“Super Solo” and Lifetime Landing Focus!

Accidents during the landing phase of flight represent almost 50% of total airplane wreckage. The landing phase also involves less than 5% of total piloting time – we obviously have a problem here. This deficiency continues right up to jets with statistics showing 38% of these accidents are pilots with commercial and ATP certificates. This is not just a beginner problem but it all starts with solo.

Refocusing on how we teach landings and regard solo can help this problem. During initial flight training, we need to embed increased regard for landing well and emphasize the need for excellence – not mere survival. Landing well is a lifelong challenge, not just a hurdle to hop over during initial training to move onward. As an examiner, I see an amazing number of crappy landings and often wonder, “don’t applicants and CFIs care about this poor performance?” Landing is certainly not a place to achieve “minimally acceptable!” The landing should be a point of pride that every pilot should continually work to improve. I posted this clip on FaceBook and got lots of input.

Though the landing phase is obviously the most complicated part of most missions, refocusing on solo can help improve all landings. As educators, we need to emphasize that first solo is only the “minimum viable product” and there is a lot of work ahead to achieve checkride level performance and lifelong proficiency. Landing well is an endless process of refining and improving our skills in all kinds of aircraft and conditions: AOPA Safety Spotlight on Landings.

A student who is ready to solo has consistently demonstrated good safe landings (probably not perfect but certainly safe) in varying conditions and on different days. A “lucky day” is certainly not a sign for solo. Additionally, a savvy CFI has already provided all the emergency challenges that *might* occur (loss of airspeed, loss of engine, etc) and the student handled all this well.

The final challenge is the psychological issue of being “all alone” for the first time. If the instructor has been allowing the student to operate independently without micro-managing their flight training this should not be a big problem. A “hands-on CFI” that is constantly on the controls and the radio (bad technique) is going to have a hard time getting out (see “incremental mastery” here).

Knowing When to Solo a Student
(From a CFI seminar in 1971 given by D.A. Henriques)
As instructors, it goes without saying that all of you will be dealing with the issue of deciding when a student is ready to solo, and what to do when this stage of training is reached. There are many methods a CFI can use to determine when the student is ready to go it alone. Let me explain one method to you. This method has never failed me. As you form your own method, it might give you a starting block in understanding the issue.Somewhere during the takeoff and landing stage, using full stops and NOT touch and go’s, I will reach a decision on solo based on a demonstrated consistency and performance level from the student. This is the easy part! As the solo decision is reached, I inform the student in a calm and quiet manner while taxiing back to take off again that in my opinion, solo is now possible WHEN THE STUDENT IS READY, AND TELLS ME SO!!!. This is stage one of the solo process. It informs the student and begins the student’s mental preparation for what is to come next.

Stage two now begins. By informing the student of possible solo, I have effectively changed the student’s thinking process from a dual scenario into a solo scenario so that as the airplane takes the active for the next takeoff, the student is now thinking in that all important solo perspective. I now repeat to the student, “I feel you can fly this airplane. When YOU feel you can fly it, let me know and I’ll get out”. I have always considered this statement critical to the solo equation .Telling the student that the student is ready opens the door for the critical change from dual thinking to solo thinking….and that change is CRITICAL!!

Now stage three. The student is now on the active and ready to take off. In his/her mind I’m not really there. The student, whether or not he/she actually realizes it, is thinking as though I wasn’t there. At this juncture, I make it a point to avoid all physical contact with the airplane; letting the student do everything.If the student has a question, the answer I give is something like ” What do YOU think you should do?” The student should be required to solve and perform with the instructor keeping a watchful eye but not interfering. Any physical interference at all constitutes a solo abort until the problem can be addressed with further dual. I should note here that if such a failure occurs, the CFI has made an initial error in the solo judgment going into the problem and should seriously evaluate his/her own performance!

Assuming no CFI error at this point, as the student applies power to the airplane after being told that solo is his/her choice, his/her entire mental process will now be focused at the solo level. Mentally, the student will now be filling in the gaps in confidence that are a must before a safe solo can be accomplished. Some students will breeze right through this process, but many need this last extra step to firm up what the instructor should already know…that they are ready to fly the airplane without the CFI being there!!! The key here is that although the student is thinking on a solo level, the CFI is still in the airplane.This last time around the pattern will be critical. The instructor should make every effort not to interfere PHYSICALLY at this point. Every effort should be made to allow the student to solve any problem encountered during this last pattern. Verbal prompting should be kept to a minimum, and encouragement should be freely given as the student enters into and solves a problem of altitude/airspeed/ configuration/and position.

