Solo – A Blogging in Formation Post


What does it mean to solo?

14 CFR Part 61.51(d): ...a pilot may log as solo flight time only that flight time when the pilot is the sole occupant of the aircraft.

Like all of the Federal Aviation Regulations, the above is an incredbly dry statement. It defines when you may log solo flight, which is an important step to obtaining your pilot certificate.

There are lots of other regulations pertaining to solo, defining even further what solo flight means to the FAA, to your instructor, and to you:

61.51(e)(4)(ii) states that you must have a current solo flight endorsement (as laid out in part 61.87). Got that?  Good.

61.51(i)(2) lays out what you must carry with you when you solo as a student pilot during cross-country flights: your logbook and your student pilot certificate/medical (and any other record required by that section of the regulations).  Got them all?  Fantastic.

61.87 lays out all the things you must do before solo to even be eligible to solo in the first place:

  • demonstrate satisfactory knowledge on a knowledge test given by your instructor
  • review any incorrect answers from the test
  • receive and log training in certain maneuvers
    • surface operations including taxiing & runup
    • normal & crosswind takeoffs and landings
    • straight & level flight and turns in both directions
    • climbs & climbing turns
    • traffic pattern procedures, including entry & departure
    • collision avoidance, windshear avoidance, and wake turbulance avoidance
    • descents (turning & not turning) in high- and low-drag configurations
    • flight at various airspeeds
    • stall recognition, avoidance, and recovery
    • emergency procedures
    • ground reference maneuvers
    • approaches to landing with simulated engine malfunctions
    • slips to land
    • go-arounds
  • You must have received an endorsement on your student pilot certificate to solo the specific make and model of your aircraft from your instructor
  • You must have received an endorsement in your logbook to solo from an instructor who has given you the above instruction within the last 90 days
  • etc. etc. and on and on - you have to know these regulations, as they define precisely what solo flight is and when you can legally perform solo flight.

And that is that, right?  That's what solo flight is - a flight by a person who meets all the above criteria and is the sole occupant of an aircraft during flight.

But does that truly answer the question of what it MEANS to solo?

Aviation has a knack for knocking the wind out of its participants with all the limitations and restrictions and constraints and conditions that the regulations lay out for everyone who wants to set foot in an airplane and leave the ground.

But there's a reason, I think, that the word solo was chosen to be used for the first time a person flies sans instructor, and it is not simply because the dictionary defines it as "a thing done by one person unaccompanied, in particular;" which, of course, it is.

But solo also has a beautiful connotation in the arts - music and dance, in particular, where a dancer or musician or singer steps away from all the others who have been there alongside for that song, that concerto, that period, and - on their own - does something beautiful.


Notice I have not said "alone." A solo of a musician is not them alone, but is a piece of a larger composition. The solo stands out BECAUSE it is related to the rest of the dance or the song, not because it is separate from it.  The solo artist takes courage from the other artists who have helped support her up until that point, and she steps out on her own but not alone to add her voice, her motion, her music to the overall piece.

All the months and years of practice shape the artist to be ready and able to make that step - and so it is as a pilot.

The hours you have studied and practiced with your instructor have led you to this point, where you get to step out - on your own but not alone - and take flight.


And like the solo artist, you - the solo pilot - know the technical pieces (as the musician knows the fingering of his instrument or the dancer the placement of his limbs for balance, you know the power settings and sight picture of your instrument - the airplane). You play the throttle to get the hum of the engine you are familiar with, and set your pitch to get the perfect balance of airspeed and lift and hear the exact right tone of the wind over the wings.

You are an artist of the air, and while you know all the regulations that got you to this point, right now you are simply free, and flying, as it should be. The checklists run through your head, and the crosswind component for your runway is in your mind, and you're thinking "red over white" as you slide down the glidepath on final approach, but your heart is beating faster than ever, and you can't wipe the smile off your face, because this feeling is like nothing you've ever felt.  The safety net is gone, and you've never been more nervous, or scared, or READY for anything in your life.

