first soloHave you ever wondered exactly what your instructor is waiting for before he lets you solo?According to the FAA, you must be able to:

  • Make competent go/no-go decisions for every flight.
  • Determine the location of all other traffic while in the pattern.
  • Establish and maintain a stabilized approach.
  • Determine wind direction and make proper rudder/aileron inputs.
  • Manage the aircraft’s energy so landings occur at the touchdown point.
  • Land with and then maintain the proper pitch attitude.
  • Keep the longitudinal axis parallel to and over the runway centerline.
  • Keep the centerline between the main wheels throughout all takeoffs and landings.
  • Respond correctly and positively to any abnormality or emergency.
  • Communicate properly and effectively with other traffic or ATC.

If you cannot perform these functions without any guidance or assistance from your instructor, you are not ready for solo.

When your instructor has determined that your training and written test are completed and documented and meet the standards for solo, that the required logbook entries have been made, and your student pilot certificate has been signed, then you can solo.

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All that practice and all those maneuvers? They all have a reason, and if you don’t understand the reason, ask your CFI.  Stuff’s gotta get done! But that first time in the airplane all by yourself? Totally worth it!

Once you solo, everything else is pretty much downhill. You’ll start on your cross-country and night flights,  do some hood work (as in view-limiting devices like foggles) for some instrument practice,  and start prepping for your check ride. Your first solo is a major step, really the biggest milestone in flying. So, how does it happen and what can you expect?

First of all, you probably won’t be completely surprised when the day comes. Your instructor will probably think you’re ready before you do, but if you find yourself doing nothing but touch and goes during your flying sessions,  chances are the big day is usually fairly close.

Still, there is almost always some sort of shock factor when, as you taxi off the runway after a smooth landing, your CFI asks for your logbook. It will only take you a second or so to realize he is endorsing you for solo flight and with that realization, another one suddenly rushes in on you- your next takeoff will be just you and the airplane- your first solo flight!

Your CFI will jump out and tell you, “Do three laps in the pattern, make all your landings full stop and taxi back.” In other words, no solo touch and goes quite yet. This gives you time to relax and collect your thoughts between each takeoff. As you taxi to the hold short line, you will be acutely aware of the empty space in the seat next to you. You are totally on your own.

You will taxi onto the runway and line up on the center line and just for a second, you’ll wonder to yourself if you are truly ready. You are. You are actually flying on your instructor’s license and he won’t let you go without being absolutely certain that you can handle it. So you advance the throttle and easily keep the plane centered on the runway.  Trust me, you’re not going to have anything but nearly perfect weather on the first time.

Your first surprise will be that you seem to be accelerating a little faster and achieve rotation speed sooner than you did just a few minutes ago with your instructor. That’s because, of course, you no longer are carrying the extra weight of your CFI and in a small airplane, the absence of another body in the cockpit is a significant change in the payload.

Your next surprise will how quickly you jump off the runway and how much more eagerly the airplane is climbing out. You were probably advised this would happen, but even so- wow! It’s going to feel like a different airplane for just a few seconds before you make the adjustment. After that, the climb out, cross-wind, and down-wind legs will go like clockwork. After all, all you are doing on down-wind is keeping your airplane level and staying a set distance from the runway. I have to admit, as I crossed mid-field on my first solo downwind, I remember thinking, “What am I doing up here? I can’t fly an airplane!”

But of course, I could, and so will you. In fact, you will be as focused and as sharp as you ever will be in an airplane. You’ll make your base turn and maybe even make the proper radio call, but let’s be honest- it’s all about getting back down safely, right? As far as you’re concerned, your radio work is the least of your concerns.

And that goes double for your instructor, who has been standing on the ramp with a hand-held radio, rotating in place to watch every bit of your travel.  Your CFI is constantly evaluating and anticipating: “There’s the turn, just on time, perfect! Are the flaps down? I don’t see the flaps…no, there they are, just as trained, she’s doing a good job, wait…is that too much flaps? Not enough? Did she just hit some turbulence? It looked like a little bump when she was coming over the tree line, hope she remembers that happens sometimes…ah, flaps look good, speed is good, I like the angle, she must have a good picture there, looking good to the threshold…get it down,get it down,get it down, don’t float, a little more flare…nice!”

But, nothing on the radio. Your CFI doesn’t want to distract you except in the direst of circumstances. The truth is, you are the one flying the airplane, and even with your limited experience, you have a better idea of how to fly that particular airplane at that particular time than anyone else standing on the ground.

Your next two circuits in the pattern are really just icing on the cake. You’ve proven to yourself and everyone else that you can safely get into an airplane, take off, and land all by yourself. You have more boxes to check off, but you really are a pilot now.