Solo checks - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Solo checks

As Flight Commander, I was one of only three QFIs at Risalpur (the others were the Commandant and the Squadron Commander) authorised to send T37 students off on their very first solo. When an instructor reported to me that one of his students was ready, I would fly with that student for about 30 minutes to satisfy myself not only that he was ready to go solo but that he knew how to handle various emergency situations that might arise. In the RAF it used to be the rule (but it may be different nowadays) that if a student experienced a major emergency such as engine failure on his first solo, he would be ordered to eject. The principle was that the student was more valuable than the aircraft. That was not the case at the Pakistan Air Academy.

I always found that sending a youngster off on his very first solo flight was the most satisfying part of a flying instructor's job, but it is also one of the most difficult decisions a QFI has to make. It is not simply a question of assessing when the student has the necessary skill to fly solo; you have to assess whether or not he is mentally ready. Experienced flying instructors will tell you that there is always a best time to send a student off on his first solo flight. Sending one off too soon could lead to an accident; delaying a student's first solo when he really believes he is ready, can destroy his confidence. When the checking officer is not the student's own instructor, and mostly he is not, the onus on the flight checker is even greater.

I sent several students off on their first T37 solo flight (and declined to send one or two solo at their first attempt). When a student had convinced me by his skill and demeanour that he was ready to go solo, I would tell him to land after which I would take control and taxi the aircraft towards the flight dispersal. The student would know what was coming next: either we were going back to dispersal because I had decided not to send him solo, or we were going back to the Mobile Control caravan where I would get out of the aircraft and send him off on his own. In the latter case, I would brief the student to take off and fly the usual wide pattern once around the vicinity of the airfield at about 280 knots at 2,000 feet before coming back onto final approach to land. I always reminded the student to call the Controller for take-off clearance before entering the runway and not to forget to put the undercarriage down on finals. You might think that both those reminders were unnecessary, but experience had taught me they were necessary. Assuming the student was happy, I then got down from the aircraft, made my ejection seat safe and went into the Mobile Control from where I could monitor the flight. All the ones I sent solo completed their flights without incident and the smiles on their faces and the handshake when I met them at the flight line after landing made it all worthwhile. Actually, many students tended to hug the Checking Officer on both cheeks rather than shake hands - tricky when they tried to do that without remembering first to remove their flying helmets.

There was, however, one student I had doubts about! It happened on the penultimate week of my tour in Pakistan. I had not previously flown with this student, but I had studied his own instructor's reports which indicated that he had already flown a couple of extra sorties, the most recent a failed pre-solo check ride with the Commandant. I got the student to fly several circuits and approaches until we were getting close to the minimum fuel level. I could detect that he was desperately keen to go solo - his flying became a little inaccurate, but not dangerously so. I judged that was because he was worried that I wouldn't send him solo. He knew this was his final chance and that he would be suspended and sent home if I didn't send him solo. That put extra pressure on me. In the end, I sent him off on his own. His flight was uneventful as far as I was concerned and he was beaming all over his face when he got down from the aircraft - and, yes, I had to be hugged! I didn't know that the Commandant had been watching from his office.

"I sent him for his solo check with you, Tony, because I expected you to fail him," said the Air Commodore, his disapproval clearly indicated by his expression and the tone of his voice. I explained that although the student had been a little nervous to start with, he had flown to the appropriate standard otherwise I would not have sent him solo. I was surprised at the Commandant's attitude because he had never before questioned my judgement. (Later, I wondered if the Commandant had used that extra solo check ride to get one back at me for my abortive attempt to divert to Sarghoda a week or two earlier.)

A couple of weeks later, from home in UK, I wrote a letter to Air Commodore O'Brien thanking him for his kindness throughout my tour at the Academy and wishing him and his wife well for the future. In a postscript, I asked how the student we had disagreed about was getting on. O'Brien added a postscript to his generous reply stating simply that the student in question ". . . for political reasons had not returned from his end-of-term leave in Iran." I had no idea what that implied but at least I could console myself with the knowledge that the teenager would be able to tell all his family that he had once flown a twin-jet aircraft for 15 minutes all on his own. Call me sentimental if you will, but that's how I felt about it!

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