And maybe you miss a note, or place your foot wrong and slip a little, or forget a word. But that bounced landing was YOUR landing - and whether you believed your instructor when she said "That was all you" is immaterial now, because that WAS all you, and whether it was bounced or beautiful, it was YOUR landing and no one can take it away from you. Because your supporting artists are all down there, and you are up here, on your own.


So I'll leave you with this, Captain:

Aviation loves to boast about the individualistic nature of its participants. Solo makes it sound like you finally got away from everyone else and did this thing alone. But that is as far from true as it gets.  You got here through the help of your instructor and other pilots who encouraged you, motivated you, and rooted for you (whether you knew it or not).

For all the independent, self-reliant, individualist image aviation puts out there, we really rely on one another, and want to see each other succeed.  We are an incredibly helpful and supportive family, we aviators.  You might be solo, but you're never alone.

Just unaccompanied - sometimes.


This is a Blogging in Formation post. Check out the rest of the Formation Bloggers in this month's series: "Solo."

April 1:
Andrew Hartley - Smart Flight TrainingBlogFormation_Wings
Karlene Petitt - Flight to Success - Near Midair!
April 2:
Rob Burgon - Tally One
Chip Shanle - Project 7 Alpha
April 3:
Eric Auxier - Adventures of Cap’n Aux
Ron Rapp - House of Rapp
April 4:
Brent Owens - iFLYblog
Mark L Berry - marklberry.com/blog

If you like what you see, share us with your friends: #blogformation


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My Most Memorable Flight

BarnstormingLast month, a pioneering group of formation bloggers launched an ambitious plan to blog monthly about something aviation related, each from their own perspective, for six days straight.  Our first series was about how we got into flying.

The first series was really an experiment to see whether it was something that we enjoyed and was worthwhile to all of our readers.  We decided that both the above were true.  So we made it a monthly series - we all post the first full week of each month on an aviation topic we all agree on.

The agreement part of the process is easier said than done, as there are many ideas of what to write about.  So after a little bit of back-and-forth, we decided that our second series should be about our most memorable flight.

Now, I have to admit, once this was decided, I started to run through my memory banks to try to pick one out, and I realized that with my 450 hours of total time, my inventory is smaller than all the rest of my venerable associates, who have thousands (or tens of thousands) of flight hours.

This is a little intimidating.

But the more I thought about my flying career, the more flights came to mind that are so vivid as to seem as if I am actually experiencing them again when I think about them.

Should I write about my first solo cross-country, or maybe my long solo cross country for my private?

Nah, personal solo memories are far too common.

What about my flight from Bolton Field (KTZR) in Columbus, Ohio to Peachtree-Dekalb (KPDK) in Atlanta, Georgia to go to a friend's 40th birthday party?  Or my commercial checkride, which I passed and then ironically got stuck on my way back home because the weather dropped and I was not instrument current?

Nope. Memorable, certainly. But not "most" memorable.

Finally, I landed (pun intended) on two flights that I recall most vividly - one in which I was piloting, and the other in which I was - interestingly - neither the pilot nor a passenger.  I hope when the rest of the formation bloggers read this that they don't bar me from the group for breaking the rules (I think they'll understand).

My most memorable flight as a pilot happened over a decade ago, while I was in college.  It starts slow, and actually seemed completely normal - just like any other flight - until "it" happened...

A fellow aviation management student (Greg*) and I flew out to Independence, Kansas to pick up a brand new Cessna 172SP from the factory and bring it back to Oakland/Troy Executive Airport (7D2 at the time; now KVLL).  A friend of the owners of the FBO on the field was buying a couple of them to lease back to the FBO as trainers, and the three of us flew out in his Beech Bonanza, stayed the night in a hotel, and flew back the next day.  He flew his bonanza back himself, and Greg and I flew the C172.  I was a recently minted private pilot, and Greg had recently obtained his instrument rating.

