How Do You Fly a Helicopter?

John Peltier

Helicopter flight is fairly mysterious, isn’t it? How do all of those moving parts work in concert to make the helicopter move in just about any direction you can imagine? It reminds me of a diagram I saw as a helicopter student. It showed a helicopter, surrounded by four arrows going up, down, left, and right. Instead of the arrows labeled “lift”, “weight”, “thrust”, and “drag”, they were all labeled “magic”.

Actually, helicopter flying isn’t all that difficult. It just requires a lot of coordination, and that coordination comes with practice. Lots of it. So let’s go ahead and look at some of the basics of how you fly a helicopter.

How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Positioning

Left hand. The left hand always stays on what’s called the Collective. The collective earns its name from the fact that raising and lowering this lever will “collectively” change the pitch of the blades. Raise it and the pitch of all blades increases at the same time, increasing lift. Lower it and all blades decrease in pitch, decreasing lift.

The collective lever also has a handle that twists, controlling the throttle much like a motorcycle handle.

Right hand. The right hand always stays on what’s called the Cyclic. Like the collective, the cyclic gets its name from what it does. It changes the pitch of the blades “cyclically”, that is to say giving the blades different pitch angles depending on their position around the rotation. Move the cyclic to the left and pitch is increased on one side only, increasing lift generated on the right side so that the helicopter will go left.

Feet. The feet always stay on the pedals, and they control the amount of thrust generated by the tail rotor. The pitch of the tail rotor blades is always adjusted collectively. The reason for the tail rotor, and the importance of controlling it is to counter the torque produced by the engine and main rotor.

Helicopter Controls Diagram - How Do You Fly a Helicopter?

How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Control Diagram, courtesy of Fox 52

Imagine standing on a sheet of ice, facing your friend. You push your friend. What will happen? Both of you will actually slide backwards, away from each other. The same happens to a helicopter in the air. The rotors spin in a counter-clockwise direction on American-style helicopters. This makes the fuselage want to spin clockwise, in the opposite direction.

The tail rotor produces thrust to counteract this torque and keep the fuselage aligned. It will always produce some amount of thrust to the right. You need to fine-tune the amount of thrust that it generates in response to small changes in engine power output.

How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Putting It All Together

Your hands and feet need to be connected at all times. If one of them is doing something, the others better be doing something as well. Just about every maneuver, from the most simple to the complex, requires synchronous movement between both hands and feet. And unlike an airplane, you never take your hand off of the cyclic and only off of the collective for just a quick moment!

For example, picking up a helicopter from the ground to a hover at two feet above ground.

  • You need to raise your left hand to increase the collective pitch of all the blades.
  • If the helicopter is not equipped with a governor, you need to twist your left hand to add throttle as you’re raising the lever (increasing the pitch also increases the drag of the blades, which requires more power to overcome).
  • The increase in torque will make the helicopter want to spin to the right, so you need to increase pressure with your left foot (counter-clockwise blades).
  • The increase in collective pitch of the blades will also want to make the helicopter nose want to come up, so you need to move your right hand slightly forward to pitch back down.
  • All of these things happen more or less at the same time.

Another example. To decelerate in level flight, you need to do the following all at once:

  • Pull back slightly with your right hand to slow the helicopter down.
  • Pulling back will bring the nose up and climb, so you need to lower the collective pitch with your left hand to prevent the climb.
  • If the helicopter does not have a governor, you’ll need to twist your left hand to reduce the throttle as the collective pitch, thus drag, is reduced.
  • As the collective pitch is reduced, the torque will decrease and you’ll need to ease up on the amount of left pedal you’re using or else the helicopter will yaw to the left.

There’s a fun little maneuver called a “quick-stop”, where you practice stopping the helicopter from a high speed to nothing in a very short distance. You get really good at the simultaneous movement of “right hand back, left hand down, push right foot!”

How Do You Fly a Helicopter – Practice, Practice, Practice

These are all things that you can practice at home. You don’t even need a simulator! It’s called “chair-flying” and you can do it on the couch or at the dinner table – as long as you don’t mind weird looks from everyone else.

Just go through the maneuvers in your head. Say, “I’m going to pick the helicopter up off the ground and hover.” Then raise your left hand while pushing slightly forward with your right hand and pushing forward with your left foot. It’s that easy! Every maneuver in a helicopter has similar relationships.

