When evaluating a student’s readiness to solo, most instructors focus on recent takeoffs and landings. How consistently has that student been able to get the aircraft off the ground, make a couple of turns, and set it back down without coaching, much less active intervention (and without inflicting enough damage to send it to the maintenance hangar)? If the instructor has spent the last few sessions in the pattern checking Facebook or solving crossword puzzles, he or she will probably feel confident that the student is ready to go.
But of course the formal requirements are a bit more involved. For each category and class of aircraft, FAR 61.87 specifies a list of procedures and maneuvers on which the student not only must have been trained, but specifically documented that training in his or her logbook. The same regulation also requires the student to pass “a knowledge test” that includes applicable regulations, airspace rules, and “flight characteristics and operational limitations for the make and model of aircraft to be flown.” The exact content of that test is left to the discretion of the school or CFI, but most would argue that it ought to include the short list of memory procedures for in-flight emergencies.
The initial 90-day endorsement issued for that first solo in the pattern also extends to flights in the local practice area. Requirements become even more detailed once a student reaches the cross-country phase. First the student must log training in a second list of required topics and procedures. Each solo cross-country must then be authorized by a separate endorsement specific to that day’s route, aircraft, and conditions—made only after the instructor has reviewed the current and forecast weather and the student’s flight planning and determined that all are acceptable.
Naturally, individuals vary in just how seriously they take all these mandates. Are they opportunities to head off trouble while teaching students to think and plan for themselves, or just another regulatory nuisance to be checked off the list? Two accidents—one in 2015, the other more than a decade before—point up the hazards posed to students and school alike by a pro forma attitude toward pre-solo preparation.
In January, a 12-hour student practicing ground reference maneuvers in a Diamond DA20 had to make a forced landing after the airplane’s engine began to run erratically, and then quit altogether. The student “attempted to restart the engine by completing the emergency procedures that he remembered.” It turned over but wouldn’t start, so he tried to land in a farm field. The airplane slid into a propane tank and a house, fracturing the tail boom, but the student escaped without injury.
It was three days before an FAA inspector and a representative from Continental Motors arrived to inspect the wreckage—but they found the engine air filter still totally blocked by ice. (The student acknowledged having “flown through some low clouds” but claimed he never lost visual contact with the ground.) The alternate air lever was closed; when asked, the student “reported that he was unfamiliar with the lever and did not know its intended use.”
If that statement is true, it suggests serious deficiencies in both the aircraft systems and emergency procedures sections of his pre-solo written exam. While the DA20 is an exceptionally good glide performer, an engine failure at the reported altitude of 1,600 agl doesn’t leave much time to fumble through the pilot’s operating handbook in search of emergency checklists. Some things simply must be committed to memory.
A fuel-exhaustion accident from 2004 raised even more questions about the instructor’s attentiveness to duty. A 17-year-old student on his first solo cross-country overshot his destination by some 21 nautical miles, eventually landing at another airport and asking for directions. He did not buy fuel there or after finding his original destination, though he did have someone sign his logbook to prove he’d arrived. Darkness was falling by the time he was airborne again, and he managed to miss his home field and continue for another 48 nautical miles beyond it. He was in the uncomfortable position of circling a water tower marked with the name of a town he did not recognize when his fuel supply ran out. He somehow escaped with minor injuries after stalling into the treetops of a heavily forested area, then falling upside-down for about 100 feet.
The National Transportation Safety Board report notes that the student’s nav logs “were not complete or accurate.” He’d estimated his time to the first checkpoint four nautical miles away at 43 minutes (it actually took six). For the 22-nm second leg, he’d estimated 27 minutes en route; it took 14—and his estimated arrival times weren’t consistent with the sums of his times per leg.
It’s fair to ask whether his instructor really looked at those calculations or merely saw that he’d put something down on a log form. It’s also fair to ask whether anyone had reminded the student—who had logged zero night time up to that point—that he shouldn’t hesitate to phone home if things didn’t go as planned.