I think most of us would agree that landing is probably the most difficult single task that we have to learn as aviators. The pressure of learning to solo was used by the military in WWII when we had to have an efficient system to weed out those that either didn’t have the commitment or “natural ability.” It was then baked into tradition and it carried on as the former military pilots and instructors shaped the civilian training programs. So it goes today, the vast majority of would-be pilots have to demonstrate that they can do the most difficult thing first before we will show them the other two-thirds of training.
So I have to wonder, is solo-first the best way to make more pilots? Many say that they know a person will finish if they make it through solo. What about the students who dropped out before solo? Were they really incapable of flying? Maybe they began to think that all you do in flying is to go around in a circle and it’s not worth the money. Then they go to the Bahamas for a SCUBA diving trip. Did we need to lose all of these students?
From the standpoint of a recreational pilot in training beating up the pattern over and over again early in training can be quite demoralizing. Many of today’s potential pilots have never personally experienced what recreational aviation is prior to flight training because of things like airport fences and other exciting recreational options available to them. So without any context for what flying is like, the initial goal for these people is just taking off and getting in the air. We then put the most difficult challenge in the first third of training and if they are not a “natural” the difficulty of solo can easily eclipse the goal of just being above the ground–and they drop out.
Instead we could give them experiences of what flying after a certificate is like as they proceed through training by pushing the solo until two-thirds of the way through training. We can then keep the goal of finishing looking more and more attractive as the training becomes steadily more demanding. When the goal is bigger than the hurdle they will be more apt to stick it out and beat up the pattern later in training to earn their certificate because they have experienced the gold at the end of the rainbow.
There is nothing in the regulations that says that solo needs to be accomplished before moving on to navigation and other real world flying tasks. One thing I do know is that no one gets into flying to do laps around the airport. Part 61 says an applicant only needs 10 hours solo with some of that time required for cross-country and preparing for the checkride. Given that, we can definitely focus on landings a little later in the training process, smooth out the difficulty curve, and see more students become certificated pilots. Heck, there will be at least one landing to practice with every flight anyway.
–Shannon Yeager, AOPA vice president of strategic initiatives in the Center to Advance the Pilot Community.