Aviation lore is full of stories of the pilot who soloed an Aeronca Champ or Piper Cub after only four or five hours of instruction. When I started flying in the late 1970s, it was unstated but understood that something was wrong if "first solo" didn't come in under 10 hours. As airplanes and the environment in them has become more complex, however, more and new skills became emphasized in the presolo curriculum, adding to the time it takes to be ready for that first solo flight.
The growth of light sport aircraft (LSAs) may put many students back in airplanes with Cub- or Champ-like performance and handling, although reportedly many LSAs have decidedly different characteristics. A return to simplicity might signal a return to the four-hour solo pilot ... except that the intervening decades of pilot training experience reveals that -- while a great student may be able to fly alone after such a short time under extremely controlled circumstances if absolutely nothing goes wrong -- even minor distractions, malfunctions or unforeseen environmental changes quickly erode any margin of safety. Instructors have a professional and moral obligation to make sure students are ready for whatever may occur on that first solo flight.
In the late 1980s a rewrite of FAR 61 codified those items on which a student pilot must be trained before solo endorsements are signed and afterward shirt-tails are clipped. The result is that "first solo" often does not come until after 12, 15 or even 20 hours of dual instruction in structured Part 141 or 142 training programs. Pilots learning to fly under less stringent Part 61 rules can still solo as early as the instructor says they're ready, but only after they have logged training in 15 task areas.
From the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs):
61.87 -- Solo requirements for student pilotsNote that student must log training in each of these items before solo flight. They are not required to show mastery (i.e., meeting Practical Test Standards); it's up to their instructor to determine if the student shows enough proficiency in each task to safely solo. Let's look at the 15 Things that must be trained before solo -- and why some level of proficiency in all 15 items is vital to ensuring a safe "first solo" flight.
(d) Maneuvers and procedures for pre-solo flight training in a single-engine airplane. A student pilot who is receiving training for a single-engine airplane rating or privileges must receive and log flight training for the following maneuvers and procedures ...
(1) Proper flight preparation procedures, including preflight planning and preparation, powerplant operation, and aircraft systems;
(2) Taxiing or surface operations, including runups;
Solo pilots should have enough experience with preflight inspections and before-takeoff checks to know when something isn't right, and enough confidence in their knowledge to make a no-go call (or at least discuss the squawk with their instructor or a mechanic) before going up. They must be able to judge weather conditions and read wind indicators. They must be capable of using the communications radios for the local airport. They must be able to properly operate the engine and all necessary systems. They must know all the airport's procedures. Remember, there's an expectation both by the student and the instructor that first solo is just the beginning of greater solo privileges. Although there's a great deal to learn after first solo the pilot should already be familiar with the basics before being sent aloft alone for the first time.
(3)Takeoffs and landings, including normal and crosswind;
My first solo was in a very busy traffic pattern at Hondo, Texas. The Air Force's Flight Screening Program, Officer Training School (FSPOT, or "Fishpot") put five or six T-41As (Cessna 172s) in the pattern at a time on each of two parallel runways, one runway left traffic and the other runway right traffic to keep us from running into each other. Hondo was nontowered but we had a Runway Supervisory Unit (RSU) that did essentially the same thing as a tower for us proto-pilots.
The wind in Texas is notorious, and while I was downwind on my second solo circuit it shifted to become a fairly stiff tailwind on runway heading. With solo traffic (me) in the busy pattern the RSU did not want to reverse the flow, which involved a choreographed, sequential 180˚ turn by all aircraft that was worthy of whatever Fishpot might someday fly with the Thunderbirds. Consequently I made my second and third solo landings with a tailwind. As soon as I completed my third, bouncy and long tailwind touchdown, the RSU turned the patterns for the dual-instruction sorties.
Wind can and does come up from nowhere, or change strength or direction, while students are alone on their first solo flight. Instructors need to make their students aware of the effects, and what they should do, if the wind changes while they are in the pattern.
(4) Straight and level flight, and turns in both directions;
(5) Climbs and climbing turns;
(6) Airport traffic patterns, including entry and departure procedures;
It's pretty obvious that a student pilot needs a handle on these skills to safely fly a solo traffic pattern.
