While browsing through the records of student pilots at a local flying school, I noticed that many had not gone solo until after 15 hours of dual instruction. Some were up to 25 hours before being sent off alone. Intrigued, I talked to instructors from other flying schools and found out that 15 hours to solo was considered normal, with one student reaching 40 hours of dual before solo. Fifty years ago, students flying Tiger Moths were solo between 6 and 10 hours. This included military training where students were failed if they not gone solo by 12 hours.
So why the difference between the time to solo in 1950 and today? Certainly there is no marked change in the syllabus between then and now. Effects of controls, stalling, climbing and descending and the various types of landings are unchanged in substance. Spinning was part of the syllabus in those days – but not now. Cessnas and Pipers have replaced the ancient British-designed Tiger Moths and Chipmunks. The American built aircraft are easier to fly, and their handling speeds much the same. The Tiger Moth was flown at 58 knots over the hedge compared with the Cessna 150 at 54 knots. The open cockpit of the Moths, with a Gosport Tube between instructor and student, made for sore throats from constant yelling. The electric intercom between the side by side occupants in Cessnas makes instructing quite easy. Besides, in the Cessna, the white face of an airsick student gives ample warning of a “technicolour yawn!” Not so in a Tiger – that is until the smell wafts through the Gosport. At least the student was behind the instructor, and a judicious touch on the rudder would deflect the stream to one side. Wrong rudder and the hapless student had the unenviable job of cleaning the mess from the fabric.
The Tiger had no flaps. This required better judgement on final approach than with Cessnas and Warriors which have variable flap settings. The elevator trim wheel on the American machines, along with a useful artificial horizon, directional gyro, VSI, and easy to read fuel gauges, makes in-flight handling a breeze. Compare this to the mechanical cheese-cutter elevator trim, the 1935 bank and skid needles, no artificial horizon, glass sight fuel gauge on top of the biplane wing, and tailwheel characteristics of the Tiger and its contemporaries. Let us not forget the incredible noise level with an open cockpit machine – not to mention misting of goggles and a soaked to the skin student flying in rain.
Lose the ASI in the Moth, and you could judge the speed by the sound of the wind whistling through the wires. With the Cessna the same equivalent safety could be guessed by knowing the descent attitude – different in a Moth because of the instructor’s head blocking the view and tears streaming from your eyes as you leant out into the slipstream to judge your sideslip angle if high (no flap). No heating in a Moth or Chippie, so thick wooly bulls (padded flying suits) and gloves were needed. Ever try map-reading in an 80 knot gale with gloves on?
Lack of radios meant that a good lookout in the Moths and Chippies was vital. Contrast that with the babble of R/T at GAAP aerodromes where ATC reign supreme and the accent is now on radio alerting rather than the much-scorned see and be seen concept of separation and avoidance.
Not so long ago, instructors taught the pupils to fly close circuits and glide approaches. Spacing was commonsense and power was used to adjust a misjudged undershoot. At RAAF training bases, the Tigers would use the grass and the circuit was shared with faster and heavier Wirraways and the occasional Dakota or Mustang. It was considered bad form to fly wide circuits and harsh words from the instructor reminded you to keep the circuit tight and concise. Contrast this with now, where inexperienced instructors, some with barely 300 hours in their own log books, have been known to encourage huge circuits worthy of a Boeing in order to “allow the student time to settle down” as one 20 year old instructor informed me.
Perhaps the fault lies with the flying schools that compete for ever fewer students using new instructors just out of CPL training. Pity the poor Grade 3 just out of instructors’ course. He or she has been brought up on a diet of wide circuits, long powered approaches, stalling practice at ridiculously high altitudes for Cessnas, and anything over 30 degrees is a steep turn. The good news is that 100 hours later, he becomes a “Senior Grade 3,” but still needing the close supervision that rarely occurs.
Does the CFI inspect student records regularly to check why the long time to solo? From my experience this is doubtful, as dual hours mean more revenue to a school already on a shoestring.
If there is one prime reason why students take longer to solo now, than when this writer learned to fly in the early Fifties, then it must be instructor experience. Allowing for tricks of memory, I recall that in those days many instructors were experienced ex-wartime types. Or if not, they had over a 1000 hours before doing an instructors’ course. The current instructor manual, first published by the Department of Civil Aviation over 40 years ago, has changed little in content with succeeding revisions. The syllabus for training allowed just under eight hours to first solo. The introductory page reads:
“It is an acceptable principle that in the early stages of training, instruction should be restricted to simple manoeuvres and no attempt made to teach really precise flying until the student has done enough solo to gain confidence.”
It is difficult for a 250 hour instructor to evaluate exactly what is an imprecise but safe standard in a student. Judging that difference, particularly in circuits and landings, could mean an additional 5-10 log book hours penalty borne by the student’s bank account.
As I have illustrated, it certainly helps if the student has an experienced instructor from day one, and better still if the student is a gifted natural. It was my good fortune to fly with such a student, and this is how it happened.
In 1993 I was approached by a friend living on the island atoll of Nauru, to teach his son to fly. Nauru is a tiny independent republic just 27 miles south of the Equator and about 2000 miles southwest of Honolulu. The nearest neighbour is Tarawa (scene of a battle between the US marines and the Japanese) which is 375 miles east of Nauru. The chart co-ordinates of Nauru are 175 degrees East Longitude and 000.25 South Latitude.
Nauru has its own airline called Air Nauru, which operates a single Boeing 737-400.
