By Howard Deevers


One of the greatest thrills of learning to fly is that first solo flight. All of us remember our first solo; our instructor just signed our logbook for solo, and now we are on our own. The emotion is high, and the apprehension is even higher. For the first time our safety net, the instructor, is not there. It is an event that we never forget!

Over the years I have heard many pilots tell me that they did their first solo after 3 hours, some say 4 hours, or even 5 hours. Very low numbers in any case. I learned about those pilots. After a while, when I was given those “low numbers,” I had a response to that: I would hear their low number for solo, then I would say, “Let me guess. It was in a J-3 Cub, on a grass field in Iowa, in 1957.” Some would look at me and respond, “How did you know?” It might have been Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, or some other Mid-Western area, but the stories were always very similar.

that first solo flight piper

The J-3 Cub was, and still is, a famous airplane. A “tail-dragger” easy to fly plane, forgiving in many respects. You could crash it, but you had to be really bad to do so. The plane was so basic that it probably did not have a radio, no intercom, and maybe no lights or starter. You had to hand prop it to start it. There was at least one at every grass field airport in the Mid-West, and the owner of the field was probably a fight instructor, too. The requirements to solo were pretty much left up to the instructor.

Today, the first solo requires a bit more instruction and takes longer but is no less exciting to the student. A common question presented to instructors is “How many hours do I need to solo?” I actually call that a trick question. Pilots are still bragging about their first solo, no matter how long it took for them to do so. It is a milestone in our progress, so go ahead and brag. I don't mind.

I call it the trick question because you cannot find a number in that 2-pound book called “The FAR/AIM” anywhere. There are numbers for almost everything else we must do, including the cross-country solo, the minimum experience required for almost any rating, and lots of other numbers, but no number for the solo.

that first solo flight piper cub

If you look at the regulation 61.87 under Student Pilots you will find several paragraphs of stuff we must do for Pre-solo flight training, including a written test administered by the instructor prior to the first student solo. Then the regulation goes on to list 15 items that the student must have training in before being allowed to solo a single engine airplane. Those 15 items address not only skills, but safety requirements. All of this is intended to make safer pilots. It does not matter if this is at a control towered airport or a grass field in Iowa. Further down in the regulations you will find a requirement for a student to do at least a few landings at a control towered airport, so that they at least have had that experience.

Airspace is a bit different now than it was in 1957. Now we have the “alphabet soup” of airspace from A-B-C-D-E and G. That J-3 Cub is welcome in all of those airspaces, except the Class A....18000 feet + simply because it can't fly that high or fast enough not to clog up the systems. The J-3 Cub of today will likely have an electrical system, and a radio, and a transponder, and thus be equipped to fly into Class B-C-D airports. But even if it never was equipped, there are still ways for it to fly into those complex airspaces, but that is another lesson for another time.

that first solo flight piper j3

All pilots learn at different rates. Some take longer to gain the skills to land and take off and to understand the basic rules. Some get those skills quickly and are able to solo sooner. Back to the trick question of how many hours: it depends on your skills and knowledge. The burden for this is put on the instructor. The instructor must teach each item, and enter it into the logbooks, and at some time, make a judgment that the student is competent to solo. Skill alone won't do it. The knowledge requirements are there, too. Since pilots DO learn at different rates, it is really hard to put a number on when they would solo. The same with the minimum experience requirements. The minimum of 40 hours in the FAR's might turn out to be 60 or 80 hours.

There are also some students that do solo, then never go on to get a pilot license. They just keep getting signed off for solo flight. The endorsement in the logbook from the instructor allowing you to fly solo, and the restrictions the instructor applied to that solo, are only good for 90 days. After 90 days, the student must take another flight with the instructor, and if the instructor agrees that the student is OK to solo, can add another solo endorsement to the log book. That exercise can go on for years. And, for some students, that is all they want to do.

A lot of prospective students equate learning to fly with learning to drive a car. They cannot be compared. An airplane is NOT a car, but don't let that stop you. Get out there and try it.

Your ARIZONA PILOTS ASSOCIATION, and the FAASTeam offer free safety seminars somewhere in the state every month. Check the website for time and location, and don't forget to “Bring your wingman.”

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