It's no secret that landing an airplane can be tricky. Many students find it difficult to learn, which means their instructors sometimes find it difficult to teach. It's a complicated problem when you try to break it down. Feeling out a pitch attitude that will keep the airplane level until it has bled off enough airspeed to quit flying wouldn't be too hard if it didn't require constantly increasing back pressure; get that wrong and you'll either dive toward the runway or balloon. Meanwhile, you've also got to start all this at an altitude from which the ship will settle onto the runway while the lift stops happening rather than falling like a dropped Steinway. Concentrating on all this, it's easy to forget that you still need to pay attention to which direction the nose is pointed and whether both sides of the runway are maintaining a respectful distance. It's a lot to ask of someone with maybe 15 or 20 hours of flight time, 90 percent of which by necessity was not spent perfecting actual landings.
Learning to land helicopters is difficult, too, but for completely different reasons. A normal landing is an extension of a stable hover. Gradually reducing collective then allows the machine to descend to the ground while the rotors maintain full rpm. Control authority doesn't change, and there's next to no horizontal velocity in any direction. Learning to hover is the hard part. Once the student can consistently make the aircraft stay in one place without wandering around, bringing it in for a landing is almost an afterthought. (Run-on landings, of course, are another matter.)
Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that fixed-wing students are more susceptible than helicopter students to landing accidents on their solo flights; but the extent of that difference might raise some eyebrows. There are a couple of ways to measure it: For example, landings on student solos were the setting for 42 percent of all primary training accidents in airplanes but less than three percent of those in helicopters. Since a larger share of fixed-wing accidents happen during primary training to begin with, the difference is even more pronounced when measured in terms of all instructional accidents: 29 percent of those in airplanes versus just over one percent in helicopters. The best gauge, though, is relative to the number of pilots involved. We don't know whether dropout rates are similar in both categories, but we do know that everyone who earns a private pilot certificate was once a student. FAA records report having issued a little more than nine times as many in the airplane category as for helicopters (9.27 times for those of you keeping score) between 2002 and 2011. Over the same period, student pilots suffered more than 110 times as many solo landing accidents in airplanes.
Fixed-wing flight training has traditionally been divided into three phases, of which the first is geared primarily toward preparing the student to solo. Given the difficulty of the challenge and the amount of aluminum that's getting bent as a result, it may be time to question whether solo flight shouldn't be moved later in the curriculum—after completion of the dual cross-countries and increased mastery of crosswind technique and ground reference maneuvers, among other things. The sharper and more instinctive the student's control of the physical airplane, the easier it should be to keep up with the aircraft during those hectic few seconds when it's getting ready to kiss the pavement. While we haven't been able to pin it down, it seems likely that the single-minded fixation on racing to the first solo might be a vestige of military flight training—an environment in which it was highly desirable to have unsuitable candidates wash out as early as possible. Civilian flight instruction doesn't share that goal.
Kristine Hartzell is the Air Safety Institute's chief flight instructor. She's flown under parts 91, 135, and 121 and given a couple of thousand hours of dual in everything from Cessna 150s to the Airbus A319—experience that's convinced her that the current focus on an early solo probably does more harm than good. Yes, it provides an incentive during the inevitable plateaus and a nice bragging point for those talented or lucky enough to do it especially early. However, postponing it to the last third of the curriculum could be expected to reduce stress on student and CFI alike, quite possibly driving the accident rate down in the process.