# Are the first solo flights by a student pilot more dangerous?

The first solo flight is a nail-biting moment, not only for the student pilot, but also for the flight instructor who's sending him off. In theory not having a CFI reduces the margin of safety compared to flights with an instructor (at the same point in a student's training). I've also heard stories about mistakes and even crashes on first solo flights, and according to "Crashes of instructional flights" by Baker, Lamb, Li, and Dodd, solo flights account for about half of instructional flight crashes.

Yet even though the biggest safety measure- a CFI- is gone, are these student solo flights really more dangerous? Are there any studies on accident rate among low time GA pilots vs (solo) students? Also, are incidents more common in the first solo flights than at other parts of a student's pilot training?

• There are probably studies somewhere but anecdotally, I know that the highest accident rates occur somewhere between 75 and 200 hours when confidence and ego can outweigh wisdom and learning. Your license is a license to learn. – Simon Sep 29 '16 at 9:13
• A student on first solo is probably closer to sustained real training, more aware, head full of the instructors wise words than they will ever be again and the instructor is obviously convinced that the student is ready and capable. My reasoned guess is that accident rates on first solos are therefore low. I also guess that many make mistakes and quickly learn. I did. The CoG change in an R22 on lift off with no talking ballast in the left seat is a real attention getter! – Simon Sep 29 '16 at 9:15
• I would second @Simon 's statement. My first solo flight, I recalled what my CFI said to me in every phase of the flight, the only thing that was different was that I was suddenly climbing with a higher rate of climb due to less weight. I only allowed myself some distraction during cruise flight in the pattern ( I was alone), but take-off, approach, flare and roll-out, I was sharp as a knife... – SentryRaven Sep 29 '16 at 9:30
• A (sensible) instructor would have the student flying at least a few patterns before stepping out of the aircraft, therefore the student has already "warmed up". I'd argue that the first flight after 9 months of not flying, without an instructor, is more dangerous. – kevin Sep 29 '16 at 10:05
• The thing that seems to cause most accidents is over-confidence, which leads people to carelessly cut corners, which leads to a general apathy to things they are doing that might be dangerous. When you first fly, trust me, you are paying attention to everything. It's not the most skilled you'll ever be, but it's probably the carefullest you'll ever be. At that point you just need to wait until you actually think you know what you're doing before really screwing things up. – Jay Carr Sep 29 '16 at 19:37

There is no evidence to back the claim that the first solo ride of the student is more dangerous compared to the later ones.

US NIH conducted a study on the accidents with solo pilots, which doesn't indicate that first-time solo fliers are any more prone to accident than others. Aircraft accidents with student pilots flying solo: analysis of 390 cases by Sjir Uitdewilligen and Alexander Johan de Voogt analyzed NTSB probable cause reports of 390 crashes that occurred in the period 2001 – 2005, concluding that,

Student pilots flying solo show fewer injuries and fatalities compared to general instructional flights while in our sample first-time solo student pilots did not feature any fatalities.

Note that this gives only the injuries and not the times the students got into accidents per se. Out of a total of 3811 accidents involving student pilots, 390 occurred while they were flying solo and around 50 involved first-time student solo pilots. Actually, student pilots themselves are prone to less accidents compared to others. From Comparative Analysis of Accident and Non-Accident Pilots by David C. Ison:

Most accidents (49.1%) were conducted with individuals holding a private pilot certificate. Second in incidence were commercial pilots (28.2%), followed by Airline Transport Pilots (ATPs) (13.7%), and student pilots (5.7%)

Considering that 20% of pilots hold a student certificate, these individuals have a disproportionally low accident occurrence.

The report also gives some additional insight into the reason the first-time solo fliers have lesser injuries:

... first-time solo pilots are commonly confined to the airport and practice their takeoff and landings. Such operations may result in accidents, but they will occur near to the ground with a lower risk of a fatality

The report also gives some data about higher experienced student pilots sustaining more injuries, though nothing conclusive, noting that,

... in 25 cases, student pilots were reported to have more than 100 and up to 322 h of flight experience. In the dataset, these pilots were significantly more often injured than students with less hours of flight experience.

It has to be noted that as the hours logged gets more, the students get into more demanding flights which may be reason for this increase in injuries.

