I may be unusual, but I almost always fly with someone in the right seat. A quick review of my logbook shows that less than 10% of my hours every year are solo. Flying is simply too good not to share with others, so whether it’s a fully qualified co-pilot or just a friend I prefer to have someone to talk to. Nobody flies for free either, as my right-seater either reads the checklist, looks for traffic, or watches the engine gauges.
On those rare occasions when I am flying solo, I instantly notice how different the whole experience is. It begins before the hangar door even opens: I get a different feeling in my gut as I walk up to the airplane, almost like a nervous cowboy approaching a wild horse. These flights are more personal and more meditative for me, with the focus on the airplane and the world around it. With passengers on board, it’s a much more social and interactive event, one where I’m thinking about the pilot-passenger relationship more than the pilot-airplane one. As much as I love sharing flying with others, I have to admit that being alone in the air is a great feeling.
The safety record for solo flights is different too. While it’s almost impossible to get a true measure of the single-pilot accident record (since we don’t know the exposure for single- vs. two-pilot operations, or solo vs. passenger flights), it’s probably safe to say it’s worse. The respected Robert E. Breiling Associates published a study in 2015 that found the accident rate for single-pilot certified turbine aircraft was over three times higher than two-pilot aircraft, and the fatality rate was 13 times higher. Other studies from the Flight Safety Foundation and Aviation International News use different data, but generally report the same trend. None of these necessarily indicate that every Cirrus would be safer with two pilots, but it should definitely make us think.
Given those numbers, a pilot flying solo needs to approach each flight with good habits and perhaps larger built-in safety margins. For me, that means thinking about four key areas: the condition of the pilot, cockpit habits, teamwork, and personal risk tolerance.
It all starts with the basics: be healthy and proficient. While it’s easy to scoff at the IM SAFE checklist recommended by the FAA (does anyone really recite this before every flight?), the general concept is sound, especially for solo flights. There’s no one to wake you up if you doze off, and no one to point out an altitude bust if you’re a step slow. As Richard Collins has described, the pernicious effects of medicine on pilots are often underestimated, and if anything this problem is only getting worse. More than half of Americans now take some type of prescription drug; many of these do not mix with flying.
Fatigue is another serious threat to single-pilot flights, partially because it’s so hard to judge. It’s utterly impractical to cancel a flight every time you feel a little sleepy, but clearly there’s a line that should not be crossed. Finding this line means knowing your own body and what “enough sleep” means to you. Unfortunately, at least a few pilots die every year because they didn’t answer those questions satisfactorily. A 2008 Pilatus PC-12 crash is a classic example: the pilot had been awake for 17 hours and flying for over eight hours when he crashed on a dark night all by himself. Did he fall asleep? We’ll never know, but he certainly put himself on the ragged edge with that schedule. It’s a reminder that making the go/no-go decision means more than just examining the weather.
Pilot proficiency is similarly hard to judge, but is just as important. The key is not just everyday skills like crosswind landings, but also the ability to handle the airplane if something goes wrong. Without a co-pilot to read the checklist or tune a radio frequency, multi-tasking is a given. This demands strong instrument flying skills for IFR pilots and real world avionics proficiency. Do you understand the GPS inside and out? Can you fly the airplane without an autopilot? If the answer to either question is no, it’s time to either bring someone else along or go practice.
Once in the airplane, I try to structure my procedures so that I make as many decisions as automatic as possible. Checklists and standard operating procedures (SOPs) are essential parts of this mindset, even if they’re of the homemade variety. Dealing with inoperative equipment is just one of many places where these tools can save time, increase safety, and eliminate stress. Will you take off with an inoperative GPS? An inoperative autopilot? How about an iPad? Better to answer these questions from the comfort of your couch than from the left seat with five minutes until your void time. Leave that brain power for other tasks yet to come.
NBAA has some excellent resources for single-pilot operations, including some SOP suggestions. The key is to make these simple and realistic enough that they get used. There’s no point in creating a 20-page manual that gets ignored, so tailor the decisions to the type of flying you do.
Cockpit flows are another essential tool for single-pilot flying. I like to make a quick flow check at regular intervals during the flight: right before takeoff, after the wheels come up, out of 10,000 feet (if applicable), once level in cruise, etc. This usually involves a quick but thoughtful review of important switches and instruments, from the oil pressure to the landing light. By systematically moving from left to right, then top to bottom, I can check the entire cockpit in about a minute. Besides catching the occasional mistake, it’s a great way to stay engaged and awake on a long flight. If you need a reminder to do this, most GPSs and aviation apps have timers built in that can be set to go off at regular intervals.
This is particularly important for pilots flying alone in the flight levels, as a recent high profile Cirrus crash suggests. The pilot, on a trip from Oklahoma to Texas, presumably crashed into the Gulf of Mexico after losing consciousness at FL190. It’s too soon to know all the details, but the accident might have been prevented by regular flow checks – especially of the oxygen flow meter. Time of useful consciousness at 19,000 feet is at least 15-20 minutes, so there is time to catch a malfunction and react if you’re continually looking.
The defining characteristic of solo flight is its isolation – there is nobody to fly the airplane other than the pilot in command. While that’s true in a physical sense, that doesn’t mean you’re completely alone. I try to approach every flight as if it’s a team effort, no matter how many people are on board. Step one is to have a “coaching staff,” perhaps a mechanic or a flight instructor you can call to get a second opinion before takeoff. Deciding when to fly is often one of the most difficult decisions we make as pilots, but it also has a major impact on safety, so it’s worth the effort to bring in another voice. With smartphones, this is easier than ever.
Another way to expand your crew is to talk to yourself in the cockpit. It may seem a little weird at first, but I find it very helpful for staying focused, completing checklists, double-checking routes, and monitoring altitudes. It’s not quite like having a co-pilot to check your work, but verbalizing your actions will often force you to think more clearly.
Air traffic control (ATC) is another obvious resource, and one that should be used on almost every flight outside the traffic pattern, VFR or IFR. They cannot fly the airplane for you, and they cannot see the cloud in front of you, but they can lighten the workload in a pinch. If the panel goes dark, let ATC find the nearest VFR weather. If you need to divert and can’t find a frequency or identifier, ask ATC to read you the information. Flying the airplane always comes first, so anything else should be offloaded.
Finally, regular solo flyers should consider their individual approach to risk. No, I’m not suggesting you use one of those complicated FRAT tools to measure your “risk profile” before every flight. A good start is simply to recognize that your risk tolerance might subtly change depending on whether there is anyone else on board.
This cuts both ways: some pilots push the envelope to prove to passengers or other pilots that they can complete the mission, while others tend to cut corners only when they are alone. The accident record has plenty of examples of both, from new private pilots with family on board to airline pilots on deadhead legs. Which one are you? This is a personal question, and there’s no denying it, so objectively consider your last few flights. Did your appetite for risk change based on the passenger load?
It really shouldn’t – safe flying is safe flying, whether there are passengers on board or not. Comfort, however, is another matter. You might bounce through that puffy cumulus cloud when you’re solo, while you would turn five degrees right with a nervous passenger on board. That’s fine, but be sure to understand the difference here, and to adjust only your standard of comfort.
Solo flights aren’t something to be feared. In fact, they can be some of the most rewarding and memorable flights. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wasn’t talking about pilots, but he was onto something when he wrote, “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”
Or as a friend of mine said after his first solo cross-country, “Now that’s flying!”