This is a brief tail of my personal experience soloing a helicopter for the first time. Looking back, we have all put in a lot of effort to get this far. I personally have spent 40.5 hours of dual instruction time flying and tons of time studying to get to this point. Well where do I start? The beginning is best I suppose…
I woke up Monday morning at 5:15 (it was nice to sleep in a bit) to my two year old pulling at my eyelids and saying “Dom is awake now, actually, daddy.” So, I rolled out of bed thinking this was going to be a great, I was taking a few hours off of work to go to the airport and “check another block” in my training. I got to the airport at about 6 am and I conducted, probably, the longest preflight I had ever done. It wasn’t out of nervousness or fear, but the reality that I was soon to be on my own flying. I finished up with the helicopter, filled out the briefer, got the weather, and everything was perfect (except for the winters first snow storm threatening to dump on us at any moment). The ceilings had come down just enough below minimums at Duluth that our plan changed to go to an alternate airport to conduct the solo.
I received a dispatch and the log book and soon we were taxing out to the runway to conduct a few patterns before Mr. Pike would turn it over to me for the flight. Upon getting up in the air and turning out to the south, I looked at Aaron and said, “We aren’t going to make it to the other airport”. As luck would have it, Aaron had just received a text from the LSH president authorizing us to conduct the flight locally. I quickly changed my departure request to closed traffic at KDLH. Tower approved and I completed two patterns with my mentor in the left seat. During the downwind leg on the second pattern, Aaron instructed me to request full stop and taxi to the circles so he could depart the aircraft.
After Aaron got out and went into “paparazzi” mode. I received the updated ATIS and conducted my pre-liftoff checks and was ready to go. Funny thing is, I wasn’t concerned about my own mortality or the expensive aircraft getting damaged, I couldn’t stop thinking about who would hold the controls if my nose started itching while I was hover taxing… Then I started my pickup and got my first taste of aft CG. After I realized that the tail wasn’t going to hit the ground and it wasn’t “pilot induced”, I preformed a pretty decent liftoff. I started by “stirring the pot” for a moment as I got used to the different feel of the aircraft being lighter and feeling like I was on my heels. I made my call to ground and taxied out toward the runway. Then it hits me, “Who will save my butt if I make a mistake?” “Just relax, and stop leaning to the left!” I told myself.
I worked on keeping a stable hover (noticing it only took about 19 inches of MP) while holding short at the runway and making my call to tower. From there, I proceeded out and performed my pre-takeoff checks. I went into my normal takeoff profile pitching for 40 then 60 kts. I pulled in the rest of my available power (around 5 inches) and rocketed into the air with a climb rate near 1800 ft/min. I laughed to myself thinking about how Aaron was probably going to scold me for doing a max performance takeoff, having been told specifically not to do that. Things went smoothly from there. Winds were in my favor, altitude, airspeed, gages, warning lights all checked out. I was cleared in for the option so I started my approach to the runway. A little fast on final at first, but I corrected for that and hit my normal glide slope. I leveled and reduced collective right on track, until about 50 feet or so off the runway. I stopped descending, so I lowed, and lowered, and lowered collective. It almost felt like I was going to auto in… I had Eric’s words running through my mind, “Don’t force it in to a spot, just extend or go around.” So I extended about 100 feet past my stop and stabilized in a 5 foot hover.
I did my checks and was on the go. I didn’t pull in my 5 min max this time, learning from my first takeoff that it wasn’t necessary. I realized on the base leg that my instructors had done their job well when I caught myself verbalizing my clearing turns and landing checks to NO ONE sitting next to me… Everything else was smooth. I completed 1 more pattern and request full stop and taxi to the circles. I taxied over and Aaron was waiting in front of the tower for me with a big grin, apparently he wasn’t going to harp on my first takeoff, he was just happy I didn’t crash on his “ticket” so to speak. I taxied us over to the entrance to the hangers and Aaron took the controls and flew us in. That was the end of the flight. Oh and a side note, it started snowing about 5 mins after I shut down…
Having had time to reflect on this flight, I realize it wasn’t just some “block” to check. Your first solo is one of the most important experiences that you will have. There is an incredible gain in confidence when you realize you don’t need to be “saved” anymore. You are becoming a pilot and you are gaining skills that you don’t even know you have yet. I still have a long way to go with my training (probably 40-50 years or so), but I will always appreciate the instruction, guidance and help I have received that allowed me to do my first solo safely and successfully. Thanks to everyone at Lake Superior Helicopters!
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