We planned the flight from Independence to Springfield, IL for fuel, then home to Troy, MI.  We did a quick acceptance flight around the pattern, signed a few papers, and then took off for Springfield, leaving a little (okay a lot) later than we had planned because we were offered a factory tour that we could not pass up (obviously).

I flew the first leg from Independence to Springfield, and we stayed low (like 500-feet AGL low) for the first hour or two.  Why, you ask?  Because we were college students, relatively new pilots, and we were in the (arguably) flattest area in the country (maybe world).  And did I mention we were college students (meaning we just didn't know any better)?  So, dodging towers and buzzing grazing cows, we made our way to Springfield, were cleared to land 30 miles out (it was a slow day, apparently), and got fuel and a bite to eat.

It was dusk by the time we got back in the plane, and Greg filed an instrument flight plan to Troy, even though it was a beautiful day and was forecast to remain so (and there was absolutely no reason to think that it would change for the worse).  So off we went into the darkening sky, talking to Chicago Center... we were at five or seven-thousand feet.  All was uneventful until the instrument panel lit up - like there was a 747 getting ready to land on top of us!  The top of the panel truly looked like someone was shining a 10 million candle-power spotlight from above us into the cockpit.  Greg and I immediately started looking for traffic above us, and as we scanned (frantically) to find the other aircraft we knew was about to make a perfect landing on our wings, we saw a fireball rip through the sky above us, going the same direction we were.  It looked as if it were only 1000 feet above us, and maybe a mile to our right.  Who knows whether it was actually that close (doubtful), but it sure seemed that way.  We watched it go all the way to the horizon and fizzle out.

We both looked at each other and said "Holy Sh*t!"

Greg later said he was glad I came along (I skipped classes to go and wasn't sure I was going to come until the last minute), because otherwise no one would ever believe that he actually saw what we saw.  I'm not convinced my testimony has ever helped - we know pilots are all crazy anyway, so what should you believe when any of us open our mouths - but we called Center and asked if anyone else had reported seeing anything like it.  They just responded that they were getting a few reports of meteor showers.

That flaming ball of, well, flame is not something I will ever forget.  I have to say that it is my most memorable flight, if only because it honestly seemed like if we had been only slightly higher and a little off course to the right, that meteorite would have had to put a C172 stencil under its canopy, because it would have shot us down.  I know that there is no way it was actually that low or that close, but try seeing it like we did and convince yourself of that at the time.


Now for the flight that is etched in my memory where I was not the pilot (nor a passenger) - this one is far more recent:

My first solo of a student!  Just a few weekends ago, I soloed my first student. We had been practicing landings for a long time, and for the last two lessons she had been nailing them.  The winds were perfect - light and right down the runway.  I got to watch her solo from the control tower of KOSU airport.

This story (and some of the others above) merits its own post, but suffice it to say that my first first solo student is ALSO a flight I'll never forget.  Even if I wasn't on the plane at all.

*Names changed to protect the innocent - though "Greg" probably wouldn't mind if I used his real name, I am writing this on procrastinator's time and can't confirm this before I post.  Greg, if you read this in the future, please accept my apologies.

Please check out the other five "Formation Bloggers"

Karlene Petitt - Flight to Success - karlenepetitt.blogspot.com
Eric Auxier 
- The Adventures of Cap'n Aux - capnaux.blogspot.com
Ron Rapp - House of Rapp - www.rapp.org
Dan Pimentel - Airplanista  - av8rdan.com
Brent Owens - Iflyblog - iflyblog.com

What is your most memorable flight? Remember it in perpetuity by telling us about it in the comments, and add to the blog formation with your own story!

Andrew Hartley is a certificated flight instructor in Columbus, Ohio. Follow Smart Flight Training on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+!

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The Three Axes of an Airplane

Three axes of an airplaneAn airplane has three (3) axes about / around which it can move in flight.