• The statement you cited about the lower risk of fatality for typical student flights is supported by the statistical analysis in Li, Baker, and Grabowski's "Factors Associated with Pilot Error in Aviation Crashes," which states "the lower case fatality rate in student pilots [even after adjusting for pilot hours] was due to the fact that their crashes occurred disproportionately near airports, during daytime (6 a.m. to 5 p.m.), under visual meteorologic conditions, and without aircraft fire." – Cody P Sep 29 '16 at 17:21
• "Considering that 20% of pilots hold a student certificate, these individuals have a disproportionally low accident occurrence." They also almost certainly have a disproportionately low number of flight hours in a given time period. The discrepancy between occurrences for pilots with PPLs and students is much more likely simply due to the former flying a lot more than the latter rather than being less safe. The students who do fly frequently usually don't remain students very long. – reirab Sep 30 '16 at 3:53

I couldn't find any analysis of first solo flights, but based on NTSB accident reports it looks like accidents are very rare. There are only 60 reports of fatal part 91 (GA) accidents with the words "first solo" in the report, and 492 non-fatal accidents. But many of those are false positives anyway, because they include reports with things like "with his first solo occurring about a month prior to the accident", so the real numbers are lower.

Training flights in general are very safe compared to other flights. In 2015, student pilots accounted for only 6.5% of non-commercial fixed-wing GA accidents. That's much lower than private (47.1%), commercial (26.6%) and even ATP (12.2%) certificate holders.

AOPA has a detailed report called Accidents During Flight Instruction that comments on student solo flight in general, but not on first solos specifically. It says:

Two-thirds of all fixed-wing training accidents come during primary instruction, and two-thirds of those are during the relatively few hours of solo flight by student pilots. However, fatalities on student solos are extremely rare.

And it does give some information about your question on first solos vs. other phases of instruction:

Two-thirds of all fatal fixed-wing accidents occurred during advanced instruction, less than half of them while pursuing a specific certificate, rating, or endorsement. Transition training, flight reviews, generic refresher training, and specialized instruction in areas such as mountain flying, aerobatics, and cropdusting collectively accounted for over 60 percent of all advanced dual accidents, including more than half the fatal accidents.

Other people have already commented on why student solo flights in general are relatively safe: the student is primed with plenty of recent training and instructor feedback, and the flight conditions are well controlled.

• Some of the statistical logic in this answer is unsound. e.g. "In 2015, student pilots accounted for only 6.5% of non-commercial fixed-wing GA accidents. [thus showing that student flights are safer than nonstudent]" - but you didn't normalize to account for the fact that many more flight hours are flown by nonstudent than student pilots. – pericynthion Sep 29 '16 at 14:27
• @pericynthion Great point, and I'm the first to admit that my statistical logic isn't always sound :-) Those figures are indeed the number of accidents, not the accident rate. But to take one comparison, the FAA stats say there were 20% more active student pilots in 2015 than commercial ones, and the numbers above say there was 1 student accident per 4 commercial pilot ones. So fewer commercial pilots had significantly more accidents, and it would take a huge difference in flight hours to even that out.I think the numbers are at least indicative of a lower student accident rate. – Pondlife Sep 29 '16 at 16:05
• @Pondlife "and it would take a huge difference in flight hours to even that out" There almost certainly is a huge difference in flight hours between commercial pilots (who are frequently professional pilots) vs. people who hold a student pilot certificate. Student pilot certificates remain 'active' for several years even if the student stops flying, so many of those student licenses likely belong to people who haven't flown at all recently. Frankly, I'd be surprised if the number of hours/pilot/year for students is more than 10% of that for CPLs, likely it's much less. – reirab Sep 30 '16 at 3:58

No.

Anytime you get on a car or airplane or any mode of transportation, it is dangerous. Yet most of those journeys end without any incident.

First solo is a very short flight, mostly of a few circuits of the traffic pattern. The instructor is watching and talking to the student. The student is well trained at that point and literally know what they are doing.

I think Simon's comment is very important and needs to be remembered, most accidents can happen when confidence and ego can outweigh wisdom and learning.

You should also notice that most of student's flying occur in VMC or better conditions. This includes both first solos and checkrides. Being the pilot in command, you can cancel the flight if you think any condition is not suitable.

• I agree, but this answer is just opinion and the OP is asking for evidence and statistics. – pericynthion Sep 29 '16 at 13:05
• @pericynthion What statistical parameters can we use as a measures of confidence, ego, wisdom and learning? – Crowley Sep 29 '16 at 20:58