It’s difficult to determine who possesses the most fear at first solo – the student or instructor. The student’s fear is based on the loss of a trusted ally in the basket that makes things right when mistakes are made. The student is also unsure whether he/she will make the right judgment calls while aloft and execute the appropriate maneuvers correctly. The instructor on the other hand is worried about his/her balloon (if indeed the owner). Fortunately, concern for the safety of the student is always a close second. The instructor, like the student is also wary of the untested judgment of the student in flight without a backup pilot.
On normal training sessions, the student has the benefit of the security of an experienced pilot on board. This allows freedom from excessive worry about his/her safety while practicing maneuvers. On the downside, due to the very nature of dual training, the instructor is a constant distraction. The student is always listening for a comment or additional command while trying to fly the maneuver to please the instructor. This alone requires a lot of focus. Since flying a balloon skillfully, especially at the student stage requires 110% focus on control, there’s not enough focus to go around with the instructor next door. Thank goodness for solo!
Preparation for solo is not much different than getting ready for the practical flight test. While the maneuvers don’t need to honed as much, the student still has to land safely. As I have mentioned before, the landing (actually the approach) is everything. I could endorse someone to solo the first or second day if a successful landing wasn’t part of the equation. So as an instructor, what type of preparation do you focus on prior endorsing your student to solo? My money is on approaches. How do you practice them? Tight contour maneuvers over the front and backside of obstacles; the backside being the most crucial. Once the student learns to judge the inertia shift parameters of the balloon so that he/she can fly up one side and time the descent (no venting) down the other side of an obstacle within contour tolerances, he/she will likely have a good solo. There are other important pre-solo requirements and they are listed below. These items must be logged in the student’s log book before solo flight.
(k) Maneuvers and procedures for pre-solo flight training in a balloon. A student pilot who is receiving training in a balloon must receive and log flight training for the following maneuvers and procedures:
(1) Layout and assembly procedures;
(2) Proper flight preparation procedures, including preflight planning and preparation, and aircraft systems;
(3) Ascents and descents;
(4) Landing and recovery procedures; (over)
(5) Emergency procedures and equipment malfunctions;
(6) Operation of hot air or gas source, ballast, valves, vents, and rip panels, as appropriate;
(7) Use of deflation valves or rip panels for simulating an emergency
(8) The effects of wind on climb and approach angles; and
(9) Obstruction detection and avoidance techniques.
If that’s not enough, there is still another item that is sometimes overlooked by balloon instructors and that is the pre solo written test. This written exam is administered by the instructor and must follow the FAR requirements listed below.
(b) Aeronautical knowledge. A student pilot must demonstrate satisfactory aeronautical knowledge on a knowledge test that meets the requirements of this paragraph:
(1) The test must address the student pilot’s knowledge of –
(i) Applicable sections of parts 61 and 91 of this chapter;
(ii) Airspace rules and procedures for the airport where the solo flight will be performed; and
(iii) Flight characteristics and operational limitations for the make and model of aircraft to be flown.
(2) The student’s authorized instructor must –
(i) Administer the test (test must have a minimum of 20 questions) and;
(ii) At the conclusion of the test, review all incorrect answers with the student before authorizing that student to conduct a solo flight. Student must pass test with a minimum score of 80%.
Once all of the above preparation has been accomplished, the appropriate endorsements have to be made. When a commercial balloon pilot gives an endorsement, he/she is stating that the activity has actually be done and that he/she feels the student is competent in that area. Following are examples of the necessary endorsements that must go in the student’s log book. A signature and make and model assignment must be made on the back of the student certificate as well. The solo endorsement is good for 90 days only.
1. I have given ____name_______ a written pre-solo exam as required by 61.87(b) and he/she has passed. Date ___________, Signature _________, Certificate grade and number ________________.
2. I have given ____name_____ the pre-solo flight training required by 61.87 (k) and feel he/she is competent to make a solo flight in a ___(make and model of balloon)____.
Date: _______, Signature _________, Certificate grade and number ________________.
While the above canned endorsements are required, is that all you are limited to as an instructor? Certainly not. If your student lives in another town for instance and you still have some concern for their judgment, you can place additional restrictions on the endorsement as well. Some examples of restrictions are: “Limited to local forecast surface winds of 5 knots of less”; “Contact must be made to the endorsing instructor within 12 hours of a planned solo flight to discuss the flight” etc. If you feel some restrictions are important, by all means list them with the logbook endorsement. It will also reduce your liability if you happen to have the unfortunate fate of training one of those “fearless” students who forget everything you told them the minute they leave your presence.
The last question as an instructor is how to stage the first solo. I prefer to handle all of the endorsement paperwork as early as possible even before I plan to let them go. A flight or 2 after the endorsements have been logged, given the appropriate weather, I ease out of the basket after a few minutes of flying (with several touch and goes). When I say ease, I don’t mean jump out and send the balloon into a shuttle launch mode. I inform the student that I would like him/her to solo for a while and to try very short burns for a while to get control. I let the basket go with very little positive lift. I have found that the student suffers only momentary trauma this way and he/she quickly engages as PIC once aloft. The flying conditions in some areas will not allow this type of transition to solo. However, I do think that minimizing the stress associated with a student’s first solo allows them to engage their senses more quickly with the task at hand; that is… flying the balloon.