Helicopter Flight Conditions (Part One)

in Aerodynamics, Aircraft Assembly, and Rigging

Hovering Flight

During hovering flight, a helicopter maintains a constant position over a selected point, usually a few feet above the ground. For a helicopter to hover, the lift and thrust produced by the rotor system act straight up and must equal the weight and drag, which act straight down. [Figure 2-31] While hovering, the amount of main rotor thrust can be changed to maintain the desired hovering altitude. This is done by changing the angle of incidence (by moving the collective) of the rotor blades and hence the AOA of the main rotor blades. Changing the AOA changes the drag on the rotor blades, and the power delivered by the engine must change as well to keep the rotor speed constant.


Figure 2-31. To maintain a hover at a constant altitude, enough lift and thrust must be generated to equal the weight of the helicopter and the drag produced by the rotor blades.

Figure 2-31. To maintain a hover at a constant altitude, enough lift and thrust must be generated to equal the weight of the helicopter and the drag produced by the rotor blades.

The weight that must be supported is the total weight of the helicopter and its occupants. If the amount of lift is greater than the actual weight, the helicopter accelerates upwards until the lift force equals the weight gain altitude; if thrust is less than weight, the helicopter accelerates downward. When operating near the ground, the effect of the closeness to the ground changes this response.

The drag of a hovering helicopter is mainly induced drag incurred while the blades are producing lift. There is, however, some profile drag on the blades as they rotate through the air. Throughout the rest of this discussion, the term drag includes both induced and profile drag.

An important consequence of producing thrust is torque. As discussed earlier, Newton’s Third Law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, as the engine turns the main rotor system in a counterclockwise direction, the helicopter fuselage tends to turn clockwise. The amount of torque is directly related to the amount of engine power being used to turn the main rotor system. Remember, as power changes, torque changes.

To counteract this torque-induced turning tendency, an antitorque rotor or tail rotor is incorporated into most helicopter designs. A pilot can vary the amount of thrust produced by the tail rotor in relation to the amount of torque produced by the engine. As the engine supplies more power to the main rotor, the tail rotor must produce more thrust to overcome the increased torque effect. This is done through the use of antitorque pedals.

Translating Tendency or Drift

During hovering flight, a single main rotor helicopter tends to drift or move in the direction of tail rotor thrust. This drifting tendency is called translating tendency. [Figure 2-32] To counteract this drift, one or more of the following features may be used. All examples are for a counterclockwise rotating main rotor system.

Figure 2-32. A tail rotor is designed to produce thrust in a direction opposite torque. The thrust produced by the tail rotor is sufficient to move the helicopter laterally.

Figure 2-32. A tail rotor is designed to produce thrust in a direction opposite torque. The thrust produced by the tail rotor is sufficient to move the helicopter laterally.

  • The main transmission is mounted at a slight angle to the left (when viewed from behind) so that the rotor mast has a built-in tilt to oppose the tail rotor thrust.
  • Flight controls can be rigged so that the rotor disk is tilted to the right slightly when the cyclic is centered. Whichever method is used, the tip-path plane is tilted slightly to the left in the hover.
  • If the transmission is mounted so the rotor shaft is vertical with respect to the fuselage, the helicopter “hangs” left skid low in the hover. The opposite is true for rotor systems turning clockwise when viewed from above.
  • In forward flight, the tail rotor continues to push to the right, and the helicopter makes a small angle with the wind when the rotors are level and the slip ball is in the middle. This is called inherent sideslip.

Ground Effect

When hovering near the ground, a phenomenon known as ground effect takes place. This effect usually occurs at heights between the surface and approximately one rotor diameter above the surface. The friction of the ground causes the downwash from the rotor to move outwards from the helicopter. This changes the relative direction of the downwash from a purely vertical motion to a combination of vertical and horizontal motion. As the induced airflow through the rotor disk is reduced by the surface friction, the lift vector increases. This allows a lower rotor blade angle for the same amount of lift, which reduces induced drag. Ground effect also restricts the generation of blade tip vortices due to the downward and outward airflow making a larger portion of the blade produce lift. When the helicopter gains altitude vertically, with no forward airspeed, induced airflow is no longer restricted, and the blade tip vortices increase with the decrease in outward airflow. As a result, drag increases which means a higher pitch angle, and more power is needed to move the air down through the rotor.

Ground effect is at its maximum in a no-wind condition over a firm, smooth surface. Tall grass, rough terrain, and water surfaces alter the airflow pattern, causing an increase in rotor tip vortices. [Figure 2-33]

Figure 2-33. Air circulation patterns change when hovering out of ground effect (OGE) and when hovering in ground effect (IGE).

Figure 2-33. Air circulation patterns change when hovering out of ground effect (OGE) and when hovering in ground effect (IGE). [click image to enlarge]

Coriolis Effect (Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum)

The Coriolis effect is also referred to as the law of conservation of angular momentum. It states that the value of angular momentum of a rotating body does not change unless an external force is applied. In other words, a rotating body continues to rotate with the same rotational velocity until some external force is applied to change the speed of rotation. Angular momentum is moment of inertia (mass times distance from the center of rotation squared) multiplied by speed of rotation. Changes in angular velocity, known as angular acceleration and deceleration, take place as the mass of a rotating body is moved closer to or further away from the axis of rotation. The speed of the rotating mass increases or decreases in proportion to the square of the radius.

An excellent example of this principle is a spinning ice skater. The skater begins rotation on one foot, with the other leg and both arms extended. The rotation of the skater’s body is relatively slow. When a skater draws both arms and one leg inward, the moment of inertia (mass times radius squared) becomes much smaller and the body is rotating almost faster than the eye can follow. Because the angular momentum must remain constant (no external force applied), the angular velocity must increase. The rotor blade rotating about the rotor hub possesses angular momentum. As the rotor begins to cone due to G-loading maneuvers, the diameter or the disk shrinks. Due to conservation of angular momentum, the blades continue to travel the same speed even though the blade tips have a shorter distance to travel due to reduced disk diameter. The action results in an increase in rotor rpm. Most pilots arrest this increase with an increase in collective pitch. Conversely, as G-loading subsides and the rotor disk flattens out from the loss of G-load induced coning, the blade tips now have a longer distance to travel at the same tip speed. This action results in a reduction of rotor rpm. However, if this drop in the rotor rpm continues to the point at which it attempts to decrease below normal operating rpm, the engine control system adds more fuel/power to maintain the specified engine rpm. If the pilot does not reduce collective pitch as the disk unloads, the combination of engine compensation for the rpm slow down and the additional pitch as G-loading increases may result in exceeding the torque limitations or power the engines can produce.

Vertical Flight

Hovering is actually an element of vertical flight. Increasing the AOA of the rotor blades (pitch) while keeping their rotation speed constant generates additional lift and the helicopter ascends. Decreasing the pitch causes the helicopter to descend. In a no wind condition, when lift and thrust are less than weight and drag, the helicopter descends vertically. If lift and thrust are greater than weight and drag, the helicopter ascends vertically. [Figure 2-34]

Figure 2-34. To ascend vertically, more lift and thrust must be generated to overcome the forces of weight and drag.

Figure 2-34. To ascend vertically, more lift and thrust must be generated to overcome the forces of weight and drag.