The first solo is elusive, often slipping through your fingers when you felt as though you were just about to grasp it. As instructors, deciding when to send someone solo is a tricky and daunting task. We have to be confident that you're going to be able to take the aeroplane around the circuit and bring it back safely, without damaging either yourself or it. Listed here are my top reasons as to why I would hesitate to send a student solo.
The instructor doesn't sit in the plane to give you permission to do things, they sit in the plane to teach and correct your flying. One of my pet peeves is when a student persistently asks for my permission to do things which they themselves have done many times before.
For example, say we've been given a clearance limit to holding point B1; the student has acknowledged this over the radio and has held at B1 many times before in the past. As we approach holding point B1, the student turns to me and asks, 'Should I stop here?'
Immediately, upon hearing this, alarm bells ring in my head. The very fact that you've asked the question despite having done this so many times before leads me to think that you're not entirely sure what you're doing, and if you are that you're not fully confident in yourself to do it.
Rather, I'd like to hear something along the lines of, 'We're approaching B1, where we've been asked to hold. I'm going to stop here and turn into wind to complete the power checks.'
Can you see the difference between the two? In the second, you - the student - are taking command of the situation and telling me - the instructor - what you are going to do. This applies throughout the entire circuit: if you know that we begin the turn onto crosswind at 500ft then there's no need to ask me if you can begin the turn. Once we reach 500ft, start the turn onto crosswind - the instructor will explicitly tell you if he would rather you didn't do it.
Don't interpret this as me saying, 'Don't ask any questions at all!' Not even close. If you are genuinely unsure about what to do then make it clear and ask for help, but otherwise take command of the situation and tell the instructor your plans. He will always look to correct you if they're not quite right.
The radio can be very tricky to master, especially on a warm summer's day when the airwaves are busy and the tower controller is getting irritable. But before you go whizzing off solo it's imperative that you have total mastery of the radio. This includes knowing not only what to say and when to say it, but timely and accurate readbacks too. Crib sheets with the key phrases on are excellent, but don't rely on them. I find that students who rely excessively on crib sheets can panic when they're asked something which isn't written in their notes.
The best approach is to learn the principles of speaking on the radio, this includes reading the books and attending ground sessions with an instructor making practice radio exchanges. Understanding the "why" of the radio, not just the "what", will do wonders for your communication in the air. It does, unfortunately, require a lot of reading and self-study - no one said this stuff would be easy!
Before I send you solo, I want to see you handling each and every radio call confidently and knowing that you can ask for clarification (even if that means saying "I'm sorry, I don't understand, please say that again?") if something isn't understood. I'm also looking for no lengthy gaps between readbacks, especially when the frequency is busy!
No matter how good your radio is on the ground, its quality will likely be cut in half in the air when there's a million other things to be focusing on; make sure you put the study in!
Every time you go flying you're completing the checks, ideally from lesson #1. Has anyone ever shown you how to use a checklist? I mean really shown? Not just handed it to you and said "Here, do everything on this list".
The checklist is just that, a checklist; it's not a do-list. By the time you're ready to fly solo, you should be able to complete the checks roughly from memory using the checklist itself as a reference to just confirm that everything has been done.
Memory items are important, too. Checks which can be completed from memory in flight, such as the pre-landing checks. Everyone knows BUMPFFICH.
If you're still stumbling through the "Before Start Checklist" searching for the carb heat, then this doesn't fill me with confidence that you're ready to fly solo. I want to see you reaching around the cockpit and touching all of the knobs, levers, and buttons, to make sure they're correctly set; leaving nothing to chance.
Equally, once we're airborne, I want to see a swift and fluid set of downwind checks completed. It's very easy to get distracted when resetting the DI - if it's bumpy and the compass jumps around like a kangaroo, best to just leave it.
In order to improve your checklist usage, spend some time sitting in the cockpit of the plane before your lesson - no instructor - going through the checks as "touch drills" (not actually doing them, but pretending to by just touching the controls. Yes, you can make aeroplane noises if you want to!). 20 minutes of this before every lesson, combined with reciting the pre-landing checks to yourself for a few minutes a day, will soon see your checklist usage soar.
To summarise, before I send a student on their first solo I want to see:
You having confidence in what you're doing and not asking my permission to do things you've done often before.
A very good grasp of the radio, being able to go a little "off-script" if they you to.
Mastery of the checklist and pre-landing checks.