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Private Pilot, Training

First Solo Flights [VIDEO]

August 3rd, 2014

Total Hours: 36.9

This week has been every bit as rewarding as the last was challenging. All of the information and technique that I was trying so hard to absorb has finally started to sink in. As I have written about previously I can have unrealistic personal expectations. Once I have been introduced to a new skill or idea I want to master it immediately. But the reality is that it takes time to integrate the things I’ve learned into my actions. I’ve also written about the feeling that I was leveling off, but I now see I was premature in saying that. My new theory is that some weeks will feel like plateaus and others will bring the feeling of great accomplishment. This week brought the latter.

The big news, as you can see in the title, is that I took my first solo flights. Unlike airplanes the solo in a helicopter happens in two steps. First the student must demonstrate her ability to pick the helicopter up and control it in a hover. The instructor already knows the student can do this, but the student must see for himself that it is true. And there is another very important factor to be considered during this first step. It is the shift in weight and balance. Weight and balance is a simple but critical thing in the aviation world and it probably is not easily apparent to the outside observer.

Imagine driving in a car and having a couple of 200 pound friends jump in. What happens? Perhaps a change in performance depending on how powerful the car is, but otherwise not much. How about in a small boat? Here it is easier to imagine how you might want to position your friends to keep the boat in balance and allow it to perform normally. Well, most small aircraft are even more sensitive than a small boat. For example, while hovering my instructor could throw things out of balance simply by shifting his weight in his seat. All he had to do was lean out the door to make the helicopter lean, and then move, in that direction. My job was to correct for his movements. But now imagine what happens when you take the instructor out! The helicopter is suddenly very light up front but also much heavier on the right where the pilot sits.

The very first time I picked the helicopter up all by myself I was shocked at just how much cyclic input I needed to make up for my instructor’s absence. I knew that it would pick up nose first but I couldn’t have guessed just how much. It almost felt as if the machine was going to tip over backwards. I had to push the cyclic forward, and then forward some more, and then still further forward into realms I had never before explored. Making such a large control input, especially in an unusual direction, is a funny feeling no matter how prepared you are. Once in the air the helicopter still doesn’t feel the same. With the shift in center of gravity it hangs tail low. Using the normal sight picture for a steady hover the machine slowly creeps forward because the nose needs to sit higher. But all these things are easy enough to correct for. They just take a little getting used to and that is the goal of the solo hover maneuvers. During this first step of the solo I spent 30 minutes picking up, setting down, hover taxiing, and performing pedal turns. By the end I felt very comfortable with the new feel of the machine in the hover.

The next day it was time to take my newfound skills and move them into the pattern. The goal here is to continue learning about the way the helicopter handles with no one else on board. And again I was surprised at just how different it flew. The small nose high attitude I sometimes allowed on the turns became a big climb because the gross weight was much lower. The attitude I normally used for the downwind resulted in higher airspeeds because the helicopter wanted to hang a bit nose high. And when it came time to descend, well it didn’t really want to go down. In fact I had to go around on several of my approaches because by the time I lowered the collective enough to start the descent my approach angle was too steep. For an hour I flew around the pattern practicing my approaches and getting a feel for the helicopter solo. The next day I had another hour solo in the pattern and by the end of that session things were coming together nicely.

Okay, so I’ve written about the technical factors concerning soloing in the R22 but what did it feel like? I felt the most nervous during the hover solo. Landing isn’t that hard, but there was an immediate sense of responsibility the first time I picked the helicopter up. No one else could bail me out when it came time to set it down. So I put it down right away just to be sure I could! Adding to the tension was the memory of the times learning to hover when the aircraft got out of control. Early on in my solo there was a moment when my hover got a little shaky. I was starting to chase the aircraft as it moved back and forth and I thought to myself that I had to keep it under control because there was no one else to take control and settle things down. Ultimately I think that the real reason the solo hover work is more nerve wracking is the proximity to the ground. There is little margin for error. Conversely, while in the pattern you have a lot of time and space to get things straightened out. Only in the final moments of the approach do things become critical. Perhaps because of this when I flew in the pattern I didn’t even feel a little bit nervous. But maybe it was simply that there was so much to think about, so many things to stay on top of, and no real time to feel nervous. Regardless, all the training I had received up to that point prepared me perfectly for the experience. And in the end the ultimate feeling from all of my solo experiences was one of gratification.

The feeling of self-worth that came from those initial solos was much greater than I had anticipated. I knew it would feel good, but it was more meaningful than that. It wasn’t so much the fact that I was able to fly from beginning to end. I had been capable of that for some time and I was well aware despite having an instructor sitting next to me. The deeper reward came from taking all of the skills, both theoretical and practical, that I had been working so hard to polish and applying them on my own. I have always greatly appreciated independence. The ability to make my own choices, to reap the rewards or pay the consequences, to learn from my experiences in my own way, this has always been important to me. My first solos expressed that independence in flying and I think that was why they felt so darn good.

So what happens now? Well the soloing is limited during training for one very important reason. A student flying solo can only be allowed to perform basic maneuvers. For example we can’t practice autorotations, engine failures, or off airport landings. Even once I get my Private pilot certificate I still won’t be soloing much, only enough to meet the requirements of each certificate. But I will cherish each of the moments when I do get the aircraft all to myself.

And now I’d like to share a short video clip of my very first solo trip around the pattern:

(Click the gear icon and switch to HD for best quality…)


About Orin Bakal-Molnar

Besides aviation my biggest passion is climbing. I love spending my free time on the side of something big! But I'm almost as happy doing anything outside in the wild. Travel, photography, and fly-fishing are a few of my other pursuits. And of course there's nothing like meeting new people and sharing good conversation.


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