And those are the basics of how you fly a helicopter! Don’t be intimidated by what other people say, or the perceived complexity of the machines. I’ve seen some students learn to hover during their first flight – this is the hardest thing to do in a helicopter! The analogy is that it’s like trying to balance a greasy ping-pong ball on the head of a pin.

But with an understanding of what the controls do, the maneuver, like all others in a helicopter, isn’t all that difficult.

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How Do Helicopters Fly?

Margie O’Connor

During my fixed-wing flight training, I witnessed what I thought to be a miracle – a Blackhawk helicopter landing at the same airport I was learning about the theory of airplane flight. Captivated by the powerful sound of the rotor blade, I instantly began to wonder. How did the rotor blades work to produce the lift necessary to keep the aircraft afloat? And were helicopter rotor systems susceptible to any of the same by-products of flight as the airplane?

I would soon discover the significance of words like flapping and feathering; that hunting was more than traipsing through the woods towards the nearest tree stand, and that coning and twist weren’t always referring to ice cream.
Helicopter flying has often been equated to rubbing your belly while patting your head and walking, all at the same time. There’s no doubt rotary wing flying involves a bit of manipulation unfamiliar to the fixed-wing crowd but proper manipulation of the wild yet fascinating components of the helicopter lead to the successful creation of lift, just like flying an airplane.

So how do helicopters fly? First, let’s decipher some helicopter vocabulary. Maybe in doing so, you will gain an appreciation (or at least a sense of awe, like I did) for helicopter flight.

Helicopter Rotor System Characteristics

Helicopters really come with two rotor blade systems – the main rotor system mounted above the cockpit and connected to the engine and the tail rotor, affixed to, well, the tail section (more on that in a future article). These two rotate simultaneously to produce and counteract lift, among other talents.

Like airplanes, helicopters must create enough lift to overcome weight to fly…it’s really all about balancing the forces. This vertical vector combined with centrifugal force produces a resultant force that’s not completely opposite the downward component of weight. So while your helicopter’s main rotor system is still creating lift, centrifugal force is stealing the thunder. If the goal is to take off vertically, the resultant vector needs some adjustment.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 1 - The resultant force of centrifugal force and lift.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 1 – The resultant force of centrifugal force and lift.

Coning

To make the resultant force more effective, the blades cone! Coning occurs to counteract our sneaky friend, centrifugal force. Ask and you shall receive…more lift that is. The blades flex upwards to more effectively concentrate the lift vertically. But beware – coning only augments lift to a certain point, after which it can actually degrade the amount of lift. Excessive coning can creep in at low RPMs, high gross weights, or high G maneuvers.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 2 - Blades coning.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 2 – Blades coning.

Blade Twist

Helicopter rotor blades move fast! And they create a great deal of lift but the lift is not consistent along the blade so engineers design a twist into the blade. Twisting the blade distributes this lift more evenly along the length of the rotor blade.

Dissymmetry of Lift

A look at dissymmetry of lift is necessary to lay the groundwork before moving forward. Dissymmetry of lift is essentially the difference in the lift between the advancing half of the rotor disk and the retreating half. When the speed of the blade combines with the airspeed of the helicopter (wind affects both here), The advancing blade pulls ahead in the race as it moves much faster and acquires greater lift. Conversely, the retreating blade slows down and loses lift. And the closer you get to the tip of the blade, the faster the blade moves!

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 3 - Dissymmetry of lift as viewed from above.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 3 – Dissymmetry of lift as viewed from above.

Although lift is a good thing, if half the helicopter has more than the other half, the aircraft may end up in a rolling situation (literally rolling over). To prevent the advancing blade from overpowering the retreating blade, we have to equalize lift. Several mechanisms exist to counteract this undesirable condition.

Flapping

As the main rotor blades travel, they want to fight off the dissymmetry of lift while having some fun. So they climb (flap up) as they advance around the right half of the rotor’s path and dive (flap down) as they round out the left side. This is flapping. They can do this because they teeter on a hinge. You can see this when the helicopter is sitting on the ground, not running. The blades actually droop (and no, not because they’re sad).

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 4 - As viewed from the back of the helicopter – advancing blade flaps up while retreating blade flaps down.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 4 – As viewed from the back of the helicopter – advancing blade flaps up while retreating blade flaps down.

