How's your
airspeed," "Bring it over to the right," "Add power,"
"Take out power." Not that he physically helped me land the airplane
but I voluntarily gave him control on each landing by relying upon his words
to land us. This contributed to my less-than-stellar flying.
factor was the externally imposed pressure to solo that I had accepted and
internalized. My logbook started comparing itself to other logbooks. Did I
measure up? Where did my training fit on that bell curve of life? With each
dual turn of the Hobbs meter I felt less and less capable of flying. I
wondered what was wrong with me, and why this landing thing simply wouldn't
click as everyone promised it would. Perhaps I was genetically incapable of
getting it right. I started to wonder if I wasn't John's worst student,
turning his brown hair shades of gray.
Oh great, more pressure. I felt like I had become a burden to my
instructor. That put undue pressure on me to show him how well I was learning.
I was trying so hard to be perfect that it distracted me from flying the
airplane. If only he would get out, I would solo much sooner.
I did find the less that I thought about the motions, the better I became
at performing them. Early on, I was completely obsessed with each component of
flying. Everything had to be done exactly as prescribed, with no deviation. On
landing John taught me to power back to 1,500 RPM when abeam the numbers. That
caused me to stare at the tachometer and pin 1,500 RPM exactly, watching for
the magic number. I wasn't satisfied with 1,510, nor 1,490, but it had to be
1,500 on the nose. I wasn't paying attention to the sounds of the engine, or
the feel of the airplane; I only paid heed to the numbers on the tach. Do you
know how much valuable flying time that takes from a student pilot? By the
time I had that number pegged I was behind the airplane racing to catch up
again. Inevitably, I would unintentionally lose altitude, causing John to
chide me for being at 1,200 feet rather than pattern altitude of 1,300 feet.
"Tina, how will the airplane slow down if you don't maintain
So much for our honeymoon when Tina could do no wrong. We were well
ensconced in our flying relationship and John had no qualms about pointing out
the errors of my ways. Isn't that always the way? The old ball and chain. Of
course this was necessary to the learning process. In order for me to progress
I must be pushed a bit. John had to constantly raise the standard of my
performance, demanding greater effort from me. Where once my flying skills
garnered "great job" and "well done" accolades, I now
found myself being browbeaten for substandard performance.
did I mention that it was me who was doing the browbeating? I was essentially
psyching myself out. Ask me how my flying was going and I would reply,
"Great, if I ever learn how to land the darn thing!" Well, I did
know how to land the darn thing; I'd done it many times. I simply didn't have
a nice feel for it; my landings weren't nice and smooth. But each landing was
safe and always ended with the shiny side up, the rubber side down and we
could use the airplane again, the hallmarks of a "good landing." But
here I was degrading my performance to the world. And do you know who was
listening? My instructor John, that's who was listening. And how could he be
convinced that I was a safe solo pilot when I wasn't convinced myself?
Every "good landing" was an adventure. I was having trouble
consistently doing a reasonable flare to landing. I had no feel for the flare
or when to even begin it. I'd either plomp it onto the runway without ever
flaring, or I would do a beautiful full stall landing about 10 feet above the
runway. Finally John and I tried an experiment. John kept the airplane
straight down the runway. My job was to look out the side window and keep the
tire from touching the pavement, just a couple of inches above it. A bit of
playing with that and I became better attuned to "the feel." It was
time to move my landings from spectacles of uncoordinated terror to
respectable exercises in getting an airplane on the ground in one piece.
major bit of assistance was in remembering to use trim on the airplane.
Somewhere I had gotten into my head the idea that trim was extra. Almost as if
trimming the airplane was a bit lazy, a mental comparison to cruise control on
a car, I suppose. When I finally began trimming the airplane properly, I found
that many other pieces started falling into place better. The herky-jerky
movements on the yoke diminished. I wasn't fighting the airplane for control.
The landing drill became to fly downwind and, when abeam the numbers, apply
carburetor heat and reduce the throttle to about 1,500 RPM. Apply three turns
of trim to help maintain altitude until the airspeed bled off to the top of
the white arc. Now add one notch of flaps and one turn of trim to overcome the
balloon effect of the flaps and keep the airspeed at about 70 knots before
When the end of the runway is at about 45 degrees behind me, turn base and
reduce airspeed to 65 knots with a descent rate of about 500 FPM. Level the
wings and check for traffic and turn final. At this point I am about 500 feet
AGL and lined up with the runway. Add another notch of flaps and another turn
of trim to hold air speed at 60 while maintaining alignment with the runway.
