By David Jack Kenny
It’s probably the most difficult decision flight instructors routinely have to make: How can you be sure that a student is ready to solo? Experience certainly helps, as does the use of a standardized curriculum (whether published or your own) to help make sure that student’s training hasn’t skipped anything important. Still, a first solo endorsement always involves some leap of faith.
Once the first solo’s successfully completed, tension begins to ease. Still, it’s natural to wonder whether the student has really picked up everything he or she might need to cope with the unexpected, and unexpected situations do come up even within the carefully controlled envelope prescribed for student solos. Different kinds of students present different dilemmas. With the ones who have fought a long battle to master crucial details—like, say, landing—the worry is whether everything really has, at long last, been dialed in. With exceptional students who learn everything as quickly as it can be taught, one might wonder whether they’ve had enough exposure to things going less than perfectly to handle any departures from the script.
By and large, the system works pretty well. Accidents do happen, but more than half are bad landings, and fatalities are rare. Only seven or eight fatal accidents happen during student solos in a typical year, and that number has been coming down: from 15 in 2003 to just six in 2010. Unfortunately, though, “rare” isn’t quite “nonexistent.”
The student who took off from Sturgis, S.D., on Veterans Day of 2011 appears to have been one of the exceptional ones. The 57-year-old’s first solo had come on his eleventh lesson after just 9.2 hours of dual instruction in the same Cessna 172. Two of those 11 flights had included stalls and stall recoveries; four had involved intensive pattern work with a total of 46 individual landings. His logbook recorded his first four-tenths of an hour as pilot in command on Nov. 10. The next morning, he came back to do it again.
Conditions were good: clear skies, unrestricted visibility, and five-knot winds from the southwest. At 11 degrees Celsius, it was even comfortably warm, at least for autumn in South Dakota. According to the airport manager, who watched the flight, the first landing was “pretty good.” On the second, though, the student apparently flared high and landed hard enough to give the manager cause to worry about a prop strike. Apparently the propeller stayed clear of the concrete, though, and the Skyhawk completed the “stop” phase of its planned stop-and-go.
After you’ve survived something very nearly going wrong, it makes sense to stop, take stock, and maybe calm yourself. It might not even be a bad idea to pack it in for the day. This student would have done well to taxi back to the hold-short line, take stock, and reorganize. Instead, he opened the throttle for the next takeoff, but he never retracted the flaps. After the Skyhawk lifted off, its pitch attitude increased smoothly until it reached about 60 degrees. Then the left wing stalled and the airplane spun in, killing the student pilot.
Typical private pilot curricula don’t include full-flaps departure stalls, so it’s not surprising he didn’t automatically know how to react to one. However, flap position is certainly called out on the pre-takeoff checklist, so it’s a good bet that either the pilot didn’t run it, or went through the motions without really processing what he saw. Somehow, he missed that particular item.
Fatal accidents during solos by 10-hour student pilots are rare, but other aspects of this one are more widely relevant. Breakdowns in procedure—gear-up landings, errors setting fuel mixtures or selector valves—become more likely after go-arounds or other last-second changes of plan. Once any immediate emergency has passed, close attention to the relevant checklist is more than just advisable.