Sending Students Solo, A Flight Instructor’s Checklist

It’s a beautiful spring day. Temperatures are mild, the wind is light, and the sky is a bright crystal blue. Today, your student is going up for their first-ever solo flight. You tell them to “have fun!” You shut the door, walk away from the airplane, and give them a mighty wave. It is now completely up to them, and they are fully prepared to take flight and soar into the skies. Right? Neither one of you has forgotten anything. Right?…

To alleviate this conundrum, I decided to come up with a way to reassure myself I have done everything I can to prepare my students for whatever solo flight they conduct. Now, I know they are a king stick and rudder pilot, I mean, they learned from the best after all. But what about all the other small things? Many “What if” Questions start to pop up. What if 5 planes enter the pattern when they are on upwind? What if they forgot the dispatch frequency? What if a cotter pin comes loose on an elevator bolt? What if they forgot their documents and get ramp-checked? What if…

To mitigate this stress, I came up with a very simple yet overlooked method to preparing students for their solo flights. Checklists. Yes, checklists are used in the airplane, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used outside of it either. Because we are dealing with a very complex situation, where the outcome absolutely must be successful, using a written checklist will assure both the Pilot, and the Instructor they have taken care of everything possible before taking flight.

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  1. Verify endorsements. You need to be absolutely sure you have endorsed your student properly, and you have a copy of these endorsements. That’s a no-brainer, however, making sure they have the correct subpart of the regs, can be a little tricky. Make sure their endorsements match whichever operation they are doing, such as: 61.87 (b),(c),(d), (n),(p) etc. and that they are all complied with.
  2. Check their licenses! Make sure they have all their documents on their person before sending them up! This is in FAR 61.3, and includes their license, medical, and government-issued photo ID. If they get ramp checked and are missing any of these items, the FAA inspector will come looking for you.
  3. Time requirements. If there is a time requirement for the lesson, be sure they know of it. If they come back .1 or .2 hours early, they may end up having to go up again on another day, which could not only cost them time and money, but may put them out of their 90-day window.
  4. Go-arounds. They have been taught this so many times in the past. However, you can never under-emphasize the importance of a go-around when needed. Safety first.
  5. Backup Radio. If you own a hand-held radio, let them carry it onboard just in case they lose their comms. Light-gun signals are great and all, but hopefully never have to be used in real life. (Especially on a student solo)
  6. Runway Incursion Avoidance. Go over their (probable) taxi path with them, and give them a few scenarios to different runways. If they are ever confused about where they need to go, tell them to hold short of any runway, and just ask for progressive!
  7. You should be doing this on every flight.
  8. “Student Pilot” Have them say “Student pilot” with every new controller they talk to. This way, ATC knows there is an inexperienced pilot trying to enter their airspace. If they know this, they will probably give them more space between other airplanes, and slower, simpler instructions over the radio.
  9. They need to know their frequencies by heart. Having it on their diagram isn’t enough. What if they forget their diagram, or leave it in their bag in the backseat?
  10. Make sure the plane is ok. They may have pre-flighted the airplane on past lessons, but today is a special day. Watch them do their pre-flight, and if you can’t be there to watch them, do your own pre-flight on the airplane before they depart.
  11. Have dispatch check their reservation out. Depending on what flight school you are at, you may need to have the dispatcher manually check them out on the computer. They probably don’t have privileges to do this on their own.

It works for sending student pilots on cross country flights too…

 