(7) Collision avoidance, windshear avoidance, and wake turbulence avoidance;
Whiteman Air Force Base is in rural Missouri, halfway between the small cities of Sedalia (to the east) and Warrensburg (to the west). Long before Whiteman became known as the operational home of the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the base was host to a Strategic Air Command missile wing, with a long and virtually unused 12,000-foot north/south runway just southeast of the hamlet of Knob Noster.
Back in the bad ol' days of the Cold War, a KC-135 aerial tanker was inbound to Whiteman from the east on a severe-clear day. Its crew was cleared for the visual approach into Whiteman while still far to the east and apparently mistook Sedalia's 5500-foot north/south runway, just east of the town, for their destination about 10 miles further west. The four-jet tanker turned onto a long final for Sedalia.
I wasn't there at the time, but the pilot who would later be my instructor told me he was on the ramp preflighting a Cessna 152 with a student when the KC-135 roared overhead. The crew had decided at the last minute that KDMO's runway looked shorter than they expected so they wisely powered up into a go-around, blasting overhead at pattern altitude. The instructor later told me he worried what might have happened if one of his students had been solo in the traffic pattern when the KC-135 (and its wake turbulence) flew past.
Large military jets almost landing at the wrong airport are not a statistically significant threat, but the mix of personal aircraft and business turboprops and jets is, and the majority of midair collisions happen in the vicinity of an airport on a clear day. In most cases the collision happens on final approach at less than 600 feet above ground, with one airplane overtaking another. Students especially will tend to fix their attention on the runway itself, judging their distance and altitude based on that familiar reference.
Alone in the pattern, a student needs to consider the flow of other traffic in the airport area. The student must look for other airplanes in the pattern, including the very wide downwinds and long final approaches that many pilots let slip into their habit patterns. Students need to know the names of local instrument-approach reporting points, their distance and direction from the airport, and the altitude at which an airplane on the approach should be when nearing the airport, so they know where to look for conflicting traffic when someone reports "Final Approach Fix inbound" over Unicom. Through lack of planning or blatant inconsideration, some pilots fly right traffic when the pattern calls for left, or vice versa, or long straight-in approaches to whatever runway suits their direction of arrival regardless of wind direction. All airplanes pull an invisible tail of wake turbulence that others must avoid, and the wake of even mid-sized multiengine airplanes, turboprops and light jets can seriously endanger a training airplane or LSA. Many airplanes don't have radios, or their pilots don't use them properly, or they are on the wrong frequency; similar-sounding airport names or frequency congestion on Unicom may make radio calls all but useless for traffic avoidance. Pilots pull out on the runway and hold in takeoff position or delay clearing the runway after landing. All too frequently someone ground-loops or lands gear up, closing the runway unexpectedly. Any and all of these things can (and do) happen at tower-controlled airports also, so ultimately the system is based on seeing and avoiding the other guy. A pilot up for his or her first solo flight has to be ready to handle any of this just like a seasoned aviator.
(8) Descents, with and without turns, using high and low drag configurations;
Here are more basic pattern skills -- with a twist. "High and low drag configurations" is another way of saying "in various flaps configurations." Weather conditions may suggest something less than full flaps for landing in some models of aircraft. Systems malfunctions may dictate the flap configuration for descent and landing. Some instructors may think they're doing the student a favor by avoiding full-flaps landings in some high-drag airplanes -- but the occasional student will select full flaps, on purpose or not. Solo pilots needs to be versed in approach and landing at any possible flap setting.
(9) Flight at various airspeeds from cruise to slow flight;
(10) Stall entries from various flight attitudes and power combinations with recovery initiated at the first indication of a stall, and recovery from a full stall;
Takeoffs and landings involve the full range of speeds in many airplanes, from the slowest (initial takeoff, and just before touchdown) to near-cruise on the downwind leg. Speed changes involve changes in trim, increasing pilot workload. Students need to be able to manage speed and trim pretty much subconsciously if they are to plan their pattern, scan for other traffic, handle the radio, and manage anything else that comes up on the first solo.
Similarly, since high angles of attack are the name of the game on takeoff and landing, students must be familiar with conditions that lead to stalls, power-on (takeoff; go-around) and power off (descent and landing), straight ahead and in turns. Logged practice must emphasize recovery at the first indication of a stall (warning and/or buffet) but also include recovery from fully developed stalls (begun at "the break", or uncommanded attitude and/or vertical speed change). There's no "taking it easy" on presolo students where stalls are concerned.