The advancing blade flaps up, eventually decreasing its angle of attack. Conversely, the retreating blade flaps down, eventually creating an increase in the blade’s angle of attack and winning the battle against dissymmetry of lift.

Feathering

Feathering, like blade flapping, has a role in countering dissymmetry of lift. Feathering is the rotation of the blade about its span wise axis, by collective or cyclic inputs, which causes a change in blade pitch angle.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 5 - Feathering rotates the blade around the span wise axis.

How Do Helicopters Fly, Figure 5 – Feathering rotates the blade around the span wise axis.

Primary feathering occurs when you manipulate the cyclic, which in turn moves the thrust vector in the direction of movement (left, right, forward).

Leading and Lagging (also known as Hunting)

While the blade flaps up, the CG moves closer to the rotor mast. Why does this happen, you ask? Well, it’s all about Coriolis force. If you’ve ever watched ice skaters, you are familiar with Coriolis force (which simply states that as a mass moves closer to the center of rotation, it gains speed). So when the ice skater moves her arms closer to her body as she spins, her speed increases. The same thing occurs on a spinning rotor blade.

The faster blade also experiences a change in pitch and an increase in drag. If these stresses continue too long, the rotor blades risk excessive bending. Leading and lagging can give the blades some room to relax and unwind from their overstressed condition.

During leading and lagging, the rotor blade moves fore and aft (or hunts) in the plane of rotation. But this feature only frequents fully articulated rotor systems, so you may not encounter this when first learning to fly a helicopter.

In Conclusion

If the thought of learning to tackle a new, yet challenging mode of flight involving rotor blades seems intriguing, then maybe the time is ripe for you to leap into the world of helicopter flying.

Get Started With Your Flight Training Today

You can get started today by filling out our online application. If you would like more information, you can call us at (844) 435-9338, or click here to start a live chat with us.

References:

Dole, C. E. (1994). Flight Theory for Pilots. Redlands: Jeppesen Sanderson.

Headquarters, Department of the Army (2007). Fundamentals of Flight. Washington, D.C: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Why You Should Get Your Commercial Helicopter License

John Peltier

Looking for an exciting aviation career? Forget airplanes and fly something that doesn’t need a runway! A career as a helicopter pilot will afford you the ability to travel all over the world and get paid to do things that seem like they only come out of the movies.

But the first step – you need to get your commercial helicopter license.

If you want to fly helicopters, getting a commercial helicopter license is more or less mandatory unless you’re swimming in money. Unlike general aviation airplanes, helicopters cost much more to rent (around $250/hr just for a two-seater) and have more stringent insurance requirements. And this is after the more expensive training. This makes helicopter flying a hobby for the rich, whereas the rest of us need to find another way to fly them. But why complain about an opportunity to get paid to do it?

What You Can Do With Your Commercial Helicopter License

Many helicopter jobs require a fair amount of time in the cockpit to be eligible. But it is possible for you to start making money almost immediately after getting your commercial helicopter license.

Aerial view from a helicopter of the Hawaii coast

Some schools have tour operations going on in addition to flight instruction, and pilots can start flying tours in piston helicopters after receiving their certificate.

Many commercial helicopter students will also go directly into flight instructor training, and this is a great way to build hours for a couple of years before transitioning to jobs in larger turbines.

From there, your imagination is the limit. Fly medical supplies into the African bush. Drop off scientists in the Arctic. Fight fires. Make movies. What do you want to do?

Steps in Getting Your Commercial Helicopter License

The first thing you should do is research schools. And don’t pick a school based on the price! This can get you in trouble with substandard training and/or safety.

You should be prepared to move if needed – don’t pick a school just because it’s close to home either. You should actually make visits out to these schools and interview the staff. Ask about their safety record, job placement opportunities after training, and get some feedback from some of the other students. Check out their equipment also, both simulators and the actual aircraft. Are they clean and in a presentable condition? This reflects greatly on the school. Some schools may have financing available either directly or offered through a third party, and you should inquire about this too if you’ll need financing.

Once you decide on a school, the next step is the actual training. If you already have your private helicopter license or are starting from scratch, be prepared for a lot of study and hard work! You should really put as much focus as you can into the training – this will set you up for success further down the road.

