First Solo Understanding the moment when the flight instructor must free the student.

(Caleb Woods via Unsplash)

“First solo.” That day when a flight instructor signs the student pilot certificate, endorses the logbook, and gets out of the airplane. It is arguably the most consequential day in an aspiring pilot’s career.

The lead-up to first solo typically happens like this: students begin working with an instructor on fundamental piloting skills. They learn how to control the airplane using pitch, bank, and airspeed; they learn to navigate to and from the airborne practice area; they learn how to communicate with their home airport traffic. And then they gain the skill necessary to successfully land the airplane. Touch-and-go is the term given to the practice of taking off and landing. The student stays in the airport traffic pattern and practices the art of taking off and landing. All the while under the direct supervision of their certified flight instructor. Sitting next to them in the airplane. Able and ready to take complete control of the flight at any time. Take-off is the easy part, relatively speaking. It is landing that requires practice.

Jeff was right on time. We were doing touch-and-goes one day.  Seven, eight, nine trips around the pattern. Over and again, working out the issues as they appeared.

Learning to land is like perfecting a golf swing or pitching a curve ball. Or baking cookies. It is a mixture of art and science. The complexities of distance, speed, and altitude combine with the changing wind direction and speed. Mental processes mesh with fine motor skills mesh with the control yoke, and the pilot becomes one with the machine operating in a dynamic environment. No two landings are the same.

First comes the science: the physics of landing dictates the procedure.  Pilots must know the steps that lead to a successful landing and when to apply them. They follow the prescribed steps to control the airplane’s configuration, speed, and flight path. Then comes the art. Being able to evaluate the actual performance of the airplane in light of the desired outcome. Does it look right?

The complexities of distance, speed, and altitude combine with the changing wind direction and speed. Mental processes mesh with fine motor skills mesh with the control yoke, and the pilot becomes one with the machine operating in a dynamic environment. No two landings are the same.

The instructor follows along, watching for deviations from the desired condition. Is the student at the proper altitude and airspeed? Is the airplane configured correctly? How does it look as the student approach the point of intended landing? Does it look right?

More to the point, does the student see what the instructor sees? Is he taking the proper steps? Is she making the necessary corrections?

Is their aiming point in the correct position? This is a point on the runway that pilots use to orient the flight path such that they land on the first part of the surface. Is the point moving up or down the windshield? If so, the airplane is moving off the desired descent profile. If not corrected, the airplane will land beyond or before the point of intended landing. The aiming point should stay fixed just above the instrument panel, just above the engine cowl, in the lower portion of the windshield. In similar fashion, the imaginary extended runway centerline should line up under the pilot’s right foot so that the airplane is aligned to land down the middle of the runway and not off to one side or the other.

Does it look right? If the answer is yes, the approach may continue. If not, a correction is necessary. As the approach brings the airplane closer to the ground, the less opportunity there is for making effective corrections. Closer to the ground, corrections can become more extreme, often resulting in an approach that is erratic and unstable. At some point, the proper course of action is to abort and set up for another try. To go around.



If it does not look right, go around

I had been on this kid to go around. All sorts of things can trigger a go-around. Too high. Too low. Too much airspeed. Not enough airspeed. An unexpected gust of wind. Anything that causes the pattern and approach to be less than what is desired—go around and do it again. To be successful, one must get it right before trying to force the airplane, a machine that really prefers to be flying, onto the ground.

Jeff would not do it. He would not volunteer to go around, so I did it for him. On one approach the airspeed was 20 knots too fast: “Go around.” On the next, Jeff was struggling to get lined up over the extended centerline of the runway: “Go around.” A few touch-and-goes later, he was fighting to get the correct pitch attitude 30 feet above the runway: “Go around.” By the end of the lesson, Jeff was getting frustrated. We taxied the airplane back to the ramp and shut the engine down. We opened the doors to let some air circulate through the cabin, but Jeff did not move to unbuckle his lap belt or shoulder harness. Instead, he put his head down and spoke up. “I know what you want me to do,” he said with a mixture of defiance and resignation. “You want me to go around. But the way I look at it, good pilots don’t go around. And I want to be a good pilot.”

