Going for your first solo is one of the most memorable moments of your life. Taking the controls by yourself, and taxiing out, taking off into the circuit and nailing your landing is incredibly exhilarating and satisfying.
I remember my first solo flight, March 8, 2009. Even though it’s over ten years ago, I can remember it like it is yesterday. It took a lot of hard work to prepare for my first solo, but after I got up into the air on my own, it gave me a huge appreciation for how far I had come in my journey to becoming a pilot.
What skills do you need before your first solo flight?
There are a few things you need to get out of the way first before you can take to the skies yourself. This includes administrative requirements, theoretical knowledge requirements, and practical flight training.
Essential lessons before your first solo
- Trial introductory flight
- Effects of controls:
- Straight and level flight:
- Climbing and descending:
- Climbing and descending turns
- Take off and landing
- Introduction Circuit procedures
- Engine Failure After Take-Off (EFATO) training
- Glide circuits
- Circuit consolidation
Exams/Administration to complete before your first solo
- Pre solo theory exam
- Pilot aviation medical
- Pilot security clearance if operating at a security restricted aerodrome
The legal requirements of all this can change slightly depending on the country and airport your learning to fly at, but this will all be clarified and handled with expert advice from your primary flying instructor and your school’s chief instructor or head of operations.
How long does it take to get your first solo?
My students often ask when they’ll be able to do the first solo flight.
Most students will get their first shot at flying solo at around 15-20 hours of flight time. This includes the first twelve lessons (roughly 1.2 hours each), plus a little bit of fat to account for any partially completed lessons, consolidation flights, weather delays, and currency events if it’s been a while between lessons. However, this is just a guide
The timing of your first solo flight will depend on a lot of different factors, such as local weather conditions, aircraft complexity, the size of the airport you train at and other traffic, your individual rate of learning and any paperwork delays you might encounter. The biggest thing I will say is that going solo is an incredibly personal journey and everyone goes solo in their own time.
The best way to approach your first solo is not to try and minimise flight hours or training; this can be incredibly dangerous. Getting your first solo is competency-based, and so a great work ethic, studying hard and good preparation for your flights is the best way to succeed.
Your flying instructor will know when you’re ready
The role of your flight instructor is to train you and get you out of your comfort zone so you develop to be the best and safest pilot you can be – they will monitor your progress and when you are ready, they will let you know. Usually, your flying instructor will know well before you do, and the first you’ll know is when you land and they ask “would you like to do that circuit again by yourself?” as they unstrap themselves from their harness!
You might not believe it, but your flying instructor and the chief instructor had probably been planning this for weeks. Steps they have likely taken include monitoring your decision making and situational awareness, keeping a close eye on the weather as well as coordinating with air traffic control, local authorities or other aerodrome operators on your pending first solo. This helps keep everything going smoothly on your first solo; most pilots will endeavor to provide you with a professional courtesy of right of way/priority on your first solo (although it should not be expected and all extant rules of air law apply as per your pre first solo theory examination).
My first solo
I had been flying off and on for a number of years leading up to the solo, as I was mostly limited by money in my teenage years, as well as the age restrictions on soloing and getting my pilot’s license in Australia. A lot of my lessons were paid for from my many after school jobs: gardening, car washing, cleaning graffiti and picking up cigarette butts, and stocking shelves at my local supermarket where I earned around $15 an hour. I was paying $250 per flying lesson, so it would take me about two weeks of after school shifts to pay for one. My family wasn’t wealthy and my mom raised me and my sisters on her own on a low income, so I was blown away when I received a flying lesson as gift for my birthday one year.
On the day of the solo, I remember pre-flighting the aircraft, running my hands along its familiar surfaces, over the smooth leading edge of the wings and feeling the small bumps where gravel had flicked up and damaged the paint. I remember the smell of the AvGas and how cold the pump handle was as I filled my Cessna 152 up to 50L of fuel. I remember the stickyness and unique greyish brown color of the Ashless dispersant engine oil as I checked we had the required number of quarts of oil remaining.
I also remember it was a stunner of a day. Light and variable winds, with a couple of knots across the strip as the sea breeze started to kick in, as it did most days in the late mornings.
My first solo was just a regular training flight, EFATO and glide circuit consolidation in the c150. It was a quiet morning and there was not much traffic about, so after a few warm-up laps, my instructor took the opportunity to put me through a number of EFATOs, dumbbell circuits and then a few glides approaches. After knocking some of the rust off (I hadn’t flown in over a month), we stopped for a morning tea break. Nescafé blend 43 instant coffee and a muffin. Halfway through his muffin, my instructor says – let’s head out to the training area for some advanced stalling, and before we depart you can show me a couple of normal circuits.
Well, I tell you what, after the second circuit he asked me to taxi in because there was a Metroliner inbound on the area frequency and he said we should hold on the ground to give way. Once we got to the holding point he jumped out of the cockpit (with the engine running) – without even warning me! “Bring it back In one piece” he joked, yelling into my ear as he slapped me heartily on the shoulder and then ran off back to the clubhouse.
I was initially a bit shocked and at one point almost reached to pull the mixture out and shut down right there! but after watching the Metroliner land with two small puffs of smoke from its tires as it touched down, I realized I could do this myself. I got back into my pre-take-off checks and started to grin ear to ear.