Assuming a good landing; on the way back the instructor should ask, “Well, what do you think?” If the answer is positive at this point, (as well it should be ) the student can be soloed.This procedure is what I have used with all the students I have soloed and it has never once failed to produce a successful solo. Every CFI will find their own personal method for making the solo decision. This decision is one of the most important single decisions made by any pilot at any time in aviation. It deserves careful and serious study and a constant self evaluation by a CFI to fine tune the factors that go into the making of this decision.    Dudley Henriques

Share *your* tips here and stay safe as we restart aviation. The AOPA has just come out with an excellent guide to COVID procedures.

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

4 thoughts on ““Super Solo” and Lifetime Landing Focus!”

  1. Hey David – I love the article. Teaching landings has always been a question. I was flabbergasted after I finished my own CFI initial training, realizing that my very experienced and well qualified instructor had not taught me a single technique or concept with witch to teach the actual landing. It took me a long time to discover specific visual cues that I could transmit to any student that would result in almost certain success. ANECDOTE ALLERT!

    When I was in the role of Chief Flight Instructor in a large Part 141 school, I saw a lot of really screwy results. Instructors would send students for the pre-solo stage check who had almost no ability to get the airplane safely back to earth. There was one guy though – Randy D, who’s students could always land quite well, often gracefully. One day I asked him; “Randy, how come all your students can land so well? How do you teach landings?” He looked at me, surprised; “Well, I don’t really worry that much about it. I just focus teaching everything we do using pitch, power, and trim. We don’t really practice multiple landings on most lessons. Then before solo we do a few flights where we practice four or five landings. Ive never really had a problem with it.” Hmmmm.

    Another guy I used to do check rides for, a retired B52 pilot, very old and creaky, always had students who could land very well. As an instructor, he had a few problems with comprehensive test prep, but his students could always land the airplane, even when they were weak in other areas. He worked out of an uncontrolled field and his students usually soloed at between five and seven hours. He thought a ten hour solo was extremely late. Obviously he had the knack of getting the student to look out the window and apply force to the flight controls appropriately.

    The point; If we teach flight control correctly, landing should not be that difficult. But if we don’t, this zero tolerance maneuver where the rubber meets the runway, will usually reveal wrong training that has been conducted at altitude. The really wild ones occur when a pilot has been “flying inside, checking outside” all the way down final. I.e, (s)he has been actually controlling the airplane with reference to instrument indications, then looking out the window to make sure this results in the desired trajectory. This can look pretty normal from the right seat until level off in ground effect, the first time the pilot has actually attempted to control the airplane with direct reference to the outside world. This is why experienced CFI’s often cover the panel during various phases of flight – to force the student into an attitude control paradigm.

    Thanks again for your valuable perspective David!

    1. I don’t think I have soloed a student without covering the panel. Initial “shock and awe” then surprise and relief at how much >easier< it is to land! A good exercise every 100 hours.

  2. A couple other things to add in here:

    1. We need a wind callout when turning base. No wind callout, no landing. That is a mandatory go-around. The wind callout acknowledges overshooting or undershooting winds, and left/right crosswind. That ensures that the student is aware of how the wind is going to affect the turn to final and the landing. So if landing from left traffic with a left crosswind on landing, the callout will be, “overshooting winds, left crosswind landing.”

    2. We also need a runway abort-point callout. This is a designated point on the runway where, if not on the ground and able to brake by that point, it is a mandatory go-around. If the student realizes out on final that the abort point is not going to be made — go around. Even if on the ground but too fast to safely brake — go around. Go arounds are free.

    The abort point is designated on take-off too. It is a point on the runway where the airplane is off the ground and climbing at a positive rate, or a point where the airspeed is such that acceleration says that airplane WILL take off normally (short runway).

    Add these to the things the teacher is watching for. They are really useful for gauging the student’s thinking process well ahead of time.

    1. I like it! Pre-determined abort points for take-off and landing are critical to safety; code yellow!

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