Adding a category or class rating to your certificate can be as easy as flying to proficiency and passing a checkride, or as complicated as having to pass a knowledge test, fly another first solo, meet a minimum hour requirement, and pass a checkride. My experience was the latter.
At first I found this a bit frustrating. I have a helicopter rating, so adding on gyroplane should just involve training to proficiency and passing a checkride. And if I had done the training in the United States on my FAA certificate, that’s exactly what would have happened. But, I decided to do the rating out of the country, so I got to experience the full monty. Funny enough, the certificate is actually for an ultralight, so I would be adding an ultralight rating to my commercial pilot certificate.
The lead-up to first solo was only a bit less frightening. Typically, my instructors don’t solo students until almost the end of the course, a strategy that is gaining some traction among various flight training organizations. Without the stress of first solo to overcome, students instead can focus on their progression to more advanced skills, and the solo becomes only a box to check and not a hurdle to overcome. Since I had more experience, solo came earlier, around 10 hours. Coincidentally, that’s roughly when I felt ready to take the checkride. At least, when I would normally feel ready. I wasn’t completely comfortable in my skills, but I felt like I knew enough to be safe and had a foundation upon which to build experience.
That said, it was terrifying. Despite first solos in airplanes, in the clouds, in helicopters, and now in gyroplanes, the experience never gets easier. I was as nervous flying around alone in a 65-knot, two-seat sport aircraft as I was shooting my first solo approach, or making three trips around the pattern in the Cessna 152. I guess in hindsight that seems obvious. It’s a big transition from having an experienced pilot with you to always watch over you, take over if you do anything stupid, and give little bits of advice when you need it.
Like a new student pilot, I hesitated to perform the more advanced maneuvers during solo. But there’s no doubt that the first solo flight and the few afterward gave me an immense amount of confidence in the machine and my abilities. You learn to recognize this in students, but most pilots don’t recognize it themselves during training. There’s a transition that takes place from learner to pilot in command, and flying solo is a key element in that transition.
Being forced to fly 20 hours prior to taking the checkride was an annoyance—at least at first. I considered it a waste of time and money, especially with previous airplane and rotorcraft experience. But I decided to take a step back, try to savor the experience, and enjoy the training. The attitude adjustment was hugely beneficial. I looked forward to lessons, and considered the required training a privilege to receive.
It also made the checkride a complete nonevent. After 20 hours of total experience, including advanced emergency procedures, pinpoint emergency spot landings, a cross-country, and low-altitude safety tactics, I felt completely ready. While I had flown primarily with Niklas Nierhoff, I had flown a few times with Frank Nierhoff, and he served as the examiner. It wasn’t unlike going to a weekend seaplane rating course where the school’s owner has examining authority. The checkride was more or less a combination of the three katas, and was no more stressful or intense than any of the training flights. Enough so that it made me reevaluate my earlier checkride tactic, which is to take the test in the minimum number of hours possible. That hasn’t always worked out well for me, and it can lead to a pretty stressful checkride event.
Now I just had to convince someone to fly with me.