Soloing is overrated

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.

15 thoughts on “Soloing is overrated

  1. Sounds like an attitude problem, that YOU don’t enjoy taking circuits working to perfect landing technique. Pattern work requires just about every aspect of flying the airplane so a student that has mastered these techniques can concentrate on the demanding tasks involved with planning and executing a x-country flight without trying to focus on basic airmanship. And nothing gives a student more confidence than that first solo flight.

  2. Best learning I got was after solo when i had to put together all that my CFI wispered in my ear in dual-instruction. sometime you don’t even notice it as the CFI is dropping hints while recieving dual trianing. When in solo you suddenly realize that you gotta solve the problem yourself. Something as simple as tuning the radio to the new frequency with the .25 can be a distraction that you need to figure out yourself.

  3. I have not yet begun my training but from what I have read and studied, there seems to be a big climax with the first solo. In fact, that’s exactly how it sits in my mind right now. The possibility of spending a few more hours in the plane with the CFI on a cross country flight and learning some navigation prior to solo would take some of the pressure off, while engaging in a worthwhile flight training. I don’t think this should be in place in learning to fly a pattern correctly or any other flying skills, but changing the order of learning is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads to better pilots and more pilots.

  4. I’ve been doing a variation on that for years. It’s works pretty well unless they have a friend that’s already a pilot asking them every day if they’ve soloed yet…..

    By the time my students solo they are at PTS on ground ref, slow flight, stalls, steep turns and emergencies.

  5. The first solo doesn’t have to be awe inspiring but it does have to be safe. Soloing does build confidence as does the promise of cross country and night work when the basics are mastered a bit. Pattern work though tedious, build skills on the radio (listening and talking) and reinforces the muscle memory necessary to be able to multi-task while flying the aircraft. I vote for solo before additional training.

  6. While I agree that for some students the task of running around the patter over and over while learing to land can be frustrating, it is the job of the instructor to become aware of the goals and abilities of each individual student and develope a flight program that best fits them. As a chief flight instructor for a part 61 missionary training school, I have worked with many students who really enjoy the challenge of honing the skills of landing with repeated flights around the patter, while other students struggle to find the centerline or good crosswind skills. As stated before, the traffic pattern and landing process incorperates every aspect of the building blocks to learn to fly. One thing that has really concerned me recently is the pulling away from the focus on teaching good solid fundamentals to get students to the point that they really know the feel of the airplane, not just understanding of how the plane flies. When I teach a student, the first thing I do is sit down with them and talk about the learning process (you know that thing all instructors have to learn in the FOI but most seem to forget about the second the CFI checkride is over) and I am very clear of the learning process and how it will all work, including the sometimes tedious task of learning landings. Working with several dozen students as a CFI, I can not think of one single student that walked away frustrated over the process of learning to land an airplane, and I attribute that to sitting down and being honest with them from the beginning.

    I do not feel that learning to land is the hardest single task of learning to fly. The hardest single task of learning to fly is when you have been flying on a cross country for two hours, finally find your airport and are exhausted from the flight only to find that the winds are much stronger, you have to use a different runway or whatever has occured to bring your stress level up to max, and you still have to land the airplane. Before you say this is not a single task in learning to fly, it is. Its called cross country flying, it is in the PTS and it is what happens in the real world. Especially to students! Setting out on lessons to far up on the building blocks of learning without good solid fundamentals established will be a detrament to students in the long run.

    All that said, as a flight instructor I have had several students that struggle with learning to land. If they are hitting that plateau of the learning curve, it is my responsibility to realize this issue and change my lesson plan to match the current needs of that student without jumping too far up that building block. If the student is getting frustrated with learning landings I will jump ahead to a further lesson on VOR navigation or begin the steps of cross country flying with an airport hop lesson going to several different airports in the area, one usually having a restaurant or museum so that the student does not get burned out in the traffic patter.

    It scares me every time I do a flight review with a pilot that does not know how to use the rudders or fly a good solid traffic pattern to a stabilized approach in less than perfect condisions (and it happens quite often) only to hear the excuse that the student was never made to use them or remain stabilized. We, as instructors, must first focus on teaching good solid fundamentals to our students. But we must also be aware of the needs and frustrations they are developing and be able to shift gears to keep our students motivated and on track to complete their training.

    Moving away from landings before the student has a solid ability can, at times and for short periods, be a good thing. However taking them through 2/3 of their training before setting a focus on landings is not a good lesson plan in my experience.

  7. This might be the most disappointing article I’ve read from such an amazing organization. While the origins of soloing might be rooted in an older time in aviation, its practical use in the present cannot be taken for granted. As mentioned in a previous comment, flying an aircraft in the traffic pattern incorporates many of the necessary skills needed to pilot an airplane.

