Dead-on there, Keith. We don't know if this was his first CC or not, but given that many CFI's are just building time on the student's dime it is not unusual that the instructors themselves have minimal time, mostly spent bumping around the same milk run of local familiar airports and more often than not sharing far more of the cockpit load than they should be. So for the solo student the slightest change from routine, even if he was flying to a destination to which he had been before as "co-pilot" to his instructor, can be disorienting with all the rest that is on his lone mind... sudden change of traffic pattern or entry, often referring to landmarks familiar to local students but not visitors, etc. Once so distracted he is immediately behind the aircraft (even if it is not a Lancair
) and an unforgiving controller makes things even worse. For example, the tower could have vectored him to a safe area clear of the ATA and suggested he circle for a bit and gather his thoughts.
But it still comes back to the instructor knowing his student and making sure the last ten hours or so of instruction prior to that first CC are merely as an observer. It's interesting to dust off the log book after all these years, but I consider myself lucky to have had a young but extremely tough instructor who, with my little subsidy to his log book eventually got that left seat with Flying Tigers. His attitude was basically, "you're flying the plane" from the very beginning, which was what I wanted. I grew up flying RC models, flying in friends planes, etc., thus "knew how to fly" and my experience with all things mechanical and business in two-way communications and electronics eliminated any mystery as to how things work, so it was just finding that ideal moment when I had both the time and the money (conditions seldom in alignment) to "git 'er done". I was building a national rep organization for my business and I really wanted more travel flexibility.
Anyway, that time was October 16, 1984 and the place was KHPN. Most of the fair weather flyers were done for the season, I could choose just about any equipment on the ramp, the leaves were gone and the cross-winds aplenty, so it was perfect. I soloed 20 hours later on Dec 9th and two months later flew to Groton for my first CC at 42 hrs total, eventually getting my ticket early April after a total of 5 months and 59 hours total (half solo), basically 3 hours per week, which could never have happened on a summer schedule OR with a different instructor, because we flew two or three times a week no matter what... if it was IMC we would just file, go someplace and shoot an approach, took in about ten hours at night for good measure, and he made me do it all. If I missed a radio call and asked, "What did he say?", Tom would just reply, "I dunno... Why don't you ask him?" Even flying right traffic where you might think he could help just a tad on down-wind, "Should I turn base now?"... "What, is my head in the way? Next, I suppose you'll be asking your wife."
It's all good for a chuckle now, but I thought I was pretty hot stuff until I went through that beat-down, and I early on realized it was far more important for HIM to think I was a good pilot than me. Apparently he did because two years later while on my BFR a gear emergency developed, the course of action I wished to follow as PIC differed significantly from that desired by the frightened young examiner (for example, finishing up the flight test since we had lots of fuel to burn off anyway, among other things), and his frantic call to the FBO (who owned the plane, otherwise there would have been no cockpit debate at all) resulted in my original instructor advising him in no uncertain terms that he should "Let him do whatever he thinks is best." ... But that is a story for another day.