  1. Before local solo checklist. Everything that is in the Local Solo checklist should be complete before moving onto the Cross Country checklist.
  2. Airport Diagrams. Make sure they have a printed out, up-to-date, legible copy of the airport diagrams for the cities they will be flying to. Include the alternate airport diagram as well.
  3. Read Airport Remarks. Read the airport remarks section from the chart supplement together, and have them inform you of any special considerations that must to be adhered to. For example, some runways may have Right traffic patterns. Or maybe one runway is not authorized for landing after 5pm daily, etc.
  4. Credit Card for Fuel. If they are going on a long XC flight, or simply weren’t able to get full tanks before departure, make sure they have some sort of way to pay for gas. Give them the flight school fuel credit card, so they can buy gas at their destination.
  5. AFD Pages. When I made this checklist, it was called the Airport Facility Directory. Now it is the Chart Supplement. Either way, make sure their charts are up to date, and the airports they are going to are bookmarked. This way if they need to look up information for that airport in flight, it won’t take them 10 minutes to find the right page.
  6. Plot spot on sectional. I know it is cut off, but it says “Plot spot on sectional where they will grab the ATIS/weather.” It is good to grab the airports weather about 20 miles or so away from the destination airport. If they plot a spot on the sectional where they will pick it up, it will remind them to get that airport’s current weather, with spare time to configure the airplane for landing.
  7. Endorsements. They will likely have all the same endorsements as the local solo checklist. In addition, make sure they have all the XC endorsements they need as well. If they are going through class B airspace, don’t forget to sign them off for that too.
  8. Get the right sectional. If they go on a long xc flight/ or are a commercial applicant, make sure they have correct sectional(s) for the region they are flying to. They don’t want to fly to Northern Maine, then realize they don’t have a map for the area.
  9. NOTAMs on a paper. Before they depart, print out any notams that may affect the flight. That way, they’ll have a written copy on board, and won’t have to try and remember 57 notams for the 3 airports they are flying to that day.
  10. VOR/Navigation NOTAMs. This is skipped very often, but don’t forget, VOR’s occasionally go down for maintenance. It would be a shame if your student went up, then was not able to navigate using VOR because they did not check its notams.
  11. VFR Flight plan. If they are filing an FSS flight plan, make sure they know how to open it in the air, as well as close it on the ground. If the flight is going to be delayed, or the route changed, call FSS before departure and amend the plan. Don’t forget to close it!!!
  12. Obstacle Departure Procedures. Even if they are flying to an area with relatively flat terrain, there could very well be obstacle departure procedures for runways at that airport. Make sure they have them on board in case they need them.
  13. How to Activate Lights. If the flight is being conducted at night, make sure the student knows how to turn the lights on at the airport they are flying to. The lighting frequency isn’t always over the CTAF. Also, some of their checkpoints may be airports. If they are overflying the airport, and can’t see the beacon there, they can always try turning on the airport lights there, to verify that is their checkpoint.
  14. Working Instrument Lights. If they are flying at night, make sure the instrument lights work. VFR at night is already hard enough as it is. If they cant see the magnetic compass, or altimeter, positive aircraft control will be even more difficult.
  15. Mountains near the Traffic Pattern. If there are any mountains in the vicinity of the airport, or even enroute to the airport, make sure you double-check the topography before departing. You don’t want to arrive at an airport, only to find it is impossible to enter the left downwind from the valley you are approaching from. I don’t have to say how dangerous this would be at night.
  16. Compass Heading on Flight Planner. I have personally noticed, many students tend to forget to put their Compass Heading on their XC flight planners. This is the Magnetic heading corrected for Deviation. Because every airplane is different, this is always filled out when you are ready to depart. However, it tends to be forgotten quite frequently.
  17. Noise abatement procedures. These can usually be found in the remarks section for an airport in the Chart Supplement. Sometimes you have to call the airport manager for up-to-date procedures.
  18. 30 degrees of bank in the Traffic Pattern. Anytime the student is going to be operating low to the ground, or in the traffic pattern, I always remind them to not exceed 30 degrees of bank. Safety First.
  19. GPS waypoints. To aid your student in situational awareness, you can have them create waypoints in the GPS that don’t already exist in the database. Such as a visible landmark, like a lighthouse, or a highway intersection. This way they can put non-airport VFR checkpoints in the GPS, and have their magnetic course on the flight planner match the magenta line on the GPS.
  20. Landing Fees/ Crew Car. Call the destination FBO ahead of time and see if it costs money to land or park. If buying fuel, sometimes they will waive the parking fee. If you are going to stay there for a few hours, and want to grab lunch, many FBO’s will have a “crew car” available for free to flight crews. You can drive this car around town as long as you have a valid driver’s license.

These checklists were created out of real situations I have either witnessed or been apart of myself. The app I use is called “paperless” checklists. It is free in the app store, and there are many just like it.

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These checklists were created particularly for flights in C172s operating out of a part 141 Flight School. They don’t include everything, and are always open to revising/adding items. Hope they help out!

-Fly Safe, WSmithEWB

 

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