Rotorcraft Rookie: Round and round he goes

Solo helicopter maneuvers

March 20, 2014

I’m dizzy. In case anyone from the FAA’s medical office is reading, I suppose I should clarify and say it’s a temporary condition brought on by dozens of laps around the pattern. Because in helicopter solo training, that’s pretty much all you do.

The first few hours of solo flying is one place where fixed-wing and helicopter training differ significantly. My fixed-wing experience was pretty typical. After we flew around the pattern a few times the instructor got out and I did it three times by myself. The next flight I checked in with him and I flew the pattern again. From that point on I was pretty much on my own, soloing when I wanted to with the expectation that I would go to the practice area to work on stalls, steep turns, ground reference maneuvers, and whatever else I could muster the guts to try by myself.

Helicopter training is pretty much the opposite. I check in with my instructor before soloing each time, and he specifically gave me instructions to practice only pattern work for five hours. I’m prohibited from practicing autorotations, quick stops (stopping from 40 feet in the air at 40 knots to simulate a traffic conflict), slopes (picking up and setting down on a grade), and pretty much everything other than hovering, normal departures and approaches, steep approaches, and shallow approaches.

Some fairly tame pedal turns are also allowed. These coordination maneuvers are the closest things to rubbing their stomaches and patting their heads that helicopter students get. It takes an immense amount of concentration and skill to work through the variety of turns, which could be everything from a box pattern with the nose pointing directly at the box the whole time to circles around a point where the tail swings a wide arc while the nose makes a small circle. In calm wind they aren’t bad, but anything more than about five knots makes things really difficult.

The reason to restrict solo work to the pattern is primarily driven by insurance. I reached out to a few other helicopter instructors and it seems like this practice is pretty universal. One operator of a Sikorsky 300 said they don’t do quick stops and slopes until after the student has earned a private pilot certificate. A Robinson R22 instructor said the insurance market for helicopters, and Robinson in particular, is even more tight than for fixed-wing instruction. So the same flight school policy that says you have to fly with an instructor every 90 days also restricts helicopter students from doing more advanced solo maneuvers.

Between spinning around in a circle and flying around in one, I know my basic geometry. After four hours it’s getting only a little bit tedious, so I’m trying to stay sharp and take the opportunity to hold altitude precisely, make really clean approaches, and not flub radio calls. I’m also setting down and picking up every pass, which is not something helicopter pilots normally do.

For now I'll just keep spinning around, enjoying the view from 600 feet in the pattern.

Next time: The best study materials.

Read all the stories in the Rotorcraft Rookie series.

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.