“Good pilots know when to go around,” I replied.

“I think if you are really good, you don’t have to go around,” came the retort.

Closer to the ground, corrections can become more extreme, often resulting in an approach that is erratic and unstable. At some point, the proper course of action is to abort and set up for another try. To go around.

There is a delicate mixture of ego and humility that one looks for in an aspiring pilot. If the person sitting next to you does not think he can handle the airplane in just about any situation, if she does not look forward to increasing challenges, then you begin to wonder if the person is cut out to be sitting in the left seat of the airplane. The ego part Jeff had. He wanted to be the pilot-in-command, and a good one at that. But he had to know when he was in over his head. Forcing a landing out of a poorly executed approach does not always lead to disaster, but the odds are immeasurably higher that something bad will happen. And the attitude extends to a lot of other situations and considerations.

I was running out of ways to get my point across to Jeff. I simply could not let him go solo until I was certain that he would not try to salvage a poor approach into a disastrous landing. He would not crash an airplane under my supervision.

“Jeff, if you don’t go around, you will not solo.”

We let the conversation drop and proceeded to secure the airplane and go inside. After reviewing the rest of the flight, we made plans to meet again the next day.

On the next afternoon, we were again practicing touch-and-goes. I was looking for a level of consistency and independence that would enable me to get out of the airplane and allow Jeff to fly solo. The first few patterns were okay, but he was not yet performing to the level I needed to see. Each circuit was better than the last, but the errors were kind of all over the place. On what might have been the best-looking pattern of the lesson, Jeff somewhat sarcastically called out, “go around.” He applied full power, pitched up into a climb attitude and continued upwind for another circuit. Doh! In my head I was screaming, “What was wrong with that?!” And then I understood.



If you do not go around, you will not solo

Yes, but did he have to abort that particular attempt? Jeff brought the airplane around for another landing. This time it was…different. Not the picture of perfection, but well managed. Competent. Somewhere in that moment, Jeff began the transition from being a student to pilot-in-command. We concluded the flight and scheduled another lesson for the next day.

On that lesson, I evaluated all the patterns and landings with an eye toward the moment that I would direct Jeff to exit the runway, bring the airplane to a stop and shut down so that I could get out and watch from the ground. My sense that Jeff was truly acting as pilot-in-command carried over from the previous day and throughout the flight I remained silent. At no time did the flight warrant a go-around, and Jeff did not artificially call for one.

At some point, the instructor must let go. You must get out of the airplane and let the student take full control of the flight.

On the next circuit, I directed Jeff to call for a full-stop and a taxi-back. This would alert the tower controller that we wanted to exit the runway and return to the departure end for another series. Jeff landed and turned off the runway. Once the airplane came to a stop, I switched the radio to the ground control frequency and keyed the mic, “Ground, we’d like to taxi back for take-off and shut down for first solo.” This informed the controllers that I would be getting out of the airplane and that Jeff would be going alone for the first time.

We completed the taxi back and shut down the airplane so that I could safely get out. Before doing so, I signed my name next to the solo endorsement on Jeff’s Student Pilot Certificate and in his logbook. Then I unbuckled my seat belt and stood up to step out of the airplane. I reminded Jeff to perform three touch-and-goes and to be sure to pick me up before heading back to the parking area.

I got out of the airplane and walked over to the grassy area that ran parallel to the runway Jeff would be using. I turned on the handheld radio transceiver that I had brought with me so I could listen in. Standing there, I watched Jeff start the airplane and request permission for take-off. “Tower, 547 Papa Charlie, holding short of runway three-zero right, ready for departure, closed pattern. First solo.” The tower controller replied, “547 Papa Charlie, runway 30 right, cleared for take-off, right traffic.”

With nothing to do but watch, my imagination took over. What would I do? What could I do, if something went wrong? These were great and useless questions. My work was done, and I hoped I had done enough.