In common with many Pacific islands, Nauru is blessed with spectacular sunrises and sunsets, often against the backdrop of pink and gold, tall cumulus clouds. It takes just 20 minutes to drive around the whole island on a well made road. Surrounding the island is a reef and in places, a channel has been dynamited across the reef to allow fishermen access to the Pacific Ocean with its teeming food source of fish. A few minutes drive from the Menen Hotel, itself situated right on the sea, is Anabare Bay.
At mid-tide the Pacific rolls across the reef into Anabare Bay, which is a favourite fishing spot for the islanders and expats (Australians, and New Zealanders who work on the island). At high tide, the breakers over the now invisible reef, run out into gentle wavelets just a few feet from the remains of wartime Japanese bunkers that guard the coast. Shoals of small fish cascade from the breakers into the shallows, where sometimes you may see a lone Nauruan, well built with an easy relaxed manner, casting his nylon net to catch his evening meal. His name is Robbie, but to me, he is the Ace of Anabare Bay. Not because of his skills as a simple fisherman, but because he is the most natural and gifted pilot that I have flown with. His log book – if he still has it – shows a total of five flying hours. Of that, ten minutes is solo.
His family already had another son flying as a first officer in Air Nauru, and Robbie’s father had hoped that he would follow his brother into the airline. Robbie had no great ambitions in life beyond fishing and doing odd jobs. The family earned a small income from phosphate royalties from mining on their land, and like most island families whatever money came in was shared around. Air Nauru was crewed mainly by Australian pilots, with some Nauruan pilots as first officers. The government was keen to have an all Nauruan airline, and had indicated that it would be prepared to help towards the cost of training of suitably qualified trainee pilots. I was asked to assess Robbie for his aptitude for initially a PPL.
With some reluctance, Robbie agreed to travel to Melbourne where he had relatives living near Moorabbin Airport. I met him on arrival, and decided that a trial instructional flight would be the first move. He showed remarkable natural aptitude for flying a Warrior, and we quickly moved into climbing and descending, straight and level, with a few steep turns thrown in for good measure. All in forty five minutes. His look-out was excellent, and his voice deep and confident on the radio.
I delayed further flying for three weeks until Robbie had passed the Basic Aircraft Knowledge examination, and then we launched from Essendon to Point Cook, a former RAAF airfield 14 miles from Melbourne. The weather was fine, the wind calm, and best of all, we had the circuit and training area to ourselves. At Point Cook, the grass was green and mowed, with conditions well nigh perfect for ab-initio flying. I made the briefings brief, and over coffee at a local shopping centre, we discussed engine failures, glide approaches, radio and CTAF procedures. Diagrams of circuit procedures were drawn on McDonald’s serviettes, and we talked about how to ditch on the side of the swell if the engine conked out when using Runway 17 over the sea.
Then it was back in the air to practice stalls in steep turns, incipient spin recoveries, limit turns for collision avoidance and fire drills. While Robbie listened courteously, and gave the right answers, I sometimes felt that his mind was a thousand miles away over the blue Pacific. Despite this feeling of mine, he could rip into an emergency limit turn and hold it on altitude perfectly. In the middle of a stall recovery, he would spot an Airbus going into Melbourne International 20 miles away and point it out to me. He didn’t know cumulus from cirrus, but that didn’t matter, yet.
The next day we flew circuits and bumps. He tucked in accurately downwind, and did glide approaches, bounced landing recoveries and go-arounds from the flare. His judgement was impeccable, speeds accurate, and all the time he kept his head swivelling for Cessnas in the sun. We broke for lunch of fish-n-chips and Coke at the RAAF canteen, then toured the RAAF Museum where I tried to impress him with stories of my flying Vampires so many years ago. Ever polite, he pretended to listen, but again I sensed a detached air that said the tide is coming in at Anabare Bay and the fish are on the move…
We taxied again, and as we lined up on the grass of Point Cook’s Runway 17 Grass Right, I marvelled at the sheer good fortune of having such a talented student pilot and an aerodrome all to ourselves. Circuits again, engine failures after take-off, aim for that fishing boat to ditch alongside, flapless landings, landings with a failed ASI. Greaser after greaser with perfect recoveries from my deliberate bounce simulations.
An hour later, I climbed from the Warrior and said, “Off you go for a solo circuit.” Robbie gave me a faintly surprised look, shrugged his shoulders and off he went. From behind, his take off was arrow straight, and though by now the sea breeze was stirring the windsock to life, he must have picked the drift because his track was straight. I watched him turn downwind while still climbing to 1000 ft, hoping that a nearby buzzing Beechcraft would not cut him off in the circuit. On base, his glide approach looked sweet, and hoping that a local Tiger snake would not see my foot as worth a bite or two, I moved from the shade of a tree, to the strip threshold. The Warrior touched gently from a three inch hold off and rolled to a stop. I watched him taxi back to pick me up and felt quite privileged to have shared the cockpit with such a talented young man.
He had flown just 4.8 hours dual instruction – not bad at all, even allowing for perfect flying conditions. Afterwards, we discussed his thoughts on being a future Boeing pilot with Air Nauru. From this, it was clear that for Robbie, flying took second place to his island life on Nauru. Good fun, yes – but not a serious option. He said farewell and thanks for everything, and hope to see you if you visit Nauru.
It’s a few years now since we flew together, but one day when I visit Nauru, I know where I can find the Ace of Anabare Bay…