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Alone and Afraid | When Solo Flights Fail!

Posted 2 years 322 days ago ago by Randy Rowles

Last week, a helicopter student pilot was returning from a solo cross-country flight when the student accidentally entered Class D airspace without the required communication. Although entry into this airspace was planned as a part of the solo cross-country flight, the student miscalculated the position of the helicopter and was farther along than anticipated.

Monitoring the tower frequency, the student heard the control tower identify a non-participating helicopter to another aircraft as traffic in the direction of the student pilot. Upon hearing this communication, the student immediately contacted the tower, admitted the error, and proceeded with proper communication to enter the traffic pattern and land. After a short but definitive tongue lashing from an irritated air traffic controller, the student landed without incident to fly another day.

Was this a successful solo flight? In many of these situations, the flight instructor may not be aware that such a situation occurred during the solo flight. However, when the instructor is aware of such an issue during a student’s solo flight, what is the proper action of the instructor?

When a solo flight has an issue, it is imperative that the flight instructor re-train the student on those areas that were not accomplished correctly. After re-training, the student would accomplish the solo flight requirements again. In this case, the flight instructor flew with the student on the cross-country route and terminated at the airport where the airspace encroachment occurred. To enhance the student’s confidence, the flight instructor allowed the student to conduct solo patterns working with the same air traffic controller that was involved during the original event in question. The next day, the student flew the solo cross-country without incident.

In many cases, a flight instructor is satisfied the student returned successfully and may not engage or attempt to learn about the specifics of the flight. In this situation, the flight instructor was told by the student of the airspace issue and when it occurred. The flight instructor listened to LiveATC.Net and was able to hear the whole situation unfold. Additionally, ADS-B data matched with the timing of the ATC communication provided a clear picture of where the student was when the initial contact was made with the controller. Using this method, the flight instructor and student were able to learn from this situation, correct the error, and develop effective tools to not have such an event occur in the future.

On a side note, the flight instructor called the ATC controller and apologized for this event occurring. They both agreed to bring the student pilot back to the airport and provide an opportunity for the student to conduct solo operations with the same controller so that a positive outcome was attained.

Allowing a solo flight that is wrought with errors that include safety and regulatory issues without remedial training is a disservice to the student’s aviation education. Do not allow the student to credit solo flight time as complete where a minimum level of proficiency is required yet not obtained. Such a compromise may perpetuate a student weakness that only reveals itself later in their aviation career.

Making the same mistake again may become a fatal flaw!

About Randy:  Randy Rowles has been a FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds a FAA Gold Seal Flight Instructor Certificate, NAFI Master Flight Instructor designation, and was the 2013 recipient of the HAI Flight Instructor of the Year Award. Rowles is the owner/president of Helicopter Institute.