In the image above, you are seeing all three of these axes:
Longitudinal axis: from the nose to the tail of the airplane
Lateral axis: from wingtip to wingtip
Vertical axis: from the bottom of the airplane to the top of the airplane

Each of these three axes meet at the center of gravity (CG) of the plane. The CG is the point at which the airplane would balance if you could lift it up by an imaginary string that attached at that exact point. You can think of the CG also as a kind of fulcrum (like on a teeter-totter) that the plane rolls and pitches around.

Anyway, back to the axes of the plane. Here's what you need to know about them and why they are important.

The Longitudinal axis (the one that runs the length of the plane from nose to tail) is the axis that stays fixed when the airplane "rolls" or "banks" - such as in a turn. In this case, the plane is rotating "about" or "around" the longitudinal axis. This is caused by the airplane's ailerons, which change the camber of the wing and increase its lift on one side,making the wing climb, and spoil the lift on the other side, making the wing drop.

The Lateral axis (the one that runs from wingtip to wingtip) stays fixed when the plane "pitches" - raising or lowering the nose (such as for a climb or a descent). The plane pitches about the lateral axis. This is done using the airplane's elevators. The elevators change the shape of the horizontal stabilizer, causing it to decrease lift (tail goes down, nose goes up) or increase lift (tail goes up, nose goes down). Some aircraft have "stabilators," where the entire horizontal surface moves instead of just the elevator, but the concept (and result) is still the same.

The last one is the Vertical axis, which runs vertically (up and down) through the fuselage. This one stays fixed when the airplane "yaws" - meaning the nose moves left or right. When the plane yaws, it is turning about the vertical axis. This is like turning a car (the car doesn't roll or pitch, it just turns, or "yaws"). This can be done by moving the rudder, which is the movable control surface on the vertical stabilizer (the upright portion of the tail). Moving the rudder right puts it into the airflow and pushes the tail to the left (and the nose to the right). Generally, the rudder is used in tandem with the ailerons to coordinate an airplane's turns, because when an airplane banks, there is a change in drag, making the nose want to move away from the turn initially. the rudder is used to "yaw" the nose the right way and keep the whole plane moving in the direction the pilot (you) want it to go.

It is possible to move an airplane about all three axes at one time, and rarely does an airplane move about just one at a time. You, as the pilot in command, will use all the control surfaces to move the plane about all of its axes and make it do what you want it to do.

Do you have any questions about the three axes of an airplane, or do you have any hints or tricks or stories to share that relate to them? Leave a comment and tell us all about it!

Andrew Hartley is a Certificated Flight Instructor in Columbus, Ohio.

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Preflight – Step 2: Exterior (Wing)

Piper Cherokee

In the first part of this series, Preflight: Step 1 - The Cockpit Check, we talked about starting your preflight in the cockpit.

But the exterior check in step 2 actually starts even before step one.  Confused?  Let me explain:

Every preflight really should begin as you are walking out to the plane.  Or - if you're lucky, as you enter your hangar, before you even touch the plane at all.

Is the plane leaning to one side or the other?  Does it look very tail-low or tail-high? Are there puddles of fluid under the engine cowling or at the main gear?  Are there stains on the wings or anything new that you never noticed before? Do you always lock the plane, but the door was open when you first look?  If you don't own your plane, some of the above things may not apply, but even if you rent, there are probably processes and patterns where if something is different, you'll notice.  If you ever have a question, grab a flight instructor and ask!

After this first look, do your cockpit check, and when that is complete, move on to the exterior check!  Because the exterior check is the longest part of the preflight, we'll break it up into 3 sections - wing, tail, and engine.

NOTE: the specifics in this series apply to Cessna 172 aircraft, as that is what I instruct in most – in any case, always use the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH) for your aircraft to confirm that you have not missed anything on your preflight!

