Francis Meyrick

Learning to Fly Helicopters (3) “First Solo “

Posted on March 25, 2014

Learning to Fly Helicopters

Part 3: “First Solo” (in a Helicopter)

The irony for me of course was the fact that I had, myself, in previous life, sent many a fixed wing student pilot off on his or her first solo. And it was always I who, as the (h)airplane instructor, had watched (anxiously) as my student ventured off into the sky. It was always I who had paced, and quietly worried.
Without showing it.

Now, here I was, keenly aware that the shoe was on somebody else’s foot. The boot belonged to the other Papa bird. It was I who was about to get lobbed out of the protective nest. It was I who was about to face the unknown. Alone. It was kind of odd. Like a big mistake. An accidental role reversion. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Also, a “first solo” in my past experience was just that: ONE solo circuit ride around the pattern. One time. Take-off, (discover religion), land, (hopefully), stop, finish, celebrate. Bore the hind legs off everybody.
For days.
I’d never seen a first solo student sent off to perform no less than THREE solo circuits & bumps. But that is what they briefed me for.
Okay… fair enough.
I was a little surprised, but I reckoned I was up to the challenge, and quietly happy to go. What the heck, anyway. It was a bit more than I had planned on, of course. I was originally just going to hover it one time. To prove to everybody how easy it was. But… well… Let’s go around the pattern on my own. Just to show… how addictive it was. I mean, how easy. (nothing to it) (stupid things, helicopters)

I had already flown one ride around the pattern with the Chief Instructor, who had spent most of the time making wisecracks. I’ll call him Fred. He seemed to be endlessly amused at the thought of a multi thousand hour fixed wing pilot about to go solo in a heli-whopper. But he was happy with my flying, and said so. My own instructor was happy for me to go solo. I was… happy. Happy-ish. I had already been reading up on helicopter accidents, and asking lots (and lots) of questions. I was well aware of the many cases of pilot error leading to fatal crashes in Robinson helicopters. Hell, it was a helicopter. Very strong for the loads it was designed for. Very safe if you treated her with respect. Treated her right. If you didn’t… I was in a pensive mood as I walked out on my own. Nobody can be completely calm for their first solo flight in a helicopter.

What the hell was I doing?

I started her up. Did my checks. Then I saw Fred strolling out.

What does he want…?

He didn’t come over to me directly, but went and stood twenty yards in front of me.
What gives? This wasn’t in any brief?
But his hand motion was unmistakable: I want you to lift up into a hover.
I obliged. Damn. My first solo hover. In a helicopter. Is this wise? There was a little wobble, as I was to learn later, quite a common occurrence on first solo hovers in a Robinson. Nobody had warned me to expect it: it is only a small ship, and the left seat was now empty.

Now what? You’re in my way, Mister Fred…

He motioned again: ‘Do a left turn’. I obliged with a left turn. It felt good. ‘Do a right turn’. Again, I obliged. (“How’s that?”) He seemed happy. I had not been briefed on the pantomime, but I could follow what he meant. ‘Move sideways to the left’. Good. ‘Move sideways to the right.’ Good. ‘Move backwards’. Okay. He grinned. I was concentrating too much to grin, but I felt good. And I had both hands full, both feet were occupied, so I couldn’t wave, or waggle a foot. I found myself mentally asking him:

Now, can I REALLY go solo, please, Mister? Please? Pretty please?

And there followed a gesture that has stayed with me. It seemed to me, at the time, almost a ceremonial gesture. Practical, but also a lot more… Poignant, almost. Fred stepped to one side, out of my way, and both hands, palms upwards, invited me on, pointing from the Robinson forwards in a sweeping motion to the grass runway, and up into the clear blue sky.

“Away you go, laddie, she’s all yours! I am giving you the sky!”

Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen. I went…

Nose down. Picking up speed. Faster. Feeling the rotors beginning to enjoy clean air. Ease back on the cyclic stick. Ease back…
Soon I was climbing through three hundred feet, four hundred, five hundred.
I was on my own! That wonderful feeling. Now I was a REAL chopper pilot. Whatever else happened, I had to get her back down.
No going back. My first helicopter solo was so totally underway.
Check instruments downwind. Look at the airfield. Check height. YEAH!
Look around the Big Sky, for brief, indelibly precious seconds. Look into the distance. Look far. Swivel head. Soak it all in. Love it, love it.
Music in my simple heart…
Base leg, smooth turn onto finals. Satisfying blade slap. Finals check. Going good.
Slow it down. Steady-steady, into the hover, eyes aim beyond the concrete square… steady, steady, gently down, five feet to go… three feet… nearly there…

That was a goodie… I look over to the little group of onlookers. I see waves, thumbs shooting up, grins… and this time, there is a big answering grin from me. And I get two more??!
FUK’N AYE! Go for it…
And off again, into the sky, settling into strange new ‘experienced solo chopper pilot’ feelings. Building cautiously on experience. This is great. Beyond great. Awesome. There are no words to describe this. I want to fly. Forever.

Landing after the third circuit, I really didn’t want to shut her down. I wanted to take that little Robbo and disappear over the horizon. Go explore those mountains…
Wistfully, I pulled the mixture, and the reliable old Lycoming rumbled into silence. Blades still swishing around… I didn’t want to apply the rotor brake. I just let the rotors wind down slowly of their own accord… I just didn’t want to shorten the enjoyment.
It’s over. It’s all over…

I sat back, and reflected. Once again, the sheer thrill experience of flying had overwhelmed me. Some extraordinary taste or hint of some magic ingredient in Life. Some kind of joyous tranquility, mixed with a deep, reverend awe. A liberation of sorts. Throughout my flying career, it would sometimes hit me with a wallop. Stun me. It would utterly fascinate me. Puzzle me. That Man could be so privileged, to experience so much, to fly so high, to soar, to ponder and dream, and yet… Man was still always locked in a struggle. In some way, I was exploring ever deeper into my own nature. Trying to realize my own truth. I accepted then, as I do now, that our permanence of existence is an illusion. One we are wise to recognize, to calmly accept. We are transient, small, limited, groping creatures. But we can touch the face of… the Sublime. That which is without Limit. In our flying, we can hover close to Nature. In more meanings than just one. There is that which we can sense only dimly. But it is a tremendous truth. An awesome dimension. Into which we, the seeking ones, can only enter softly, and reverently. On tip toes. The image comes to mind of humble pilgrims, creeping in, timorously, hushed, through the massive, tall, ancient oak doors of a medieval cathedral.

In a time warp, standing off, unseen, to one side, I still, to this day, see a much younger version of myself walking over to the little group. They are very pleased with themselves. Suspicion enters my naïve and trusting soul… are you guys up to something?
But no, Fred is kindly holding out an (opened) can of beer. How very thoughtful of him!
“Here you go, Francis, you’ve deserved it!”
“Gee, thanks!”, I still hear myself saying. I stretch out a grateful paw.
“I could do with that! I’m hot!”
The can of beer gets emptied all over my surprised head. Laughter.
“You devils, so that was what you were all grinning about…”
My naivety is on display. I wasn’t expecting that.
Fred looks sympathetic. He’s still grinning.
“Are you hot then, Francis?”, he asks solicitously.
“Rather!”, I answer, foolishly, vaguely aware of movement behind me.
A hose is tuned on, and I get thoroughly soaked.
You devils…

Marvelous, indescribable feeling.

Francis Meyrick

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Last edited by Francis Meyrick on November 16, 2015, 4:50 pm

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