License to Learn

Longing for solo

December 1, 2010

Rod MachadoWhen country and western singers lament long enough, they’re often inspired to sing songs with snappy titles such as, “I’m So Miserable Without You It’s Almost Like Having You Here.” While I’m not about to make my thoughts go airborne, I do lament that student pilots seem to be taking longer to solo than they did many years ago. Perhaps this explains why some of them are singing, “I’m Feelin’ So Low Cause I Ain’t Nearin’ Solo.”

In Barrett Studley’s 1936 issue of Practical Flight Training, he states: “Ten hours of dual instruction is considered the requisite amount to enable a student of average aptitude to solo safely.” Studley’s assertion assumes that students trained an hour a day or every other day (but no more than an hour at a time). Based on the anecdotal evidence I’ve collected over the years, today’s average student seems to be soloing in the 20-plus-hour range.

My point is not to suggest that instructors don’t teach as well as they once did. In fact, the caliber of instruction students receive today is better than ever. Yet, despite the higher quality instruction, the time to solo has increased. Why is that? My suspicion is that, over the years, we’ve forgotten that it is actually possible to safely solo the average student in the 10-plus-hour range.

Wait! Hold on, Jet Jackson. You were racing off to tell me about all the reasons why students might take longer to solo these days, weren’t you? Don’t deny it. You’re right, of course. There are so many reasons why time-to-solo might increase (e.g., student age, busy airports, complex airspace, glass cockpits). So let me handle a few objections right up front.

It should be self evident that modern training airplanes are no more difficult to physically fly than older training airplanes. Consider that Studley’s students all trained in taildraggers, which are more challenging to land than tricycle-gear airplanes. A technologically advanced aircraft (TAA) such as a Cirrus SR22 is as easy to handle as a Cessna 172. Granted, if a primary student is taught in a TAA using a strategy known as FITS (FAA/Industry Training Standards), then flight training times, including time to solo, are usually lengthened. TAA students, however, are not the ones being discussed here. My concern is with the average student pilot, in a typical training airplane or light sport airplane, who trains two to three times a week yet still takes 20-plus hours to solo. What’s happening here? Perhaps the modern flight training syllabus provides a clue to what we have forgotten over the years.

Looking at some of today’s most popular flight training syllabi reminds me of Spandex on some middle-age bicyclists—the contents threaten to rupture the container. Over the years, more than a few flight training syllabi have expanded to accommodate the personal wishes, desires, peculiarities, and proclivities of every pilot consulted on their contents. One syllabus I looked at had a pre-solo student pilot spending 30 minutes in flight learning the finer points of magnetic compass navigation. Another syllabus offered by a major university has pre-solo students flying ILS approaches on their sixth lesson (before completing even one lesson on landings). Huh? Our intentions to teach as much as possible is noble, however, we seem to have forgotten that a private pilot certificate is a license to learn, not a testament to having learned everything. Perhaps we need to whittle down our syllabi as a means of soloing students in the shortest but safest period of time. What’s the payoff for doing so? It keeps most students motivated and committed to flight training.

Helping students solo early (but safely) means emphasizing the basic stick-and-rudder skills necessary to fly an airplane safely, while forgoing anything that detracts from this objective (i.e., the magnetic compass and ILS approaches). Studley’s minimalist syllabus outline shows instructors how to do this. He recommends the first 10 flight hours be spent on taxiing, straight flying, turns, glides, slow flight, stalls and spins, S-turns, emergencies, spirals, takeoffs, approaches, and landings. An instructor can provide additional training as required, based on the environment or the regulations under which the flight is conducted.

Can the average student safely solo an airplane today in 10-plus hours? Is such a thing actually possible? It sure seems to be, especially at several of the accelerated private pilot schools across the country. MN Aviation in Minnesota is an excellent example. MN Aviation offers a 21-day private pilot curriculum and MN’s instructors regularly solo average students in 10 to12 hours of flight time. How do they do it? The answer is that they’ve retained and capitalized on the historical concept that teaching students to fly safely and competently in minimal time is actually possible to do.

Perhaps the words of one flight instructor who teaches at an accelerated school said it best: “I didn’t think I could teach someone to fly safely in such a short period of time until I discovered other instructors who were doing it.”

Some flight schools teach 80-hour private pilot courses with lengthy times to solo, and I respect their reason for doing so. My intent is not to change what they want to do. It’s only to remind them what the average student is capable of doing.

Visit the author’s blog . Rod Machado is a CFI and aviation speaker with more than 8,000 flight hours.