    The skills used to fly an airplane in the pattern are the same basic skills that keep an aircraft under positive control whether you are flying a turbine driven, or piston driven airplane. Proper knowledge of load factor, stall characteristics, pitch and power, situational awareness, weather, ATC communications (if the airport is towered) are all necessary. And that is just to list a few

    While I can understand that this article is not saying to take the traffic pattern solo out completely but instead move it to a later portion in training, there is still a level of safety that is being overlooked. If the worst was to happen, the student should be able to land the aircraft safely should the flight instructor become incapacitated. I understand that all of the previously mentioned tasks can weigh quite heavily on a new student, but it is the Flight Instructors job to take the student from the known to the unknown and properly put the learning process into action.

    Instead of moving to the initial solo to a later portion in training to lessen the stress on a student pilot that will be thrown into an extremely stressful environment all by themselves in just a few short hours. Lets instead as Flight Instructors help our students who may feel afraid to understand that their nerves leading up to a solo are natural, and that we as their Instructors would never put them into an unsafe scenario. Help them to understand all of the benefits of learning to fly in the traffic pattern and land the aircraft early in their training, so that by the time we step out of the aircraft they are no longer feel afraid, but instead confident and well-equipped.

    Current and future students please see the benefits, and the importance in soloing. It’s purpose is to mold you into a safer aviator.

    Our goal should not be to make sure that everyone passes regardless. Our goal should be to make sure that everyone passes safely.

  8. As a student with a grand total of 24.8 hours; and one who does not yet possess a medical certificate or a student pilot certificate due to a minor medical problem that is being reviewed by the FAA, I have appreciated the additional dual instruction time with my CFI. We have made 3 cross country trips in order to keep my training moving and at the end of the day this additional experience will make my solo much less stressful when that day comes. It has also put into perspective the benefits of eventually obtaining that coveted PPL and being able to enjoy GA to the fullest. For me, putting all the pieces together, i.e. flight planning, weather, navigation, etc. has made me enjoy the flying far more than those early, tentative flights. The additional time pre-solo is also giving me needed experience, increasing my confidence, and making me actually look forward to the day I can, in the eyes of the FAA, finally solo. It’s making me work that much harder at it, too.

    • MarkB, I admire your tenacity. However, you can solo now by simply getting a Sport Pilot student certificate, provided you can rent or borrow a Light Sport plane.

      In any case, keep enjoying the journey!

  9. I generally agree. If a student is having difficulty with those last few feet above the runway, but otherwise does well handling the airplane and maintaining good situational awareness, then there certainly is wisdom in moving ahead with the training and covering additional objectives rather than going around seemingly interminably in the pattern. There does reach a point of diminishing returns, where more pattern work for the sake of that elusive solo sign-off actually causes counter-production in the learning process.

    I have signed scores of solo endorsements and dozens of private pilot endorsements, and I can tell you that everyone learns differently. The instructor who recognizes that person’s need and is willing to tailor their training program to give them more time to learn landings while moving ahead with their course truly does good work for the aviation community.

    • Wes, thank you for this comment. After reading through other comments your the first to address the student’s learning process. As an instructor I believe it is important to understand how your student learns. Our goals is to make them safe and proficient pilots, hopefully as near to FAA minimums as possible to help keep the expense of training down for our student customers. If all training is moving the student to this ultimate goal, what is wrong with tailoring a syllabus to meet the learning needs and priorities of the student. Some students I get are very interested in soloing as quickly as they are ready, others just see it as a part of the overall training experience. Based on the comments I get from students that come to us from other schools, I believe inflexibility in the syllabus and lack of listening to our customer/students needs is the reason as an industry we have a difficult time retaining customers to completion. Of course our job is to balance what we know as instructors is good for the student, but also take the time to listen to them in their learning process as well. I vote you solo a student when it is the best time in their personal learning process.

  10. Having done great deal of “primary” instructing in the 1966-76 period, I was of the opinion that “soloing” and its main purpose was that of a CONFIDENCE builder. To date, haven’t seen ONE comment from CFI’s regarding this. Lets keep in mind WHAT the real objective is here; a gradual TRANSITION of skill, ability and authority to the student which Is about 35-40% of the LSA or Private requirement SOLO time? To much “dual” *(before solo) creates what we use to label as “co-pilot complex” – do they still use that term today?
    * Assuming the student is flying 2-4 times weekly, is of average aptitude, and dual given is in the 16-20 hour range, If ANY student takes an extended number of hours to solo, say 30+, and IS flying the 3-4 lessons per week as mentioned , a BIGGER issue is most likely at fault here.

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