Flight log

Hours 25 and 26: My first solo!

Although this log is titled "Hours 25 and 26", it is really all about hour 26. Because on that flight, I did my first solo! 

The first solo is a milestone in the career of any pilot. It is a goal that I have been working towards since August when I started with regular flight lessons. And I finally recorded that milestone in my pilot logbook on Friday, December 15, 2023.

My first solo. One circuit with no instructor in the right seat!

After the RPM gauge issue (see Hour 24 log) and ahead of the upcoming Christmas holidays, I wanted to get as many flights as I could to give me a better chance of achieving my first solo. I was also planning a 3-day break from work on the week of December 11. So, I decided to book a lesson for the morning of December 11 and another one for December 18. 

These two would help me make up the regular Wednesday lessons. The weather forecast for those days was also promising. I felt that I'd have my first solo by the end of this week.

Unfortunately, I did not capture the video from Hour 25. It was a typical circuits training session, with the potential for going solo, which did not eventuate due to a cloud base that was lower than the minimum for going solo. Therefore, I will focus on what happened in Hour 26 in this log.

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Here's what BOM shows for the weather of Monday, December 11 (Hour 25) and Friday, December 15 (Hour 26 - Solo):

The weather for Hours 25 and 26 was good. 

For the Hour 26 flight (solo), ATIS reported this:

Information Charlie: Runway 06, glider operations in progress, wind 030° 10 kt, crosswind 10 kt, visibility greater than 10 Km, clouds broken 4000, QNH 1009, 29°C. 

What is the first solo, and why is it important?

I have written about the first solo process and milestone in my Hour 20 log.

The first student solo is a pivotal milestone in aviation training. It was the first time a student pilot operated an aircraft without an instructor. This event marks a significant step in becoming a licensed pilot, demonstrating the student's ability to fly independently and make decisions without direct supervision.

In Hour 26, I would finally achieve my first solo. I had thought about it since my first training flight in the January 2023 flight camp. Back then, it was more like a distant goal, achievable but not imminent. Since mid-November, though, the prospect of "going solo" became much more immediate, and with every flight lesson, the prospect of taking off without an instructor in the right seat became more realistic. 

In the previous few weeks, I had several opportunities to achieve this milestone, only to be foiled by a combination of flying deficiencies, bad weather, or equipment failure. 

Regardless of these "setbacks", I was confident I would go solo in December because I knew I could pack at least four to six lessons before the Christmas break, and I felt that I was improving and correcting the deficiencies that caused previous solo rejections.

The first solo is extremely important. Having now done it, I think that its importance is mainly a psychological one. This is the first time a student flies without an instructor's safety net. It demonstrates the student's ability to fly solo, instilling confidence in their skills. 

In addition, the first solo is a required step in obtaining a pilot's license, showcasing readiness for more advanced training stages.

The solo flight, a high-level view

Instead of going through the technicalities of Hour 26, I'll explain what happened and how it felt before, during, and after the solo.

If you strip away the special psychology of the first solo, it comes down to flying one circuit without the instructor. 

It's no big deal if you take a moment to think about this. I started circuits training back in Hour 8. Today is my 26th hour of training. In each training hour, I completed between 6 and 9 circuits. Let's average this to 7. So far, not including today, I have completed 25 - 8 = 17 hours of training and a total of 17 * 7 = 119 circuits. 

Most of these circuits were "normal", i.e. circuits where I used flaps to land or do a go-around. Since Hour 13, I also started practising "flapless" and "glide" approaches. 

The only practical difference between today's solo circuit and all the previous 119 circuits is that I would be the pilot in command in the solo. I would be the only pilot on the plane. 

The instructor's only responsibility is to (1) confirm that my competence on the day is sufficient to allow me to fly this one circuit safely and (2) that the conditions (the weather and the airspace traffic) were appropriate.

Simple, right? 

Psychology: Anxiety attack (or not)?

I followed the same rationalisation to help me prepare for this flight. I am a "mature age" student pilot, so I have been in several stressful situations throughout my life. I did not feel particularly stressed today or in previous possible solo flights. I have spoken with other pilots who did their solo before me, and it seems that the younger a student is, the higher their level of pre-solo stress and anxiety.

According to my instructors, a certain stress level is beneficial as it helps to augment senses and reaction speeds. Based on that, I even tried to elevate my stress level by thinking about it (!), but that didn't work. I always felt Spock's approach to dealing with a stressful situation was the best.