Here are the requirements for your commercial helicopter license, straight from the Federal Aviation Regulations:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Be able to read, speak, and write English
  • Be endorsed from an instructor who certifies that you are prepared for the written knowledge test
  • Pass a written knowledge test
  • Be endorsed from an instructor who certifies that they conducted your required training and that you are ready for the practical test (the check ride)
  • Meet aeronautical experience requirements outlined in the regulations (flying time and conditions)
  • Pass the practical test (check ride)
  • Hold at least a private pilot certificate
  • Comply with all applicable Federal Aviation Regulations

The aeronautical knowledge required for the test includes things like airspace definitions, aviation weather, emergency procedures, aircraft systems, and so on. You will learn all of this in ground training and/or a home study course.

Your are required to have at a minimum 150 hours of flight time (aeronautical experience) that includes:

  • 100 hours in powered aircraft, 50 of which is in helicopters
  • 100 hours of pilot-in-command time, which includes:
    • 35 hours in helicopters
    • 10 hours cross-country flight in helicopters
  • 20 hours of training which includes:
    • 5 hours training of flying the helicopter by only reference to instruments
    • One 2-hour cross-country during the day, longer than 50 miles
    • One 2-hour cross-country during nighttime, longer than 50 miles
    • Three hours preparing for the test with an instructor within 2 months of the practical test
  • 10 hours of solo flight (an instructor may also be present) which includes:
    • One cross-country, landing at three points, with one segment longer than 50 miles
    • 5 hours of night flying with 10 takeoffs and 10 landings

The numbers may seem big, but it goes by fast! You can also combine certain requirements, like doing some of your instrument flying training during one of your cross-country flights. So long as you have the total 150 hours of flight time, you’re good.

Costs for Getting Your Commercial Helicopter License

This is a common question for students seeking their commercial helicopter license, but it’s not an easy one to answer based on all the variables.

Helicopter flying against a blue sky

For one, fuel costs vary around the country. Second, different operators are looking for different profit margins and this has a big impact on the variation in pricing. Third, other operating costs are factored in also, such as the school’s hangar rental, insurance premiums, employee wages, etc.

And finally, a lot of it depends on YOU. The minimums are just that, minimums. Don’t be upset if your instructor won’t sign you off at exactly 150 hours! It’s very rare for a student pilot to get signed off at the bare minimum. And instructors won’t just keep you flying so that they can make a buck – they were in your shoes once upon a time also and want to keep costs down for you.

One great way to keep costs down is to keep your training consistent – don’t take breaks for weeks at a time because that will set you back slightly with each break. Flying a few days a week is a great pace – enough to keep you on top of your training but not too much to get burned out. It is reasonable to get your license in approximately 9 months at this pace, starting from zero experience.

If you’re looking for a ballpark figure, a private pilot license will cost you around $12,000-$15,000 and a commercial helicopter license on top of that will cost another $30,000-$33,000. So, somewhere between $42,000-$48,000. Again, that varies greatly from school to school and with student progression.

After You Get Your Commercial Helicopter License

Don’t stop there! As we mentioned previously, working as a flight instructor is a great way, if not the best way, for new commercial helicopter pilots to build hours required by other employers. Flying as an instructor also makes you a better pilot. It’s great résumé fodder when you go for that next job.

Having an instrument rating is another piece of the puzzle that employers are looking for. While most helicopter pilots won’t actually fly in instrument meteorological conditions during their careers, having instrument training again makes you a better pilot and shows employers that you’re dedicated to becoming the best pilot. It’s another great investment that will pay dividends in the future.

And never stop studying! The brain can only hold a finite amount of information, not to mention that a lot of that information changes with the industry.

The bottom line: getting your commercial helicopter license requires a lot of hard work and dedication, but you’ll have one of the most satisfying, intense, fun jobs that you can imagine!

Get Started With Your Flight Training Today

You can get started today by filling out our online application. If you would like more information, you can call us at (844) 435-9338, or click here to start a live chat with us.

The Differences Between Helicopter Flying and Airplane Flying

Margie O’Connor

When asked how helicopter flying is different from flying an airplane, my response has always been the same: it’s much more difficult to eat a sandwich while flying a helicopter, whereas, in a well-trimmed airplane, light finger pressure on the yoke is enough to hold the aircraft straight and level while eating a sandwich with the other.

