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Training Tip: Surprised on a soloTraining Tip: Surprised on a solo

A student pilot was soloing a Piper PA-28 in an airport traffic pattern when the tower threw him a curveball.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

Not only did the student pilot lack experience needed to comply with the new instructions, but he seemed uncertain what to do next.

His flight instructor, standing nearby and monitoring the fast-developing scenario on a handheld radio, decided on an unusual intervention. Could there have been prevention instead?

The student pilot had been flying a downwind leg for a 5,900-foot runway when the controller, who also was handling an arriving jet, instructed the trainee to proceed instead for a shorter, narrower, parallel runway.

“The controller didn't say they were changing his assigned runway,” the flight instructor wrote in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, noting that he thought the controller had misspoken.

The student, also confused, “tried to verify which runway, but didn't get a response.”

When he did, it confirmed the instructions to land on the shorter runway.

This worried the CFI, who did not yet consider the student ready to use the short runway.

The CFI hoped the student would initiate a go-around, but as the trainer got closer to the ground, it became clear that this was not going to happen.

With time and ideas running out, the CFI called the tower on the handheld radio and requested that the trainee be directed to go around.

The flight found its way to a safe resolution when the student pilot eventually was cleared to land on the longer runway. The instructor made apologies to the tower chief for bursting in on the frequency on the handheld radio, but believed the situation required emergency action.

It’s impossible to anticipate everything that could go wrong on a solo flight. Surprises most routinely confronted include changing weather, increased traffic, or a mechanical or electrical problem.

Safety is enhanced when key information about a flight is known by all concerned. If an instructor considers a runway off limits to a soloing student pilot, the trainee should know the limitation and be prepared to decline a landing clearance.

Even better is to inform air traffic control at the outset of your flight that you are a student pilot on a solo.

As this AOPA Ask ATC video explains, telling the controller that you are a student pilot will remind the tower not to toss curveballs, like short runways and last-minute clearance amendments, your way.

Share your thoughts about this scenario with fellow pilots at

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Flight Instructor, Flight Training, Student
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