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Instructor studies students, predicts solosInstructor studies students, predicts solos

After studying student pilots for more than 50 years, flight instructor John Dougherty says he can predict when most are competent to solo.

The octogenarian working out of Rochester Air Center in Rochester, New York, calculated the average number of takeoffs and landings across a diverse cross section of pilots and ability levels. He determined most pilots are competent to control an aircraft on their own after 55 takeoffs and landings.

Though there’s not much age correlation, he has noted a difference between the genders.

He said it may initially take women a little longer to catch up to men, but “when they do arrive it’s a standoff with men. They [females] have different perceptions.”

His observations are based on flight training he performed for the Navy in the 1990s. There was a desire for potential Navy fliers, both male and female, to begin their flight training before they were dispatched to Florida’s Naval Air Station Pensacola. The objectives were for them to earn 25 hours of flight time, which included a solo cross-country journey, before reporting to Pensacola.

“We had to solo these people within 17 hours or they were out of it,” said Dougherty. “I was always able to get them soloed in that time period but it took the women longer to get to it. They came up to 14 hours and then it was crunch time, but they did it.”

The earliest he was able to solo a pilot was after seven hours. He said good physical coordination was an asset, along with attention to detail, and being able to focus.

“My objective is to get most of them soloed between seven and 14 hours. That’s pretty quick,” the 89-year-old 18,000 hour pilot said. “Some of the older guys soloed just as quick as the younger ones.”

He said he’s had students go to 20 hours or more before he felt they had enough confidence to fly without an instructor as back up. “Even people who don’t have the greatest skill level in the beginning, after they solo they kind of catch up, to a degree.”

What’s his secret? With 14,000 hours of dual instruction, Dougherty said he learned early on not to talk too much when he is occupying the right seat. “I’m evaluating them the whole time and I found out the less you talk the better off you are.”

He’s noted some trends since 1951 when he learned to fly with VORs and E6B flight computers rather than today's digital flight instruments and electronic tablets.

Pilots embracing today’s computer-rich environment have an advantage over those who don’t, he said, because they are more familiar with modern navigation options. Instant situational awareness can be an advantage if it can be correlated to sectional charts.

On the other hand, Dougherty said pilots paying more attention to electronics instead of learning to “fly the airplane” might struggle with basic piloting skills like dead reckoning.

It doesn’t come as a surprise to him that pilots relying solely on computer skills are “not used to drawing a line on a chart and coming up with wind direction angle, magnetic variation,” and other rudimentary abilities.

He has a cure for that. “I make them take out their map, a pencil, and a straight edge and plot a course,” Dougherty said. “Oh, they can do it after I tell them how.”

Despite thousands of hours of experience studying the habits of hundreds of students, Dougherty said he didn’t want to be considered “any kind of expert, because I’m not. I’m just a plain ordinary flight instructor.”

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Pilot Training and Certification, Flight Instructor, Student

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