A Pilot's Triumph: The First Solo
The first solo is one of the biggest steps taken when learning to fly. When I first began my flight training, I had no idea that I would be operating an airplane all on my own before even holding a pilot's license. Flight hours are a requirement towards getting that license, most of those hours are with an instructor, but some must be solo. The solo is a huge step because you have proven to yourself and your instructor that you can fly a plane all on your own. The confidence boost helps push you through the rest of your training.
It is a huge accomplishment to earn your wings but prior to that, there is a lot you need to learn before you leave your instructor behind. That training (and learning) will continue afterwards and throughout the rest of your piloting life. There is no specific amount of flight time that must be done prior to the solo. Only the flight instructor will determine whether the student is ready to fly by themselves. In fact, at many flight schools, the instructor may just hop out of the plane without any advance warning and tell the student to take it around the patch a few times.
In my early flying days, I somewhat knew that my soloing day had arrived. So my dad was there to witness the event. After a few landings with my instructor, I dropped him off on the ramp and then sailed around in that Piper Warrior for a few landings of my own. After the first landing, the nervousness subsided as I whooped it up (by myself) on the rollout. The biggest difference I noticed was how quiet it was in the plane without my instructor constantly yammering at me. When I taxied back to the ramp, I discovered that my mom had secretly shown up as well as my history teacher, who had been following my flight training! I filled out my first logbook entry and then my instructor proceeded to cut off my shirt tail, a tradition for first solo flights. He wrote down the airplane's tail number, airport and his signature. My parents signed it as well. I took the shirt home with me and hung it on my bedroom wall.
The shirt tail tradition isn't followed at all flight schools, but it's one I continued with my flight students. Some flight schools kept and displayed the shirts. Another tradition includes dumping a bucket of water on the new aviator. We also have a used propeller that we had solo students sign and date. When we were really ambitious, we would take their picture and post it on our website with a congratulatory note. This has become much easier now with our flight school Facebook page.
Once I began instructing students of my own, I would find myself returning to that nervous excitement as I sent them out by themselves. After a few good landings, I would have the student drop me off at the school. I would stand out on the ramp or inside the window with a hand held radio to monitor those first flights. I'd give encouragement on the radio after their first touchdown and let them decide if they felt comfortable to go around again or taxi back to the school. I think more often than not, I was more nervous than the soloists. I would often ask students as I was getting out of the plane "Are you nervous?"