Flying solo – why everything is different when you’re alone

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.

Pilot in left seat
It’s up to you, PIC.

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.

The pilot

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.

Pilots asleep
Late night?

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.

Cockpit habits

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.

Cirrus track TX
A solo flight gone awry.

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.

Teamwork

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
They can’t fly the airplane for you, but they can help.

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.

Risk

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!”

6 Comments

  • Good article.

    Here is my solo VS non-solo flying experience, as what used to be called a sport pilot.

    Not long after I obtained my license in the mid 70s in my Cessna 140A and had done flights with my wife and newborn son, I found I was apprehensive flying with them. My wife was a great navigator and never nervous and I was pretty sure my skills were decent, but it was all the stuff that was out of my control that bothered me.

    At the time we had been involved in sports car racing for just over a decade, almost all of it before the arrival of our son. Racing is, of course, a solitary sport in that no one was in the car with me, especially no family member. There were other drivers on the track of course, but they chose to be there.

    One other point came up after obtaining my license: I found flying can be somewhat boring. Being busy flying doesn’t mean it can’t be boring. One of the points I found I liked about flying is that it is a lot like racing a sports car: one has to have total concentration on the task. And the task is continuous.

    My friends at the airport mostly flew around the immediate area, flying out to the area dam not that far away on a summer evening and seeing if it was still there, and then flying back. I thought there ought to be something more challenging. I wanted some degree of challenge. That is why I learned to fly in a tail wheel airplane, for example.

    So, I thought about racing a plane because my younger brother owned one. However, I quickly decided I didn’t have the experience needed. Then, after reading an article on soaring, I thought, “Now flying out to the dam and back without a motor would be a challenge and certainly not boring. And most sailplanes are single seaters. No family is going along.” And, as an art major, it didn’t hurt that they are beautiful.

    One other nail in the coffin of my SEL flying was an overly expensive annual after a year of flying not that many hours. I sold my Cessna and looked for a challenge.

    With the profit I made from the sale of my Cessna, which paid for my flying lessons and left me some extra, I took a university aerobatic course, thinking it would make me a better, safer, more assured pilot…and it was a hoot.

    At the same time, I dug even deeper into soaring and, as fate would have it, the university had a soaring course and so I took it. After more study, I found the competition sailplane just right for me. I found working a thermal is challenging, thrilling and extremely rewarding, even if just flying in the area of one’s home airport, let alone cross country.

    So, I can see there is a difference in solo versus non-solo flight, even if just flying needle, ball, airspeed and a tuff of yarn.

  • I’m a usetobe pilot (Private, SEL). Owned a Cessna C-150L, then a Piper (PA-28-161), then a Mooney (M-20C). Always enjoyed taking folks flying, especially if it was an introduction to them experiencing breaking free of gravity. On the occasions where I had passenger(s), I always explained what I was about to do, whether it was to reduce power after leveling off, make a turn (turns were always shallow), drop the flaps, etc. If it wasn’t the first time I’d taken them flying, I might even take the right seat to give them the “pilots view” and let them make some turns. Whether it was a sightseeing flight, or a well-planned cross-country, my purpose was safety, and an attempt to allieve any concern, make it a great experience/memory for them, and hope the next time they had an opportunity to go flying in a private SEL, they would jump at the opportunity… maybe even consider taking up flying themselves.

    Flying solo was a different story. I always felt exploring the envelop, whether that of the airplane’s capabilities or my own abilities, was the only way to become a more competent pilot. My attitude was that while boring more holes in a CAVU sky might build hours, it didn’t make me a more capable pilot. So, I might fly into “less-than-CAVU” (perhaps down to scud-running), turns and altitude changes were whatever was necessary for the moment, and SEL night flying was commonplace, whether X-country or a $100 burger run. (Feel free to comment… that was long ago when I was much younger and almost invincible.)

    (As an aside, my flying days began to end the night I was bouncing around in iffy weather nearing the end of a long X-country from central Texas to Omaha. I began checking the sectional for nearby airports in case I felt I needed to get on the ground. As I was trying to read the frequencies for the various airports on the chart, in spite of wearing bifocals I began wishing I had a magnifying glass… that’s when the thought hit me, “what in the world am I doing up here if I need a magnifying glass?” I completed the flight to my destination that night, but that epiphany was the beginning of the end of my flying days. I miss them still.)

    Point is, whenever someone else’s life depended on me and my decisions, that’s when my operating limits, challenges, and personal weather requirements, changed quite a bit. I would become “old” rather than “bold”. I doubt I have been the only one who operated this way. So, as for statistics, my guess is that there have been more accidents resulting from solo flights, but the passengers of those who flew with this mentality were much safer.

    • I’m a usetobe pilot (Private, VFR, SEL). Owned a Cessna C-150L, then a Piper (PA-28-161), then a Mooney (M-20C). Always enjoyed taking folks flying, especially if it was an introduction to them experiencing breaking free of gravity. On the occasions where I had passenger(s), I always explained what I was about to do, whether it was to reduce power after leveling off, make a turn (turns were always shallow), drop the flaps, etc. If it wasn’t the first time I’d taken them flying, I might even take the right seat to give them the “pilots view” and let them make some turns. Whether it was a sightseeing flight, or a well-planned cross-country, my purpose was safety, and an attempt to allieve any concern, make it a great experience/memory for them, and hope the next time they had an opportunity to go flying in a private SEL, they would jump at the opportunity… maybe even consider taking up flying themselves.

      Flying solo was a different story. Solo, I was able to concentrate more on flying and make my decisions without the distractions of concern for the safety, piece of mind, and comforts of passengers. As well, I always felt exploring the envelop, whether that of the airplane’s capabilities or my own abilities, was the only way to become a more competent pilot. My attitude was that while boring more holes in a CAVU sky might build hours, it didn’t make me a more capable pilot. So, I might fly into “less-than-CAVU” (perhaps down to scud-running), turns and altitude changes were whatever was necessary for the moment, and SEL night flying was commonplace, whether X-country or a $100 burger run. (Feel free to comment… that was long ago when I was much younger and almost invincible.)

      (As an aside, my flying days began to end the night I was bouncing around in iffy weather nearing the end of a long X-country from central Texas to Omaha. I began checking the sectional for nearby airports in case I felt I needed to get on the ground. As I was trying to read the frequencies for the various airports on the chart, in spite of wearing bifocals I began wishing I had a magnifying glass… that’s when the thought hit me, “what in the world am I doing up here if I need a magnifying glass?” I completed the flight to my destination that night, but that epiphany was the beginning of the end of my flying days. I miss them still.)

      Point is, whenever someone else’s life depended on me and my decisions, that’s when my operating limits, challenges, and personal weather requirements, changed quite a bit. I would become “old” rather than “bold”. I doubt I have been the only one who operated this way. So, as for statistics, my guess is that there have been more accidents resulting from solo flights, but the passengers of those who flew with this mentality were much safer.

  • I started flying with the 8th US Army Flying Club in Seoul in the early 80-ties, although I am Swiss. My instructor was Col. Kim, a retired Vietnam vet. He teached me well, I was happy with him, although he treated me like a recruit, but never mind that. One thing he insisted on was that I speak out loud and clear whatever I was doing. I am still doing this today, I find this comforting and, since it is obviously in my head, I might as well verbalize it.

  • The bad-news/good-news of solo flying is sloppy versus undistracted flying. For me the distraction of passengers is way more of a threat than my own lethargy. Even more so when flying IMC. The “ISO” button on my audio panel gets a good workout.

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