The day I started learning to fly helicopters.
At the end of 2008, I finished — that is, completely filled — my first Jeppeson Professional Pilot Logbook. The book documents the first eleven calendar years of my pilot experience.
I bought the book on the day of my first flight lesson. My instructor, Paul, said that the flight school sold two of them. He recommended the big, Jeppeson book. It was more expensive than the smaller alternative, but it was also more impressive. As he wrote the entry for my very first flight, I wondered how long it would take to fill the whole book.
Eleven years. 2033 hours of flight time. (It’s a big book.)
The first entry was for October 14, 1998:
Aircraft Make and Model: R22
Aircraft Ident: 4030C
Total Duration of Flight: 0.9
Rotorcraft Helicopter: 0.9
Landings: Day: 2
Dual Received: 0.9
Paul’s signature and CFI certificate number appear in the Remarks and Endorsements column, along with the cryptic codes A-F, K. I consulted the “cheat sheet” that the flight school used to code entries and discovered that we’d practiced the following:
A: Hovering, hovering turns
B: Lift Off / Set Down
C: Normal Take Off
D: Normal Approach
E: Maximum Performance Take Off
F: Steep Approach
K: Straight In Autorotations
I don’t remember very much about that first flight — after all, it happened more than twelve years ago — but I do remember a few things.
The preflight seemed to take forever. We used a two-sided checklist and Paul ran me through every single item. He’d help me preflight for the first three or four lessons. Then it was up to me to do it on my own. I think I surprised him a few times when I found potential problems in an aircraft that was still warm from the previous flight.
Paul handled all radio communications. During that first lesson, I had no idea what he was saying. I distinctly recall wondering who Juliet was and why he mentioned her when talking to the tower that first time.
Paul lifted off from the school’s helipad, climbed out, and got us in level flight before turning over any of the controls. When he did, he turned them over one-by-one. The sensitivity of the cyclic amazed me — it didn’t take much to get the helicopter moving in a direction I didn’t want to go.
Paul brought us in to the practice area at Memorial Field, southwest of Chandler Municipal. Memorial was on land owned by the Gila River Indian Community. It had two runways (03/21 and 12/30), neither of which were in good condition. But they were fine for helicopter practice and only a 8-minute flight from Chandler. Few other people used the airport and we’d normally have it to ourselves or share it with another helicopter student pilot. Not long ago, the Indians closed the airport to helicopter use. I don’t know where the new students at Chandler practice now.
We practiced hovering. Or, more accurately, he showed me how to hover and I tried to do it. It seemed impossible. I remember Paul telling me that it normally took students 5 to 10 hours of practice time to be able to hover. It wouldn’t be until our eighth flight, a month later, that I finally got the knack with about 7.5 hours under my belt.
He demonstrated an autorotation. I felt my stomach do a somersault. The whole thing happened very fast. At the bottom, he brought back the power, pulled pitch, and left us hovering right where he’d said we’d be.
Afterwards, back at the flight school, we talked about what we’d done. I was still optimistic, even about hovering. I was excited, even though I had no real idea of what I was doing.
Over the next few lessons, I’d develop and then get over motion sickness while trying to hover. I’d ask Paul what percentage of students actually got their pilot certificates and be told that fewer than half finished. My optimism about hovering would turn to pessimism. And then, when I could suddenly hover, I knew I’d be able to finish.
But averaging just two hours of dual time a week, I knew I was not on the fast track.