The first milestone in your flight training journey is your first flight, either a discovery flight or your first lesson where you take the controls and feel the aircraft move. As you progress in your flight training, at some point you will reach the next, significant, exhilarating milestone: your first solo flight. This rite of passage event is so significant, it even has its own wikipedia page detailing its rich history and traditions. Your solo flight is a day you will likely remember forever; the tail number of your airplane and the airport name forever etched in your mind. Successfully completing your first solo is an achievement to be immensely proud of.
Preparing for Your First Solo Flight
Before you can ever take your place in history with pilots like Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and Sully Sullenberger, you must complete your first solo flight. Below are five tips to be prepared for your first solo, and beyond! If you are prepared, this will be an easy and fun day for you.
- Practice Your Flight On the Ground: Think about the traffic pattern and how you’ll fly. Break this down into actions at the upwind, crosswind, downwind, base, and final legs.
- Set Up Your Traffic Pattern Correctly: If you’re too fast, too high, and way outside the pattern, you are going to spend your final approach doing all kinds of corrections, that you may not be familiar with (definitely not something you want to do the first time you’re landing by yourself). As soon as you take off, think about how you need to be flying, particularly in regard to:
- Communications: Don’t forget to make your calls for crosswind, downwind, base, and final turns (including runway number), or talk to ATC if at a towered airport. You can identify yourself as a student pilot if you like.
- Altitude: Standard traffic pattern is 1,000 feet above the airport field elevation (check your local chart for your airport). Level off smoothly and reduce power so you don’t go right “through” this altitude and keep climbing.
- Speed: This will vary depending on your altitude. In a Cessna 172, your downwind leg will be 90 knots.
- Your Setup: When you’re abeam the touchdown point, you’ll want to smoothly proceed with your next steps. This may vary for your aircraft, but will generally be reducing power to about 1500 RPM, starting a 500 feet per minute descent, and putting in 10 degrees of flaps (check your speed first!).
- Don’t Rely on Visual References: As you practice landings in the initial stages of your flight training, the traffic pattern will become more and more familiar. You’ll likely know exactly where to make your turns based on visual points on the ground. While these reference points can be helpful, focusing on the stages of each leg in the traffic pattern, and your position related to the airport and runway, will allow you to fly to any airport, not just your home airport where you know where to turn based on roads, hills, water towers, and corner gas stations on the ground.
- Work Through Anxiety Before You’re Rolling Down the Taxiway: It’s normal to be nervous about your first solo. Your instructor might not set a specific date for your first solo, but you will likely know that it’s coming soon. If you’re anxious about it, talk to your instructor. Focus on why you are anxious, and what you need to do to curb that anxiety.
- Never Try to Salvage a Bad Approach: If you are too high, too fast, too uncoordinated, just go around. A go-around is always preferable to a bad or dangerous landing. Be familiar with and proficient on the go-around procedures.
If all else fails, remember the one simple rule: fly the airplane first. Although your instructor shouldn’t sign you off until they feel you are well prepared, it’s important to still take your first solo seriously. The NTSB reports that 41% of all general aviation accidents happen in the approach and landing phases of flight. Understand where things can go wrong, particularly with the critical, accident-wrought, base-to-final turn. With preparation and a good night of sleep before your flight, your first solo will be a positive experience and wonderful memory.