There are many milestones along the way to achieving your Private Pilot’s wings, but the one that you will remember vividly is your first solo. Ask any pilot about theirs and he or she will probably gaze wistfully into the distance to recall the time they first flew and aircraft on their own. Even veterans with many hours in their logbooks never forget the day their instructor let them lose for the first time.
The first solo represents a transition between those who can only fly under the watchful eye of an instructor and those who have enough knowledge and skill to enable them to fly unaided. Of course there’s a lot more to it than that and your instructor will still be watching you intently albeit from the ground instead of the seat beside or behind you!
What is the first solo flight?
Your first flight as pilot in command will be one circuit of the airfield. The circuit (or pattern in the USA) is an imaginary rectangle consisting of the runway, the upwind leg (the part flown just after take-off as you climb out to circuit height), the crosswind leg (at right angles to the left of the runway), the downwind leg (parallel to the runway but in the opposite direction to take off and landing), base leg (opposite of crosswind leg) and final approach i.e. the section in which you are lining up and descending in preparation for landing. That’s all there is to it – take off, fly one circuit and land.
It may sound complicated to you now if you’re a rookie student with no hours in your log book but as with all things it gets easier with practice. Your first 10-20 hours of flight training will involve aircraft handling in the air, climbing, descending turning, radio calls within the vicinity of the airfield, take-offs and landings. Once you’ve mastered the basic handling of the aircraft your instructor will spend several lessons with you in the circuit teaching you how to fly each leg. You’ll learn what to check on each leg, which radio calls to make and when to make them.
You’ll also learn how to recognise familiar landmarks around the airfield as it can be surprisingly easy to becoming disoriented without this knowledge and it’ll make the experience a lot less stressful in the unlikely the event that the Control Tower asks you to orbit over a particular point to make way for another aircraft. There’s little chance of this happening as your instructor should have picked a time when the airfield is comparatively quiet and he/she should have informed the Tower that you are a student about the fly your first solo, but if it does happen then being prepared will help you to carry out the Tower’s instructions with the minimum amount of disruption to your flight.
So when should you expect to fly your first solo and how can you prepare for it? Rest assured that your instructor will not send you solo until he or she is reasonably confident that you are ready. The day will arrive when you’ve both been in the aircraft ‘circuit bashing’ i.e. flying one circuit after another until the whole process from take off to landing is drummed into your brain and your reflexes by constant repetition. You may even find yourself getting a little bored of this practice and the astute instructor will sense this boredom and take it as signal that the time has come for you to fly on your own.
My first solo was on July 4th 1985 at Southampton Airport (EGHI) in a Grumman AA5-A, registration G-BFTE. The proceeding lessons were all centered around flying the circuit repeatedly until all steps had become familiar. During these practice sessions I had landed the aircraft several times with no intervention from the instructor beside me. I knew that one day soon during such a lesson he would ask me to taxi onto the apron and park while he vacated the aircraft and gave me the go-ahead to fly a circuit on my own. On this particular day we flew some circuits and he told me to park in front of the Tower. Half of me was hoping that the lesson had ended and the other half knew what was coming. Once the aircraft was parked he opened the canopy and got out onto the wing. He leaned in to the cockpit and said, “Right. One circuit only, then back here . Off you go.”
Before I had time to protest he had slid the canopy shut and walked off without a backward glance. I was left alone in the aircraft. I gave a radio call to the Tower, “Southampton Tower, Golf Bravo Foxtrot Tango Echo, radio check and taxi to the hold.” Approval was given without a pause. I was on my way. It taxied to the holding point, ran my eyes over the instrument panel and gave another call to say that I was ready to depart (take off). A few second later the aircraft was gathering speed along the runway and I was soon airborne.
The first thing that struck was that the aircraft was lighter and handling differently, and of course it was due to the fact that there was one less adult in the right hand seat! With all the things to concentrate on the next few minutes passed in a flash. I didn’t really settle down and take stock of the event until I was in the downwind leg where there was a minute or two in which I could absorb the fact that I was flying on my own. No sooner was I starting to congratulate myself when I realized that I had to prepare for the landing. Radio calls and pre- landing checks followed and within a minute or two I was looking down the length of the runway concentrating on my air speed, height, and the position of the aircraft’s cowling in relation to the end of the runway.
My instructor’s voice was in my head guiding me down. Now I understood why we repeated this exercise so often and under varying conditions. I made slight adjustments where necessary and it wasn’t long before I felt the bump of the main wheels touching down on the runway. Once the nose wheel was down too I gently applied breaking and taxied back to the apron to park. With all the post landing checks completed and the aircraft shut down I vacated and walked across the apron to the main terminal building. My knees were a little shaky but with every step I grew a foot taller. By the time I reached the building I was beaming.
That was twenty five years ago. You never forget your first solo!