(11) Emergency procedures and equipment malfunctions;
I had two Cessna 152s with solo students in the pattern (not first solos) and was in the right seat of the school's Cessna 172 with a third student one warm, calm, June evening when all three airplanes encountered a huge swarm of bugs as we each traversed a point in the pattern. Somehow all three airplanes ended up with blocked pitot tubes. (I challenge you to purposely hit a bug with your pitot tube in flight!). All three students were good visual fliers, so all three landed safely one by one and taxied to the tiedowns. From that point on, I didn't solo a student without making that student fly a complete pattern to my satisfaction -- takeoff through landing -- with the airspeed indicator covered.
Airspeed indicators aren't the only thing that might go wrong. Carb ice forms, spark plugs fail, or other engine emergencies occur. Electrical systems blank out, affecting airplane configuration and communications. Tires blow on touchdown. Doors or windows pop open. Flaps don't work correctly. Student and instructor should discuss the sorts of things that might happen, so the student has enough experience to deal with distractions and malfunctions in the rare event something goes wrong during the first solo flight.
(12) Ground reference maneuvers;
Ground reference maneuvers (GRMs) are more than just another "trick" pilots must master to pass a practical test (checkride). The purpose of GRMs is to develop an ability to compensate for wind in order to maintain a desired ground track while holding a desired altitude. In short, GRMs exist to teach flying the airport traffic pattern. Most critical is judging when to turn, and the bank angle necessary to turn, with varying crosswind components. Getting good at GRMs makes it much less likely the student will overshoot the turn to final, for instance, which would provide a temptation to bank excessively and/or use rudder improperly to the point the airplane is in a low-altitude stall.
(13) Approaches to a landing area with simulated engine malfunctions;
Instruction not only prepares the student for the unlikely possibility of an engine malfunction on the first solo flight, but should also emphasize the need to fly the pattern close enough to make it to the runway in an engine-out glide. The Law of Primacy says that the way we first learn is the way we'll tend to fly -- here's a regulatory prompt to teach a good traffic pattern habit, as well as an emergency procedure, early on.
(14) Slips to a landing;
What if the flaps won't go down, and the student is too high on final? Forward slips to a landing are a requirement for the Private Pilot (and Sport Pilot) -- Airplane checkride, but here's a requirement to teach this skill before pilots takes their first solo flight.
Long ago, I soloed one pilot before he was ready. I was watching him on final approach, knowing he was much too slow and coming in too steeply. I was about to radio him when he wisely chose to go around without my prompt. At such a slow speed and high angle of attack, however, the Cessna 150 arced to the left as my student powered up with too little right rudder authority to compensate for left-turning tendencies from the propeller. At low altitude he flew over the ramp and the tiny FBO building before he had enough airspeed to regain directional control and climb out. His next landing was his last solo for a while, having scared us both and indicating we both had work to do.
My student could easily have stalled and spun from that go-around. (The instructor who endorsed me for my CFI, in fact, had that very thing happen to the first student he soloed.) There are many good reasons a student will reject a landing attempt and go around on the first solo. Safely going around straight ahead under control is a vital proficiency to have before going up alone.
Several years ago I was providing a Beech Baron initial checkout to a pilot from Guatemala. He had learned to fly in his home country, in a Cessna 172. During his first solo flight in the Skyhawk he flew his pattern a little wide; on downwind he flew over some drug smugglers who apparently assumed Antonio's Cessna was a government plane out searching for them. So they did what drug runners do -- they shot at the Skyhawk. Antonio's engine was hit and immediately lost power. He was able to glide back to land safely on the airport grounds, although he could not quite make it back to the runway.
Most of us don't have to worry about being shot down on our first solo flight. But Antono's experience teaches us two things: Don't fly your traffic pattern beyond gliding distance of the runway, and be ready for anything when piloting an airplane. Engines fail, the wind changes, pitot tubes get blocked, flaps won't go down, conflicting traffic blasts through the pattern, and sometimes you have to go around.
Most first solo flights are outwardly unremarkable flights, yet to the student (and instructor) they're wondrous, memorable events that are the true beginnings of a pilot's flying career. But "first solo" needs to wait until the student is fully prepared. Even if it wasn't required by FAR 61.87, no student should want to go up solo, and no instructor should permit it, until the student has learned these 15 things.
In fact, a review of 61.87 items would make a pretty good Flight Review for any of us, regardless of experience.
Fly safe, and have fun!