I tell my students to step forward and out, putting them in front of the plane, to the left of the engine cowling.  From here, they can start by checking the cowling itself for loose or missing screws, checking the static port to make sure it is not blocked or covered by anything. This is also a good vantage point to look at the wind screen - is it dirty? Does it have bugs splattered all over it? Clean it before you go!

Now look up - at the leading edge of the wing at the wing root.  There is probably a vent here - check to make sure it is not blocked. Now run your hand along the leading edge of the left wing, looking for big dents that might change the wing's ability to create lift.  As you move from the wing root toward the wing tip, you'll run past the pitot tube - check all the openings/vents to make sure they are not blocked by anything (including a pitot tube cover).  Keep going to reach the stall warning opening - check to make sure it is not blocked.  If you have a suction tool, you can test whether it is working or not as well.  Keep moving toward the wing tip and check to make sure that the fuel tank vent is also not blocked, and the fairing for the wing strut is secure and in relatively good shape.  While checking all of this and the leading edge, you should also be checking the bottom of the wing for loose rivets or loose or missing inspection covers, or anything else out of the ordinary.

Once at the wingtip, just check the plastic tip cover for any major cracks (you may find small cracks that have been stop drilled, but those are okay), and make sure it is secure.  Now on to the trailing edge.

You removed the control lock during the cockpit check, right? If not - go remove it now, because we're going to check the ailerons.  First, push the left aileron up, and look over to the one on the right wing to make sure it is down. Also, if you can see it, check that the yoke turns toward the left while the left aileron is up (the yokes should always turn toward the up aileron).  Now push the left aileron down, and check the other aileron (which should be up now), and the yokes (which should be turned to the right now - toward the up aileron).

Now, hold the aileron up with one hand, and duck under the wing and turn around so you can look between the wing and aileron at the following:

  1. There should be three counterweights on the outside of the aileron, securely attached
  2. Three hinges, all of which should have secure bolts and safety wires, and none of which should be cracked or broken in any way.
  3. A pushrod, which will rotate a little, but the bolt should be secure - it should not be loosened or turned by your fingers.

Make sure you hold the aileron up with one hand and do these checks with the other! Even if the aileron seems to stay up on its own, even a slight wind could push it down and pinch your fingers - consider this the voice of experience telling you that THIS HURTS. Avoid this by learning from my mistake and holding the aileron up with one hand anytime you have your fingers in the gap between the wing and aileron!

You may also see one or two wires coming out of the back of the aileron - these are called static wicks, and they help protect the airplane and its electronics from static electricity and/or lightning strikes.  Just make sure that if the plane has any, that they are all there, secure, and in good shape.

Now continue moving inboard to check the left flap.  Push on it - it will give a little - maybe an inch or so.  Too much is a cause for concern.  If you are in doubt, ask your instructor or a mechanic.  Check the tracks - there will be two (one on each side of the flap).  Look at the rollers for cracking, wear, or other issues (including being gone completely!).  The tracks should have a little grease on them - not necessarily sopping in grease, but enough to let the rollers move smoothly.  Check the pushrod on the flap just like you did with the aileron.

Now that we've completed the left wing, let's check the left main gear.  Is it fully inflated? Are there bald or flat spots or belts showing from excessive wear?  Now roll the plane forward or back to see under the tire, too.  What about the brakes? Is there fluid leaking? Check the rotor for wear, and both pads (each pad should be at least as thick as two quarters pressed together).  Check the brake line for security, and the "bolt" to make sure it is not loose.

Once you are done checking the main gear, it's time to move back toward the empennage (tail). We'll talk about the tail in the next post in the series!

Do you have anything to add to the preflight series so far? Add your tips to the checklist by leaving a comment below!

Andrew Hartley is a Certificated Flight Instructor in Columbus, Ohio.

Preflight Series:
Preflight Step 1: The Cockpit Check
Preflight Step 2: Exterior (Wing)
Preflight Step 2: Exterior (Tail)
Preflight Step 2: Exterior (Engine)
Preflight Step 3: Fuel

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