First solo — exciting for both the student and the CFI. For me, soloing a student is a source of great joy. I am helping someone fulfill their dream. I hope I never become one of those CFIs who treats first solo as “just another part” of training.
Per FAR 61.87, there are 15 things that a student must be proficient in before they are ready to solo. “How many hours does it take to be ready to solo?” is the most common question I hear. I reply with the words of Dutch, my first CFI, who told me in his gravely, deep voice, “It takes as long as it takes.”
Weather is critical for that first solo. Crosswinds cannot be more than 5 knots, and with no gusts. It must be daylight. The ceiling must be at least 2,000 feet, visibility at least three miles. These are my rules, not the FAA’s. As the student’s experience increases, the weather minimums will change. They are aware of this and respect my commitment to keeping them safe.
Before the student is allowed to solo, he or she must complete a pre-solo open book test. It’s not enough that the student knows the information, he or she must tell me where the information comes from. “Because my CFI told me so” is not answer. “FAR 91.105, or page 6 Cessna 172 POH” is an answer. The test includes questions about the traffic pattern and regulations for the airport the solo takes place at. We go through the test line by line because it’s my responsibility to make sure the student understands the answers.
Prior to allowing the student to solo, I make sure that they’ve flown to at least one other nearby airport, just in case they have to divert because of an unforeseen emergency.
They need to be comfortable on the radio. I’ve had some students who fly beautifully, but choke on radio calls. To get over this I fly the airplane and they fly the radio for a few trips around the pattern.
Consistency of performance is key. There are specific airspeeds and altitudes for downwind, base, and final.
Judgment also is key. I can show and tell the student what to do if the airplane is too high or too fast, but they need to be able to make these determinations on their own. Judgment is developed by experience. You can’t teach it.
When I am sure the student is ready to solo, I ask “Are you ready, or would you like one more lap in the pattern?” Sometimes they say they are ready. Others want that last lap. During that lap I sit there in what has become known as “toad mode” because I don’t say anything. I sit there like a toad in the sun.
When the student agrees he or she is ready, I sign their logbook and medical certificate, and record the limitations. I note the time on the Hobbs indicator so the student doesn’t pay for dual when I’m not aboard.
I step on to the ramp with a handheld radio. We do a radio check. We listen to the automated weather to make sure it meets the standards. I show the student the hand signal for “come to me” just in case I need to talk to them between landings, and a sweeping motion, like I am launching them off an aircraft carrier, which means “cleared to take off.”
When the student taxis away from me I start pacing on the ramp. I tell my students I will be nervous for them, they should focus on the flying.
As the airplane lifts off I often shout and cheer. I am witnessing the birth of a new pilot, the latest link a long chain of aviators. I key the mic on the handheld and utter the word “airspeed” in my best imitation of Dutch. This is a tradition, an homage to the man who taught me to fly and established my place in the chain. The day I soloed Dutch stood on the ramp with a hand-held radio. As the airplane lifted off I heard Dutch’s voice intone “airspeed.” That was the last thing he said until I finished my three takeoffs and landings. I was truly on my own.
I fly every nano-inch of the approach from the ground. I’m ready to step in on the radio if the student looks like they are in trouble.
One, two, three landings later the solo is done. I stand with my arms straight up over my head, the signal for the student to taxi to my position. The students are usually grinning ear to ear (as am I) as I climb in the airplane. There are exclamations of joy from the student and a seal bark (my signature call) from me.
After a student solos it is tradition to cut off the back of the shirt tail and write their name and the date of the solo. The shirt tails are often mounted on the wall of the flight school. The cutting of the shirt tail goes back to the days of tandem aircraft when the instructor tugged on the student’s shirt to get his or her attention. The cutting of the shirt represents that the student is ready to fly alone.
I have an additional ritual after solo: The gift of a toy tiger tail and call sign. Exxon gives away the tails as a promotional item at air shows. I usually pick up a few during AirVenture. The tail represents the tiger of flight, something so many people talk about taming but never do. I also give the student a call sign. This is not done lightly. The name speaks of the student’s skill in the aircraft, overcoming a challenge, or a character trait that has manifested during their training.
Bulldog was named for his tenacity. Big X (named for the mastermind of The Great Escape) was named for his leadership.
As I write this, I have just soloed Mike Beasley. Mike is an A&P. He was leery about flying (at first) because of a fear of heights. He conquered it. His call sign? Helios, after the Roman god of the sun, because like the sun god, he wants to be in the sky.
Why do I make such a big deal out of the first solo? Because I know that a great many people do not get past solo. Although they may want to become private pilots, life gets in the way.
Beasley’s experience was extra special because his mother was there to see it. She dropped by the school to pick him up. The chief instructor told her that Mike was out flying, and asked if she would like to watch him? He then led her out to the viewing area, not realizing that earlier in the day she had told me that she didn’t want to know when Mike was soloing, because it would make her a nervous wreck. She was on one side of the airport and I was on the other.
She told me that she watched the airplanes coming in, saw her son and then realized that I wasn’t in the airplane with him. There was a bit of a moment of concern, but then she realized that her son is actually a very good pilot. It’s hard to say who had a bigger smile on their face when the call sign was bestowed, mother or son. I’m reasonably certain neither one of them will forget that day.
And neither will I.
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