A Tale of Two Students

c172 takeoff window

I was a young flight instructor and Vic was a retired engineer.  Not surprisingly, he was far more intelligent than my average student and a joy to work with.  He breezed through the ground school instruction.  And, he picked up the basic flight skills quickly enough.

As the time for his first solo flight approached, I began to throw a few problematic scenarios into his lessons to ensure that in the unlikely event of an unexpected crisis, he would be able to handle it safely.  While his knowledge of what to do in an emergency improved, his flying skills began to deteriorate.  In the interest of preparing him for the unlikely, he began struggling with the routine.  I finally came to the conclusion that his learning curve would never start climbing again until he proved to himself he could fly solo, safely.

We scheduled an instructional flight that was intended to finish with his first three solo takeoffs and landings while I watched from the side of the runway.  While he was not outstanding on that particular day, his skills were satisfactory.  I prepared to exit the airplane so he could complete his first solo flight.  He begged me not to get out until we had practiced some more!  However, my assurances that he was ready to solo finally prevailed.

I gave him my standard pep talk, “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing and you will be fine.”  He gave me a look bordering on panic as I opened my door and climbed out, but I smiled back and waved him off.

A pilot’s first solo flight is a big deal, for both the student and the instructor!  Thankfully I had soloed a number of students already (and everyone had survived) and I was (fairly) confident that Vic would rise to the occasion and earn his student pilot’s license with relative ease.

Everything looked normal for the first part of his first solo takeoff roll.  But without warning he swerved to the left and almost hit a runway light before correcting his mistake and becoming airborne!  He had never done anything like that before and I couldn’t imagine what had caused it!  Vic didn’t like surprises and neither did I, especially when I was on the ground and he was alone in the airplane for the very first time!

I watched him fly around the landing pattern, willing him to calm down, and praying for a miracle!  God answered my (our?) prayers as his landing was rough, but safe.  Obviously shaken, he chose not to do two more solo takeoffs and landings, as per a normal first solo flight.  What had happened?  He forgot to close his window before takeoff, so he closed it during his takeoff roll!

To my knowledge Vic never flew again; and I never soloed a student pilot again, until I saw how he responded when I popped his window open during a takeoff roll!