Pick a spot about 50 feet short of the end of the runway and watch it in
relation to a dead bug on the windscreen. If it appears to be moving downward,
I am too high and need to reduce power. If it appears to be rising in relation
to the spot, I am too low and need to increase power to maintain altitude
until the spot seems to be stationary. Once the spot is stationary, I am at
the correct altitude and descent angle and all I need to do is pull power and
They say the flare is like a common home activity; the longer you can hold
off the finale, the more satisfying it is. Holding off and not letting the
airplane land by constantly pulling back on the yoke and it will land itself
smoothly and with great satisfaction. The keys were trim (so I wasn't working
so hard) and airspeed. I had to become comfortable with constantly checking
airspeed and runway, airspeed and runway. It was too easy to fixate on one or
the other but my eyes had to be constantly moving until the flare and
So here I was, with many of the pieces necessary to solo. A student pilot
certificate. A pre-solo test completed, and a gaggle of flying skills to boot.
What I didn't have was confidence. Without that, my landings simply would not
click in. Part of the difficulty I had in gaining confidence was that my
instructor talked a lot. I just wanted to show him I knew what I was doing,
but instead I was being told what to do each time. For instance, about the
time I was to perform the pre-landing checklist John would ask, "How
about a GUMPS check." Argh, I was just about to do one.
maybe I was too green to know that I needed the advice. The fact remains that
towards the end I was threatening to bring a roll of duct tape if that was
what it took to hush him up. Each time John would talk to me during my
landing, I would hand over to him my responsibility as pilot in command. Of
course it was a subconscious thing, but upon retrospection I can clearly see
that was my M.O. Once he started advising me in the air, I would mentally hand
over the controls to him and have to be "talked down."
There was once some research done on why some youngsters fall off of
playground equipment in the presence of their parents and others did not.
Researchers observed the interactions closely. They discovered that little
kids have figured out gravity. They got that part when they were learning to
walk. So, when climbing, the child knows if she lets go she's going to get
hurt. The child also knows to pay attention when Mom or Dad says something.
Turns out that the kids who were left alone to climb fell pretty rarely. The
kids who had to listen to Mom or Dad say "Be careful" or "Don't
fall" or "Hold on tight" or such other redundant foolishness
were the ones falling and getting hurt because their attention was divided.
The one who was trying to help was acting in a counter-productive manner.
Was John being counter-productive to me at the time? I doubt it. But it
sure was a frustrating time for us both. [For the instructor's view of this
event, see Rick Durden's recent column, "A
First Solo."] Trouble was that John had become my voice-activated
autopilot. I just sat there, waiting until he told me to do something. Was
there a reason behind his talking? Did I need the direction at the time?
Perhaps it was his inexperience that was talking. I was the third or
fourth student that John was taking to term. With a smaller experience base he
was understandably more cautious when it came to his students. Of course the
verbal spanking I gave myself after each landing didn't contribute to the air
of confidence in the cockpit either.
I now had to put all of the pieces together and show John that I was no
longer a pre-solo student. I awoke one morning, put the dog outside, listened
a bit to the song of the red-winged blackbird and breathed in the day. There
was solo in the air! I went to the airport and John had me do the preflight
and the run-up alone. I'd never started the engine without him in the cockpit
with me. I'm feeling quite confident today. Even wore my pretty undergarments,
just in case they revived the shirt-cutting ceremony for me, John's first
female pre-solo student.
starting the engine, I glanced up at the windsock to see which direction to
point the nose for the runup. Ahhh, the wind is coming from the north. Good,
and it's a nice solid wind too, straight down the runway. I have a definite
direction to aim N67396 for the run-up. And what do I do? I aim the airplane
in exactly the wrong direction. Perfect example of a brain fart. I looked at
the windsock, and "misread" it. In my excitement to solo, I made a
stupid mistake. John calls out to me over the unicom, "396, is that where
you are planning to do the run-up?" Oh darn, I must have done something
wrong. I check the windsock again and see the wind is still nicely from the
north and I confidently say, "Yes." I thought that John was just
trying to test me. "I'll be right out," he says. Then the stupid
light kicks on and shines on my mistake. That's the way to give the CFI
confidence in my abilities, huh? He hops in and I continue with the run-up,
trying to forget that mistake and move on to recover the lesson. Not even off
the ground yet and I'm feeling discouraged. We head up for pattern work and I
land us safely each time, but still not confidently.
