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Alone and Afraid


When Solo Flights Fail! By Randy Rowles


A helicopter student pilot was returning from a solo cross-country flight last week 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 for the instructor?


When a solo flight has an issue, it is imperative for the flight instructor to retrain the student on those areas that were not accomplished correctly. After retraining, the student accomplishes 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 previously occurred. To enhance the student’s confidence, the flight instructor then allowed the student to conduct solo patterns working with the same air traffic controller who was involved in 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 attempt to learn about the specifics of the flight. In this situation, the student told the flight instructor about 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 the student’s location 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 avoid such an event in the future.


Randy Rowles has been an FAA pilot examiner for 20 years for all helicopter certificates and ratings. He holds an 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 currently the owner of the Helicopter Institute. He can be reached at randyrowlesdpe@gmail.com


If you have any comments or questions, please let me know at randyrowlesdpe@gmail.com


88 Jan/Feb 2020


On a side note, the flight instructor called the ATC controller and apologized for this event. 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 and achieve a positive outcome.


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


Making the same mistake again may become a fatal flaw!


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