And, of course, there's MacGyver. MacGyver has been in a lot of hairy situations, but I don't remember him freaking out. Or at least he never showed it. MacGyver, just like Spoke, operated calmly and methodically no matter how much pressure the environment applied on them. 

Perhaps, after all these years, I'm becoming Spock and MacGyver? I've never had to save the world by returning in time or escaping from a booby-trapped safe house, but I was about to fly a plane solo!

The solo flight in three parts

Let's break today's flight into three parts:

1. Before the flight, starting about a day before, up to the pre-flight inspection.

2. Pre-solo assessment: starting at pre-flight inspection until the instructor leaves the plane.

3. Solo: starting when the instructor exits the plane until getting back in after completing the solo.

Before the flight

As with all my flights, I prepared my equipment the day before. I checked the batteries in my headset, formatted the SD Cards in the GoPro and charged the external batteries. I checked all the cables.

I also checked FlightRadar24 to see if JBC (my plane for the day) had flown recently.  

I packed my water and a few snacks. 

I also checked the weather forecast for Camden on Weatherzone and on Planesight; something about I am now fanatical. 

I had a 12 PM flight, so I had enough time to do some work in the morning and then check the NAIPS location briefing. You can see the location briefing in the screen capture on the right. The TAF mentioned 12 kt winds at 120°. This wind is a little high, and its direction would create a 10 kt crosswind on runway 06. I thought I could handle this, but to be safe, I decided to call Altocap. I wanted to chat with Victor and ask about the actual conditions at the airport. 

After a quick chat, I got in the car and drove to Camden. 

Two hours later, I was there, and the wind had greatly improved. It was still around 10 kt, but almost entirely a headwind.

At Altocap, Ben and his son Gus (both Scouts) were there. Gus was finishing with the debrief of his morning flights. I had a chat with them, and they wished me well. Gus had completed his first solo earlier in the year, and he's most of the way towards his RPL. 

I sat with Victor, my CFI for this flight, to do the paperwork. I felt good, with very little detectable stress and anxiety, had no alcohol, had food and drink, and the weather was good; it was a "go" with a wide margin in the scorecard.

After Victor had some time to rest and have lunch, we walked to JBC. It was already out of the hangar after Gus's morning flight. It was also full of fuel. 

I started to setup my cameras.


Pre-solo flight

Before Victor could approve me for the first solo, I had to demonstrate that I was competent with the various pre-flight and flight operations. To do this, I had to do everything I have done dozens of times: pre-flight checks, ATC communications, engine start-up and taxi, runup checks, take-off, and circuits. 

I would demonstrate my skill in the circuit's normal, flapless, glide approaches. I would also do a simulated engine failure upwind and communicate with the Camden Tower.

I had only one goal for this part of Hour 26: to fly "in front of the plane". Turn on time, use power and attitude to control speed and rate of descent, and don't worry about the descent rate too much (if power and attitude are correct, the rate of descent will be correct).

By flying in front of the plane, my approach will be stable. I will be able to land and not require a go-around.

And it worked. The first circuit and touch-and-go were very good, at least for me. 

Circuit 2 was flapless. Good, again. 

In Circuit 3, I did a simulated engine failure upwind and then a forced landing (engine failure downwind), which we changed to a go-around. It's still all good.

In Circuit 4, we did another engine failure simulation downwind, completed in a glide approach and then touch-and-go. Good!

Circuit 5 was a full-stop with a normal approach, after which Victor said, "Let's DO IT!".

It was "GO" for my first solo!

My first solo

Yes, let's do it!

I parked JBC at the runup bay off holding point Delta. Victor reiterated a few things to remember, such as what I'm supposed to do (go to holding point Alpha, make the "ready for circuits" radio call as normal, take off, do a single circuit and land, pick me up from here and return to parking". He also explained what to do in case of radio issues and how to confirm that I could hear him through the radio (he would tune in to the Tower frequency so he could listen to my calls and jump in via radio if necessary). 

All clear.

I had a bit of water, and Victor got out of the plane. We checked his radio, and I was off to holding point Alpha. 

I made my "ready" call, and before I knew it, I was accelerating on runway 06. As expected, the plane accelerated faster than I used to because it had half its regular passenger load. Vertical climb speed was also higher, and I reached circuit altitude almost by the end of the upwind leg!

