How to safely solo a student in minimum time

Another CFI joined me in the grass area between the runway and the taxiways at Tampa’s Peter O. Knight Airport (TPF), as we both watched my student solo. I enjoyed smiling to the CFI who joined me and my student waved at me as he passed us halfway on his second takeoff roll. The student was smiling and waving at me with confidence in what he was doing – with only six hours of total time.

The smile included my satisfaction with how good his three stabilized approaches were – resulting in three smooth landings. How did it happen? That wave? The stabilized approaches? My answer is confidence – the confidence that came from us using the VASI lights to help implant the basics of a stablized approach that built up these skills, knowledge and confidence.

His flight training started by covering all flight instruments for takeoffs and landings, noting that with the Wright Flyer, Wilbur did not have flight instruments.

First solo shirt tails
Solo in 6 hours? This pilot says it’s possible.

We would fly out as far as we could and turn back where we could still see the VASI lights; then turn back to the airport at a point where we rolled out on the glidepath at “red-over-white-that’s-alright.” I then demonstrated how to use power and pitch to remain on the glideslope while having the student write down the settings and throttle positions.

I added power to climb above the glideslope to the “white-over-white” while maintaining pitch then reduced power to descend below the VASI glideslope to “red-over-red-you’re-dead,” maintaining the same pitch. Repeat the drill.

Later we slowed and practiced stall drills as we turned and wove our way down and up the VASI glidepath. I then had the student do the same drill. From time to time I had him trim hands off and asked him to guess the airspeed and vertical velocity, and then removed a cover or tape on the airspeed indicator and/or vertical velocity or both so he can see how good his guess was.

We continued these drills until a mile on final with the aircraft trimmed hands-off with the known, written down power setting and pitch and held this until we started to enter ground effect. The technique is to fly as close to the runway as possible while increasing back pressure to prevent the aircraft from landing, to prevent touchdowns as close as possible to the runway.

We taxied back and took off again with all the flight instruments covered.

Why cover the flight instruments for takeoff and landing?

First, you want the student to look out of the cockpit for conflicting taxi, look for conflicting takeoffs and landing traffic. You want them to create a total awareness, listening to the engine and propeller. You want them to feel the control forces on takeoff roll. You want them to see the takeoff distance and for many other good reasons that I explain later such as that there may come a time in their future flying careers when they lose electric power at night or not trust flight instruments due to icing or a malfunction.

These VASI drills build confidence, skills, and knowledge until the entire takeoffs and landings and stalls are completed with all the flight instruments covered.

When that level of confidence, skill, and knowledge is reached, it’s time to solo and what a joy it is to stand in the grass between the taxiway and the runway.

That simple wave from my solo student as he passed us on his second takeoff roll… to this day, it brings a smile to my face.

5 Comments

  • I can’t tell whether the author wrote the headline, but I will opine that ANY effort to solo any student in any minum amount of time comprises instructional malpractice. It’s a misguided objective. And to any extent that any instructor tolerates students’ focus on hours-to-solo, s/he does a disservice to general aviation.

  • Soloing students in the minimum time necessary for proficiency is indeed, important. It’s a major blip in their confidence level and encouragement to continue. It used to be quite common to solo students in 8 hours or less; and that included spin training. The airplanes and regulations were less complicated and thus, it is more difficult to do now days.

    I have not seen any evidence from accident statistics that indicates the common practice today of holding them for 20 or 30 hours has improved solo safety. In fact, if anything, the basic flying skills have degenerated.

  • So I’d like to discuss this VASI thing. I’ve noticed many instructors teach landing to the VASI, but I have resisted doing so for two reasons: One, many airports don’t have a VASI system. So I teach judging glideslope by using the aspect ratio (shape of the runway). Two, the typical 3 degree glideslope is too low to glide to the runway in case of an engine failure. So I teach that the lights are for instruments and night use, but I do point out that too many red lights are an indication they should add power. My students take longer to solo but they can land on any runway and judge their altitude without the lights.

  • If you’re ready, you’re ready…

    While working in New Zealand in the last century, my brother took flying lessons and soloed in less than four hours.

    Coming home to the Frozen North, he went on to get his commercial licence and instrument rating.

    Although a career in aviation was not in the cards, he has been involved in aviation to this day.

    And, it turns out that since the acquisition of a Van’s RV-9A, he’s become a dab hand at formation. Even if flying from that weird left seat/left stick/right throttle position that most side-by-side amateur built aircraft seem to get hobbled with…

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