Jeff taxied onto the runway, applied full power, and accelerated down the runway. With nothing to do but watch, I followed along in my mind. I provided oral instructions to the light breeze that was present, coaching all the way. “Smoothly apply full power, add a little right rudder to keep straight, check the engine gauges and flight instrumentation: ‘needles normal, gauges green, airspeed alive.’” Standing in the field, I recited the callouts with Jeff, or so I imagined. As the airspeed reached what I estimated to be 65 knots, I whispered, “Gently ease back on the control yoke and pitch the nose up to just above the horizon…that’s it. As you climb, maintain a ground track along the centerline of the runway. Now, right turn onto the crosswind leg of the pattern.”

The traffic pattern is basically a rectangular pattern around the airport. Normally, airplanes take off and land into the prevailing wind, so the initial leg is upwind. When the airplane reaches about 500 feet the pilot makes a 90-degree turn onto the crosswind leg, in this case, a right-hand turn. They continue to climb to the pattern altitude of 800 feet, achieve a proper distance from the runway, about a half mile, and turn right onto the downwind leg, heading toward the approach end of the runway. At midfield, the pilot checks the fuel, “fuel pump on, gas on fullest tank.”

All this time, I was standing in the grass next to the runway, watching my student proceed around the pattern, watching for any sign of difficulty or mishap. With nothing to do but watch, my imagination took over. What would I do? What could I do, if something went wrong? These were great and useless questions. My work was done, and  I hoped I had done enough. For the instructor, first solo is kind of like flying a kite and cutting the string. I was powerless to affect any kind of change in the trajectory or outcome of the flight. It was now up to Jeff. Somewhere along the downwind leg, the tower controller came over the radio, “547 Papa Charlie, runway 30 left, cleared for touch-and-go.” “547 Papa Charlie, clear for touch-and-go,” Jeff replied. “He sounds okay,” I thought to myself.

As the airplane approached the point on downwind abeam the point of intended landing, I quietly continued my instruction to the wind, “Reduce power, hold pitch and let the airspeed bleed off.” As I listened, the drone of the engine became quiet, indicating Jeff had indeed reduced the throttle. “Now, flaps to takeoff and pitch for 85.” On cue, the nose of the airplane dipped. I could not really see if the flaps were properly extended halfway, but I assumed so. The airplane was now descending. As it reached the point about 45 degrees from the intended point of landing I called out, “turn base.”

Base-leg is the third leg of the rectangular pattern and takes the airplane toward the extended centerline of the runway and the final approach leg. The 45-degree mark is the visual reference for the pilot that helps him have enough distance on final to line up, descend, and land.

As if it were possible to be any more focused on what was happening, my attention increased. This was where things could get more interesting. Jeff was getting ready to land. The pattern appeared to be going as planned. From my vantage, Jeff was doing everything right. As the airplane neared the extended centerline of the runway, I said, “turn final.” On cue, the right wing dipped, and the airplane arced onto final approach. “Flaps full,” and I imagined the flaps coming down. “Wings level. Maintain the final approach speed. Adjust for the wind. That’s it. Good. Looking good.” My instructions belied the intensity of my desire as I looked on, and my body language, bending and twisting this way and that, as if I could connect to the airplane and have it pitch and turn according to my will, indicated just how much nervous energy was pent up inside me. The airplane was less than 100 feet off the ground, and I visualized the landing spot based on the descent profile. It looked good. Everything looked as it should, but now was the moment of truth. Would he round out the descent at the proper altitude and gently close the throttle? Would he continue the round out into a full flare and allow the airplane to settle softly onto the runway, all the while keeping the direction of travel in line with and directly over the centerline of the runway? I am sure I was holding my breath at this point. Suddenly, I heard the engine roar back to life—full power. The airplane accelerated, the nose came up, and the airplane began to gain altitude. As the airplane sailed by me continuing upward, I heard Jeff announce on the radio, “547 Papa Charlie, go around.”  The tower controller responded, “547 Papa Charlie, roger. Right traffic.”

