Rotorcraft Rookie: First solo

March 3, 2014

Otto opened the door, unhooked his headset, shook my hand, and left. He walked out from under the blades and didn't look back. I was alone in the helicopter.

I don't remember my first airplane solo very well, probably because my second solo flight had the real impact. I cut someone off in the pattern—twice—and had to be called back in by my instructor. My excuse was that the controller's southern accent made his words unintelligible to this Yankee, but the reality is probably that I was so overwhelmed with flying that I got lost in the shuffle. I was determined to make the first helicopter solo better.

I called the tower controller and said I was a student pilot, just as I had 16 years ago in the Cessna 152. She cleared me to go, and it was on.

Airplane students often comment on how much better the trainer climbs without the dead weight of the instructor, so I expected that. What I didn't expect was the big change in center of gravity. With the fuel tanks behind the cockpit, the difference between one body or two in the Robinson R22 is significant. In fact the center of gravity moves about three inches, or more than half the envelope. As a result the forward cyclic pressure was palpable.

Truth be told, the flight was fairly benign. I flew seven patterns, including one shallow approach and two steep approaches. And with that I completed pretty much every maneuver I can do without an instructor's watchful eye on board. Quick stops, autorotations, pedal turns, and everything else is considered too dangerous to do solo.

What struck me the most was how ready I felt. I don't remember feeling particularly scared during my first airplane solo, but certainly it was stressful. By contrast, the helicopter solo was fun and painless. The difference comes from two things. First, having operated aircraft by myself, there was nothing unusual or unknown about it. More importantly, I was fully ready and had been for some time.

Training in the R22 is covered under a special federal aviation regulation, part of which requires 20 hours of dual before a student is allowed to solo. It doesn't matter if you are ready in four hours, you aren't going. And that brings up an interesting dynamic. We kick instructors out of airplanes at the earliest possible moment as a way for the student to build confidence, sometimes at the expense of safety. Certainly it’s before most are completely comfortable. But here my expectations were measured from the beginning, and so I wasn't disappointed not to solo as fast as I could.

Even so, soloing did increase my confidence and made me even more excited about earning the rating.

Read all the stories in the Rotorcraft Rookie series.

Next time: Robinson factory tour

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly | "Flight Training" Editor

Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.