written by: Andrew Jones•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 5/24/2010
A pilot's first solo flight is often seen as a rite of passage. There is a great deal of tradition behind this step in a pilot's training, and it is often a special occasion. However, placing too much importance on it can have undesirable repercussions.
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There is a great deal of mystery and myth for many student pilots surrounding the first solo flight. This has resulted a number of common misconceptions which sometimes creates unnecessary stress for the student, especially if left unaddressed by the instructor. The simplest way to put these misconceptions to rest is to have a look at the Federal Air Regulations, where the requirements for solo flight are spelled out.
According to the FAR, in order to solo, there are two basic requirements: The student must first have a Student Pilot Certificate, which is normally issued by an FAA Medical Examiner together with a Third Class Medical Certificate. While a student pilot may begin his training prior to obtaining this certificate, he/she must have it before the first solo flight. The second requirement is that the student's instructor must authorize solo flight by making an endorsement in the student's logbook. There are a number of guidelines set forth to help the instructor evaluate a student's readiness to solo, including knowledge requirements (which may be tested orally or by a written test), and the demonstrated ability to perform certain maneuvers, but in the end the determination rests with the instructor.
Thus, the decision is a subjective one, and there is no set number of flight hours which define when a student is ready. This is the point which often confuses and frustrates student pilots. At some point along the way, students will get it into their heads that if they do not solo by X number of hours, that it means that they are not good pilots. While some student pilots may chide each other in this regard, it has very little real significance. After the student earns his license, he will likely never think of it again. After all, when a prospective pilot is interviewed for a job by an airline, the number of hours he required to solo is not a serious consideration. They are a lot more interested in how many hours he has now, and what his overall performance record is like.
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What to Expect
Just as there is no set rule as to how many hours a pilot needs in order to solo, there is also no set rule for how a solo flight takes place. Once again, this is up to the instructor. Once a student is deemed ready, some instructors will let the student know and set aside a day when the flight will take place. On the other hand, many instructors prefer to give the student no warning at all. Instead the solo flight will happen at the end of a normal flying lesson. Indeed, this is the way the author's solo flight occurred. My instructor and I landed at the end of an otherwise ordinary lesson, after I pulled off the runway, my instructor suddenly removed his seat belt, opened the door, and climbed out of the airplane. He endorsed my log book right there on the spot and told me nonchalantly that the airplane would feel a bit different without his weight (he was a bit on the heavy side), and off I went.
The instructor will generally give the student a clear set of instructions for what to do during the first solo flight. Typically, this might include a couple of touch and gos followed by a full stop landing. It is normal to feel nervous, though the nerves generally go away after takeoff. Focusing on the immediate task at hand will usually help to stay nerves. However, if a student truly feels unready, he has every right to decline the opportunity. Once the flight is over, the instructor will meet the student and congratulate him. There is also an old tradition in which the instructor cuts off the backside of the student's shirt and hangs it somewhere in commemoration of the event.
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What Comes Next
After the solo flight, the student will continue taking lessons with the instructor, often alternating them with solo flights. Soloing does not give the student the privilege to go flying alone anywhere or anytime he likes. The instructor will generally select a specific practice area a few miles away from the airport where the student may go to practice maneuvers on solo flights, and will make endorsements as necessary for other solo flights. All solo flights must be flown during daylight hours and in good weather. The student should discuss the weather with the instructor prior to each flight. Later, the instructor may grant the student a little more leeway in where he flies, but nevertheless, all flights should remain within a relatively short radius of the airport. Every solo cross country flight requires an individual endorsements from the instructor.