My mind was racing. He went around! Wait. Why was he going around? Everything looked fine, what happened? What was wrong? Is he okay? What if he cannot commit to land the airplane? I watched as the airplane repeated the pattern: right on crosswind, another right on downwind. The radio in my hand was getting slippery from my death-grip and I began to consider in earnest what I might be able to say to Jeff over the radio that would help him get safely back onto the ground. As I thought about ways to talk him down, the clearance came over the radio. “547 Papa Charlie, runway 30-left, cleared for touch-and-go.” Without hesitation or any hint of fear, Jeff replied, “clear touch-and-go, 547 Papa Charlie.” “He did not sound frazzled,” I thought. Abeam touchdown, the engine became quiet and the nose dipped, beginning of the descent. Right turn on base then onto final both happened where I thought that they should. Once again, the approach looked good, but now I was worried. Would he land? Could he do it?

My instructions belied the intensity of my desire as I looked on, and my body language, bending and twisting this way and that, as if I could connect to the airplane and have it pitch and turn according to my will, indicated just how much nervous energy was pent up inside me.

This time the airplane continued through the round out into the nose-high flare that allowed the rear wheels, the main landing gear, to touch down first. Then, the nose wheel gently came down and the airplane was firmly on the ground. Before I had a chance to wonder if Jeff was finished and would stop there or continue to complete the three prescribed touch-and-goes, the engine once again roared to life and the airplane was accelerating down the runway toward the next takeoff.

Now, once that first circuit is complete, the job of the instructor gets much easier. I began to notice what a beautiful afternoon it was. Clear blue sky, a light breeze, and a perfect temperature. Here I was, out in the grass in the middle of an airport watching airplanes take off and land. I was watching my student take off and land. By himself. As the circuits continued, I became more relaxed. 547 Papa Charlie came around for a second landing, powered up, and proceeded for the third and final circuit. When Jeff was somewhere on downwind I heard him call, “Tower, 547 Papa Charlie, full stop.” Jeff’s voice had the tone and the confidence of a pilot. “547 Papa Charlie, cleared to land,” came the tower’s reply. This time, he touched down and allowed the airplane to roll out, applying enough brake pressure to reduce the speed so that he could make the turn onto the intersecting taxiway. The tower controller came back on, “547 Papa Charlie, turn left taxiway Alpha. You can shut down and pick up your instructor there. Congratulations!”

“547 Papa Charlie, thanks. Left turn on Alpha and shut down,” Jeff replied.

I walked through the grass over to where Jeff was waiting. As I neared the airplane, Jeff opened the door and waved. I walked around to the other side, opened my door, and climbed in, cheering all the way. Once in the airplane, I greeted him with a high-five and a hearty pat on the back.

That is when Jeff proclaimed, “It was just like you said!”

Uh, oh. What did I say? “Oh really,” I replied, “how so?”

“’If it doesn’t look right, go around,’ you said. It didn’t look right, so I went around!”

The excitement in his voice matched the smile on his face, and I knew for certain that he had learned the lesson of a few days before. But there was more. In that moment I recognized in Jeff a quality that had not been there before. I had already seen his ability to control the airplane; that allowed me to send him on his first solo. This was different. The quality of his statement communicated a much deeper understanding of what it meant to be a good pilot, to be pilot-in-command. His declaration suggested a confidence born in the understanding that a strong ego must be grounded in an equally powerful sense of humility.

We taxied back to the parking area, secured the airplane, and went inside to finish our paperwork. First solo is a monumental milestone in a pilot’s career; indeed, it may be the biggest and most memorable step. But it is just one step. I told Jeff to savor the moment and celebrate the accomplishment, and then get back to work. We would meet in a few days to continue his journey toward becoming a professional pilot.

As I drove home from the airport, I found myself engulfed in a mixture of emotions. I felt immensely proud of what Jeff had accomplished that day. Proud of how far he had come. Proud of the kind of pilot he was becoming. Along with the pride came a profound sense of gratitude. What a joy it was for me to be part of his journey. What a privilege it was to stand in a grassy field watching airplanes take off and land, to witness my own student complete his first solo flight, and to call that work.