I ran the pre-take-off checklist, gave myself the pre-take-off safety brief, and radioed my intentions on the CTAF frequency. “MQP is holding short runway 21”. A prompt reply from the Metroliner came back offering if I would like to enter and backtrack to the takeoff threshold whilst they turned around – I agreed, checked my blind spots, switched my lights on and entered the runway strip. This was my first time on the runway alone! By the time I reached the threshold and turned around, the metro was just calling clear of the runway strip.
“Engine failure on the roll – idle and brake, airborne with runway idle and lower the nose land on the runway, airborne with no runway idle lower nose and land straight ahead” I muttered to myself before giving a rolling call and applying full power. This time the nose didn’t yaw left because I had anticipated the correct amount of right rudder to balance (of course the instructor wasn’t there to see it!). The plane picked up speed much quicker and basically leaped into the air. After trimming out my known climb attitude with the nose on the Horizon, I noticed I had over 1500 fpm rate of climb – nearly double what I was used to. At 500ft I initiated a climbing turn as per the circuit and had to level off almost straight away to avoid busting the circuit height.
After turning downwind and running through two work cycles of height-speed-heading-spacing, I felt like I had barely enough time to complete the before landing checks before I reached my familiar picture spacing for the base turn. “MQP, left base runway 21” I broadcast as I reduced power and entered a descending turn toward the runway. I selected two stages of approach flap and trimmed out the control force. I looked at the aspect which looked a bit high and checked my altimeter confirmed I was high on profile. “OK” – I thought, attitude for airspeed and power for rate of descent, take some power off, and then lower the nose slightly to maintain 70 knots.
Rolling wings level on final I checked I was below full flap limiting speed and selected it, and locked in my aim point of the piano keys with my attitude. Attitude for aim point, Power for airspeed I thought as I reduced power to maintain 60 knots. Aim point – aspect – airspeed – centreline I went through my work cycle, applying a slight correction for the crosswind. Final checks; full flap, runway clear, carb heat off.
Approaching the keys I flared (too much), selected idle and ended up ballooning about 10ft in the air; in all this fuss I hadn’t accounted for the crosswind and found myself lined up with the edge of the runway. ‘Uh-oh,’ I thought, as I pushed the power lever forward and raised the nose to go around. I retracted the landing flap back to half flap and re-trimmed for climb speed. With a positive rate of climb I retracted all of the flaps and climbed away. I needed some more solo hours anyway! “MQP going around” I sheepishly radioed, to which the Metro pilots chuckled “You’ll get it next time champ!”.
The next circuit was a lot easier. I climbed up to circuit height and leveled off on upwind, and made sure to give myself more time before turning crosswind. It made all the difference as I was less rushed and felt I had more time to think and correct my errors. It was smooth sailing from here, and my second attempt was an acceptable landing (but rather on the firm side…). Taxiing in the Metro pilots congratulated me over the airwaves, I parked and shut down the aircraft and my flying instructor was there to meet me with a big handshake and pat on the back for a job well done.
I learned a lot from my first solo, but the biggest lesson was never to rush yourself into making bad decisions. In hindsight, I didn’t account for the increased performance of the aircraft and as a result, sold myself short with a much tighter circuit pattern; this puts a lot of pressure on me and whilst I felt like it was on the rails, could have contributed to my first missed approach at landing.
I’m also very glad I gave myself the pre-takeoff safety brief because on my second solo I had a pretty big scare; I experienced an engine failure in the circuit. But that’s a story for another time.
Tips for your first solo
- Make sure you know your numbers. You should have memorised all of the flight attitudes (picture out the front) as well as power settings and the resulting performance, i.e. climb speed, descent speed, base speed, final speed
- Practice your R/T – after all, you’re going to be the one doing this solo.
- Understand the checklist for your aircraft. Have the actions memorised, so you always know what to do – the checklist can then be used as its appropriately named for; a checklist (and not a to-do list). You won’t be able to refer to your checklist in the air, especially during dynamic sequences such as circuits and landings.
- Memorise, and understand the pre-takeoff safety brief. Understand your vital first actions or ‘boldface’ actions in the event of an emergency
- Stay current – don’t try to space your lessons out too much. You get rusty after a while so doing a lesson every weekend is the best way to stay fresh. If you have the option, doing a lesson every few days is even better!
- Prepare for your pre-solo theory exam by reading your private pilot textbooks and study guide. Consult your flight instructor and do some practice exams. If you’ve already passed this, keep brushing up on air law and related questions so you have the confidence to handle any situation airborne.
- Don’t rush – take your time. Focus on doing things accurately and the speed will come “Slow is fast, fast is slow”
The most common criteria for your instructor sending you solo is meeting the legal requirements of completing your pre-solo theory exam, pilot’s medical and security license. They’ll also need to be comfortable that you’ve satisfactorily completed your first 10 lessons, demonstrating reliable understanding and accurately flying an EFATO, Go Around and glide approach, and nailing three or so normal circuits in a row!
Don’t be in a rush to get up solo, everyone solos in their own time. Bragging about soloing in a certain time is not productive and any instructor worth their salt knows that sending a student out on a solo undercooked is a very risky affair; especially if they are oozing with confidence and think they know what they are doing.
What was your first solo like? Was it a surprise or was it planned? let us know in the comments below.