Why is this? Well, helicopter flying, although an adrenalin mounting endeavor (and the one I prefer), requires the use of both hands simultaneously on the controls. Does this mandate a white-knuckle grip, through all phases of flight, to keep the helicopter flying? Quite the contrary. Helicopter pilots are typically taught to place their hands and feet on the controls and then simply “think” about flying the helicopter or applying very small, smooth movements via the flight controls. But both hands are still occupied.

Aerodynamic Forces

Helicopter and fixed-wing flying use the same aerodynamic principles – just applied in slightly different ways. Lift, weight, thrust and drag play a role in the movement of both aircraft.

Thrust must be greater than drag to cause forward movement in an airplane in flight. In helicopter flying, these same forces act as vectors to accommodate the condition of flight (i.e., left, right, up, down, etc.). For example, in forward helicopter flight, lift acts as the vertical component of the Total Aerodynamic Force (TAF) and drag takes up the position opposite and perpendicular to the TAF. Or using a different visual, lift makes up the vertical component of the total lift vector with thrust acting perpendicular and opposite to lift in the same vector – thrust either acting forward (in forward flight) or left, right or to the rear (in the corresponding direction).

In steady state, un-accelerated flight in an airplane, lift equals weight and thrust equals drag. In a hover (in a no wind condition) lift and thrust combine into one force and are equal to and act opposite the sum of weight and drag.

Airflow

While these same forces come into play in both helicopter and airplane flying, the airflow is slightly different. In an airplane, the air flow over the wing speeds up as the aircraft’s speed increases. Helicopter flying incorporates both the helicopter’s speed and the speed at which the rotor blades move through the air.

How do we manipulate all these forces? Well, in an airplane, the pilot uses the control yoke or column and rudder pedals. In helicopter flying, the collective, cyclic and antitorque pedals control the forces in flight.

Controlling the Forces

In helicopter flying, the pilot’s left hand controls the collective and sometimes a throttle, depending on the aircraft. The collective is a bar or stick, if you will, parallel to the floor of the helicopter, when in the down position. As the pilot lifts the collective, the corresponding change in the rotor blade’s pitch angle increases lift and thus helps “lift” the helicopter up. The collective controls the up and down of the entire helicopter.

The pilot’s right hand controls the cyclic, positioned between the pilot’s legs. The cyclic runs somewhat perpendicular to the floor of the helicopter and provides pitch and roll about the lateral and longitudinal axes, respectively. The cyclic essentially works by changing the tip path plane of the rotor allowing you to maneuver in directions impossible for the fixed-wing pilot. So, yes, you can actually fly backward (without help from an excessively strong headwind) or hover over a fixed location!

While collective and cyclic keep your hands busy, the antitorque pedals demand your feet participate, as well. In a single rotor system, like those found on many trainer helicopters, pushing on the right pedal, turns the helicopter to the right while pressure on the left pedal, rotates the aircraft left. But that’s not the primary function of these two pedals on the floor. Their main purpose in life is not to add yet another required movement to flying a helicopter but rather to counteract torque.

Torque is the force that causes rotation and is countering the main rotation of the rotor blades. In aircraft flown in the United States, rotor blades rotate counter-clockwise, as viewed from above the rotors. Based on Newton’s third law of motion, torque imparts the tendency for the nose of the helicopter to move right. Antitorque pedals exist then, to counter torque.

So there you have it. Flying helicopters differs from flying airplanes mainly in the controls you will use… and that it may be slightly more difficult to eat a sandwich. But I’m still partial to helicopter flying: there’s nothing quite as awesome as hovering.

Get Started With Your Flight Training Today

You can get started today by filling out our online application. If you would like more information, you can call us at (844) 435-9338, or click here to start a live chat with us.

References:

Center, U. S. (1996, July). Theory of Rotary Wing Flight. Fort Rucker, Alabama, United States of America.

Dole, C. E. (1994). Flight Theory for Pilots. Redlands: Jeppesen Sanderson.

Harp, P. (1996). Pilot’s Desk Reference for the UH-60 Helicopter. In P. Harp, Aerodynamics (pp. 6-18, 6-21, 6-32). Enterprise: Presentation’s Plus.

Michael J. Kroes, J. R. (1993). Aircraft Basic Science. Westerville: Glencoe Division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill.