The first solo

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Photo by Daniel Tuttle on Unsplash

ANYONE FOLLOWING this blog will have noticed a few “first solo” announcements recently. There seems to be a seasonality about these things – none for a while then three come at once. But that got me to thinking about how you can tell a student is ready for a first solo flight. Here’s a checklist I wrote some years ago about the skills I want to see before authorizing a first solo flight by a student:

You can manage your approach profile correctly

You can get your speed under control and close to where you want it, while achieving a sensible and stable rate of descent. You control airspeed with pitch: if you’re too fast, you raise the nose and retrim. If you’re too slow, you lower the nose, and retrim.

On final approach, instead of worrying about your rate of descent, you think about your descent angle. You can see the runway and are able to judge, visually, the point towards which you’re descending.

If your chosen aim-point is descending away from the horizon you recognize you’re going to be too high. You reduce the power or increase the drag. You don’t lower the nose to try to steepen your descent.

On the other hand If your chosen aim point is rising towards the horizon you are going to come in short and you add an appropriate amount of power. You know that raising the nose won’t stretch your approach; it will simply cause your airspeed to decay – not what you need.

You are able to execute a go-around correctly and promptly, and can decide when it’s appropriate

You apply full power, pitch for level flight, then if the flaps are extended you start to retract them. Then make sure the airspeed is high enough to start a climb (think about your usual airspeed soon after takeoff) and pitch the nose to the horizon to get the aircraft going up. At an appropriate airspeed you retract the remaining flaps and climb away.

You know the basic emergency checklists

You have in your head a good idea of what to do for a fire on start, an engine fire in flight, a cabin fire, an electrical fire, wing fire. These are all listed in the Approved Flight Manual.

You can follow instructions from ATC

You have the ability to do as you are told, but also to tell ATC what you need. Your basic radio procedure is good and you’re not afraid to query an instruction that you don’t understand or you think will put you in danger.

You can manage a communications failure

Radios and headsets are not infallible, and you’re still a pilot even if you can’t talk to or hear anyone. You know the meaning of the different light signals, and are ready to keep flying the aircraft to a successful landing even if you can’t communicate with ATC.

You can preserve your life in the event of an unexpected loss of power

You’re ready to pitch for best glide speed and steer the aircraft towards somewhere safe; you can maintain control and carry out a landing if a flat area is available. Landing on a runway is nice, but not required for a successful outcome.

You can recognize and land in a (gentle) crosswind

You don’t need to be told by ATC or look at the wind-sock to know when you’ll be landing with a crosswind. For all landings you use the rudder to put the nose straight and the ailerons to prevent the aircraft drifting off to one side or the other. If there is a crosswind you’re ready to touchdown with the upwind wheel first, and roll the ailerons smoothly to full into the wind for the rollout.

If you have these skills, then you’re ready to fly solo!


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