As we taxi back, John spots his former instructor, one who has moved on to
the big leagues and is an airline pilot now. John thinks it would be great if
I could take a ride around the pattern a time or two with Jonathan. So the
much-anticipated "John getting out of the cockpit" is rather
disappointing because Jonathan has climbed in. It was a great experience,
however. Jonathan had no pre-conceived notions about the mistakes that I make.
Therefore, I didn't make them. Jonathan concluded that I had all of the skills
to solo and that I will make a wonderful pilot one day because I am so very
hard on myself.
John climbs back in and we fly around the pattern a few more times before
he has me pull off the active and head back to the hangar, much to my dismay.
I really thought today was going to be "The Day." As we taxied to
the hangar, John was talking but I wasn't listening. I was so deflated that I
saw his lips moving, but I wasn't hearing a word. I shut down the airplane and
I dragged back to the office, avoiding the glances of the other pilots nearby.
He hustled his next student out to preflight and sat down to talk with me. In
the office, I didn't want to talk. Actually, I couldn't talk. I was trying
hard to swallow some disappointment tears. He made me talk, however. We
discussed the flight and I felt a little bit better. He explained that I am
much like he was, pretty darn good at everything except the landing part.
the drive home I started thinking. Flying is supposed to be fun, and here I
was making it work. I will solo when the time comes. I need to take some of
the emphasis off of the event and just continue learning to fly. Although I
wanted like heck to solo that day, I was still quite nervous about it. I
wasn't emotionally ready.
The next lesson started without a hitch. I did the pre-flight all
proper-like and off we went to practice some maneuvers. I tried to take the
focus off of soloing, as did John. We went out east of the airport and
practiced steep turns, something I've always enjoyed doing. Afterwards we
returned to the airport to shoot some landings; no pressure.
Now I don't know if John heard it or not, but I swear there was a distinct
CLICK in the cockpit as I finally got "it." Everything worked
together to make for some very solid landings. Truly it felt as if my airplane
was riding in on rails as we simply glided down to the earth. Of course there
was no one there at the airport watching this time. Just like the person who
plays golf alone for one round, that's when the hole-in-one happens. (This
proves there either is a God or that there isn't I've forgotten which.)
Regardless, John was there to experience these landings and I do believe he
was pleased because after three dual landings, John reached over and unbuckled
his seat belt. He reminded me to use the checklist as he disconnected his
headset, smiled, and exited the aircraft shutting the door behind him.
I became Pilot In Command that day. And it was a beautiful thing. Not one
bit of me was nervous, not a second of fear or dread. The fear was replaced by
focus, just as "they" said it would. I taxied down to runway 19,
held short and ran through my preflight checklist. Deciding upon a short-field
takeoff, I dropped in 10 degrees of flaps and called, "Ellington traffic,
Cessna 6420L position and hold, runway 19, Ellington."
What an echo there was in the cockpit. What silence there was beside me.
out after taking off, I did think that there was a problem with the airplane.
There was a severe vibration that seemed to be coming from the tail. I kept my
cool and maintained the climb. Once I got a few hundred feet up I looked
around and tried to figure out what was going on. As I looked down, I saw my
right leg shaking uncontrollably. The vibration was actually coming from me.
Whew! What followed were three of the absolute best circuits of the pattern
I've ever flown. Everything worked perfectly and, when it didn't, I fixed it.
Just as I knew I could. And John had to watch them from the ground. It
appeared that I had achieved sky-goddess status for that day. (I occasionally
will have sky-goddess days still or, shall I say, sky-goddess moments. But
they are fleeting things, mere flashes of inspired performance that lend
texture to an otherwise featureless plane of gray mediocrity that occasionally
dips into awesome incompetence.)
But on Solo Day, I shined. As I cleared the active runway my radio call
was, "Ellington traffic, Cessna 20L who is on the ground after flying all
by herself, is clear the active runway, Ellington."
Two more times around before John let me get out and hug him. Then I
hugged, Mike, Trevor, Ted, anyone who got close enough was hugged. They took
photos afterward, but no shirt-cutting. Good thing, too, because I was wearing
my prized marathon T-shirt.
When people asked why my feet weren't touching the ground, it was hard to
explain. Pilots already knew the reason, but it was a mystery those who do not
fly. I have now seen the world in a different way, this time alone. And I will
never again be the same.
Additional articles in this series by Tina Gonsalves include: