What exactly is required to fly by yourself?
The regulations applicable to aviation that we follow detail a few things that a student must have accomplished prior to solo: 1) training in a few areas providing awareness of things pertinent to the helicopters we fly that pilots should be alert for; 2) have logged at least 20 hours of ‘dual’ training (with an instructor) on standard maneuvers and procedures prior to his/her solo and 3) passed a knowledge test on applicable rules. All students are different; some may need closer to 30hrs, some at or just over 20. The CFI providing that dual training then signs an endorsement confirming the student is proficient enough for a solo. Solo flight is actually a requirement to apply for a Rotorcraft Helicopter Private Pilot Certificate, and therefore is another big step toward how to become a helicopter pilot. These requirements are found in greater detail at these locations: FAR Part 61.87&109 / SFAR 73 / Manufacturer’s Pilots Operating Handbook (POH).
What’s different about solo vs flying with an instructor/passenger?
First, student pilots are prohibited from flying with passengers, but the FAA doesn’t consider a CFI a passenger. Next, I found there are two main differences: the CG and the quiet. The location change of the center of gravity (how the helicopter ‘hangs’ in a hover/flight) in an R22 with two people onboard vs just one is fairly astounding, especially when you calculate it yourself by hand. Acclimating to that change as a student with around 30 hours takes some getting used to but moreover it means a solo students initial pickup must not be rushed at all. Take all the time you need on that first vertical takeoff! The other is the silence. I got so used to flying with an instructor constantly jabbering on about this or that topic while we flew around, and once he was gone and there was no one to talk to it actually felt kind of lonely. To that point, on my first takeoff in the traffic pattern, I fully realized the importance of having a keen understanding of the emergency procedures from chapter 3 of the POH because in that moment there was no one to ask or confirm them with. Just little ‘ol me. Lastly, solo flight is conducted only from the right seat per the POH.
More technically, the loss of the weight of your CFI when solo usually means the R22 is more difficult to descend during the approach/landing phase of flight. The cyclic position is much more forward than during dual flight which makes the hover profile feel awkward. Your hand and arm position is modified due to this, requiring a more gentle touch on the controls to ensure you are not over-controlling the aircraft. The general nose-high attitude of the aircraft is different as well which makes stable hovering or hover taxis something else to get used to. All of these changes are due to the CG location mentioned earlier; meaning the focal point of the weight is farther rearward than with two people onboard. Forward cyclic is applied to counterbalance that weight now acting rearward.
So how does it feel to solo a helicopter?
To me, almost anything involving helicopters is a good time. Years ago I did a Temsco tour of an Alaskan glacier in an AS350 which was incredible. Flying a helicopter myself puts it to another level. Solo flight was a combination of many feelings and thoughts, even opposites. It’s nervously exhilarating. It’s being alert and focused and definitely fun. It's trusting your ability (and your CFI's opinion of your ability) while asking yourself "what if" questions. It’s enjoying the scenery and remembering to fly your pattern over your ground references properly. It’s wondering in the moment if you can do it and then walking away afterwards with a confidence you’ve never felt before. It was, for me, discovering that for some mysterious reason, my brain plays the instrumental from the song The Final Countdown by Europe (think Gob Bluth from Arrested Development) during my takeoff/upwind leg. Don’t judge me, apparently it helped get me home safe!
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