I turned to crosswind and then to downwind. I made my downwind call, "Julia Bravo Charlie downwind for full stop", and immediately started the pre-landing checklist. 

During this time, I was scanning the main instruments (altimeter and airspeed) and the turn coordinator during the turns, and I looked out the window for reference cues. I felt good, without stress. 

The workload increases a lot at downwind. I did the BUMFISH checklist while checking spacing, altitude and airspeed. I lost some altitude late downwind, but that was about when I started the turn to base. 

I deployed flaps, 10° before the turn, and decreased RPMs. I increased flaps to 20° at early base, and 30° on final.

Everything was almost textbook. 

I stabilised the plane on the extended centerline just before touchdown. 

And then it happened. I pulled the yoke back a little too much, causing the plane to balloon. The natural instinct to push forward kicked in, and I pushed the yoke to lower the nose to get the plane to land. 

Remember what Greg said back in Hour 15? "Never push forward like that". I did. I had not made this mistake since Hour 15. The Cessna 172 is a tough and very forgiving plane; again, it forgave this mistake. It was a rough landing that started from a good, stable approach, but a small mishandling spoiled the touchdown.

I settled the plane on the tarmac by reducing my inputs, slowed down with some breaking, and exited the runway. The ATC operator reminded me to pick up my instructor from the runup bay and congratulated me on my first solo.

I stopped the plane near where Victor stood, and he jumped in. After joking about my landing spectacle, we taxied to parking, completed the shutdown checklist, and secured the JBC and a couple of other planes in the hangar.

I was excited and contemplated returning the next day for more flying. I had a booking for next week, but that was more than five days away!!!

What's coming up next?

December 15 is a day I will remember. My flying was not perfect, but it was safe and controlled.

The first solo flight opened up the way for more solo flights. I have two flights booked for Wednesday, and I'll discuss the details with Greg.

As I understand it, my next solo flight will be like the first one but with more circuits. It will include two or three touch-and-go and normal approaches.

After that, depending on my performance, I will be doing a "door-to-door" session, where I am solo from the hangar, taxi, takeoff six or seven circuits, approach for a full stop, and taxi back to the hangar. It will be an entire hour-long session with no instructor.

While I may feel confident that all of the above is simply an extension of the training I have already completed, the big differentiator is risk.

The longer I fly, the more likely I am to encounter a situation I have never experienced. It could be a sudden change in weather, bringing in strong winds or rain. It could be an unexpected influx of aeroplanes wanting to land, making maintaining situational awareness in the circuit super-important. I may experience my first radio malfunction in one of my first solos or even an engine failure. The statistics are in my favour as these risks are low. But numbers are cold and real, and one of those situations may happen in my next solo.

While I'm eager to do the solo again, I'm mindful that all risks will be higher and that the only way to mitigate them is more training.

Spock would be a strong advocate for additional training. In fact, I did ask him, and he said this:

"Cadet, it is only logical to deduce that proficiency in flight is not merely a product of natural ability, but of rigorous training and repeated practice. Before you embark on your next solo endeavor, it is advisable to engage in additional flight simulations. This will not only enhance your technical skills but also your capacity to respond effectively to unforeseen variables during actual flight. As a Starfleet officer, your preparedness is paramount, not just for your own safety, but for the safety of those you may one day command." - Spock, Starfleet Academy Flight Instructor

Advice from Spock, Starfleet Academy flight instructor (CFI)

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Full video of Hour 26.

Shorter and narrated video for Hour 26.

Flight path from Flightradar24 for Hour 26, my first solo!

Flight path from Flightradar24 for Hour 26, pre-solo check.

Flight path from Flightradar24 for Hour 25.

An obviously happy Peter with VH-JBC.

With Victor, who let me loose over Camden Aerodrome. Thank you!

Taking off for the first time without an instructor. Just me, my plane, and the radio.

Turning downwind. I am about to do my radio call and run the pre-landing checklist. I've done this hundreds of times before.

Final approach, nicely stabilised. If it wasn't for a last-moment yoke pull, this would have been one of my best landings.

Taxiing to the runup bay to pick up Victor.

Victor is back on board. I'm chucking a joke about my shocking landing.

The TAF that covers my 12PM flight booking.

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Hour 29: My fourth solo

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Hour 28: My third solo

Flight School

Hour 27: My second solo!
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