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Decisive moments: Knowing when a student is ready to solo

"He's ready." That's what I thought as I sat and watched the student pilot click off another smooth approach and landing.

Reflecting on what, for him, had been a sometimes-frustrating period of learning and practice, I marveled at how much his effort and determination had helped him to accomplish. A week before, this student had been indecisive and chronically high on final; now he was adjusting nicely to hold the proper glide. In the past, his touchdowns had been erratic and directionally inaccurate. But together we had found a "magic bullet," and now that problem was solved. It was time to let the fledgling leave the nest. And so began a ritual as old as flight instruction: taxiing off the runway to the ramp, briefing the student for his big event, and sending him back out alone.

Nowadays, the first solo is a much less dramatic event than it sometimes was years ago. With the modern requirement for the CFI to administer a presolo written exam, an alert trainee who knows that the regulatory requirements are in the bag can sense that the solo is just around the corner. It's harder now for a CFI to "spring" a solo on someone, which was sometimes useful if a student was the nervous type.

Student pilots approaching solo frequently ask: "How will you know when I am ready?" The answer goes beyond technical skill. A ready-for-solo student pilot inspires confidence. If you are just beginning your instructing career, or have not worked with many pilots in this tender phase, there are a few things to look for in a student pilot who is ready to take an airplane aloft alone.

Generally, readiness for solo involves satisfactory performance in three piloting skills: overall good judgment; the ability to make and execute decisions promptly; and a capacity to react to unexpected occurrences or emergencies coolly. Performance in all these areas must be consistent and predictable, not occasional and erratic.

A student pilot's evolution into a candidate for solo is easy to observe. Judgment, learned from you the instructor, manifests itself in the care shown during preflights, a growing ability to assess weather, and a knack for applying new insights to the next stage of training. Decision-making skills increase with knowledge and breed confidence. Well before solo, the student should be relying on his or her own decisions, and depending less on you, during routine operations. You as the CFI should find yourself becoming essentially an observer unless something out of the ordinary occurs. (But always remain alert.)

Students still make mistakes at this phase, but they are less severe, less frequent, and once made they are not repeated. It is actually encouraging to see the student err but promptly make corrections without comment from you. In a sense this is more reassuring than error-free flying because it shows you how the pilot deals with adversity. Does he get rattled and lose his cool? Or does he simply shake off the disappointment and make things right?

Go-arounds are one of the best operations to evaluate for solo readiness. If go-arounds are made smoothly and decisively, as soon as needed, without face-saving excuses about why the approach went awry, the candidate is demonstrating maturity as well as airmanship. If he has his emergency-landing field picked out before I happen to inquire where he would go if the engine were to quit, I am pleased. If distractions, such as background chatter on the frequency, a chart that slips to the floor, or an airplane taxiing onto the runway he is about to land on, are kept in proper perspective, I definitely feel a first solo coming on.

Another sign that the student is taking a serious approach to the proceedings is his asking for advice on what to do with the required solo hours. Not only does this indicate that he intends to continue learning, but it suggests that aimless sightseeing or shenanigans are not on his agenda. To reinforce this studious habit, I try to endorse the student's logbook, as soon as practicable, for solo flights to a familiar nearby airport for the purpose of practicing landings and takeoffs, as authorized by the FARs. A flight with a destination is always more rewarding than a flight to nowhere.

Where should the first solo, which I usually limit to the traditional, confidence-building, three takeoffs and full-stop landings, occur? The "where" decision can affect the "when" decision. I have used both the large, tower-controlled airport that is my home field and outlying nontowered GA airports for first solos. Mostly it depends on where the most favorable conditions (wind, traffic, runway conditions) exist that day. It also depends on the student's personality: some prefer controlled airspace for their first solo; others would rather fly the circuit at a quiet outlying airport. In either case, that is where we try to be positioned for the day's flying.

When the tower-controlled airport is the choice, I brief both the student and ATC about what is about to happen. I listen in on the proceedings from the ramp, and I have nothing but gratitude and admiration for the courteous and respectful way our controllers handle such flights. They, too, seem to celebrate the happy occasion. If you plan to solo students at a towered airport, getting acquainted with your local controllers is a diplomatic mission worth an hour of your time.

If the thought of authorizing a student to embark on a first solo makes you as apprehensive as your student may feel, don't be surprised, it's a giant responsibility that sets the CFI apart from other pilots. Never rush the moment, but embrace it enthusiastically when it arrives. It is one of aviation's, and life's, greatest joys.

By Dan Namowitz

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