Introduction to the Helicopter

A helicopter is an aircraft that is lifted and propelled by one or more horizontal rotors, each rotor consisting of two or more rotor blades. Helicopters are classified as rotorcraft or rotary-wing aircraft to distinguish them from fixed-wing aircraft because the helicopter derives its source of lift from the rotor blades rotating around a mast. The word “helicopter” is adapted from the French hélicoptère, coined by Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt in 1861. It is linked to the Greek words helix/helikos (“spiral” or “turning”) and pteron (“wing”).

As an aircraft, the primary advantages of the helicopter are due to the rotor blades that revolve through the air, providing lift without requiring the aircraft to move forward. This creates the ability of the helicopter to take off and land vertically without the need for runways. For this reason, helicopters are often used in congested or isolated areas where fixed-wing aircraft are not able to take off or land. The lift from the rotor also allows the helicopter to hover in one area and to do so more efficiently than other forms of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, allowing it to accomplish tasks that fixedwing aircraft are unable to perform. [Figures 1 and 2]

helicopter flying training
Figure 1. Search and rescue helicopter conducting a pinnacle approach

helicopter flying training
Figure 2. Search and rescue helicopter landing in a confined area

Piloting a helicopter requires a great deal of training and skill, as well as continuous attention to the machine. The pilot must think in three dimensions and must use both arms and both legs constantly to keep the helicopter in the air. Coordination, control touch, and timing are all used simultaneously when flying a helicopter.

Although helicopters were developed and built during the first half-century of flight, some even reaching limited production; it was not until 1942 that a helicopter designed by Igor Sikorsky reached full-scale production, with 131 aircraft built. Even though most previous designs used more than one main rotor, it was the single main rotor with an antitorque tail rotor configuration design that would come to be recognized worldwide as the helicopter.

Turbine Age

In 1951, at the urging of his contacts at the Department of the Navy, Charles H. Kaman modified his K-225 helicopter with a new kind of engine, the turbo-shaft engine. This adaptation of the turbine engine provided a large amount of horsepower to the helicopter with a lower weight penalty than piston engines, heavy engine blocks, and auxiliary components. On December 11, 1951, the K-225 became the first turbine-powered helicopter in the world. Two years later, on March 26, 1954, a modified Navy HTK‑1, another Kaman helicopter, became the first twin-turbine helicopter to fly. However, it was the Sud Aviation Alouette II that would become the first helicopter to be produced with a turbine engine.

Reliable helicopters capable of stable hover flight were developed decades after fixed-wing aircraft. This is largely due to higher engine power density requirements than fixedwing aircraft. Improvements in fuels and engines during the first half of the 20th century were a critical factor in helicopter development. The availability of lightweight turbo-shaft engines in the second half of the 20th century led to the development of larger, faster, and higher-performance helicopters. The turbine engine has the following advantages over a reciprocating engine: less vibration, increased aircraft performance, reliability, and ease of operation. While smaller and less expensive helicopters still use piston engines, turboshaft engines are the preferred powerplant for helicopters today.


Due to the unique operating characteristics of the helicopter—its ability to take off and land vertically, to hover for extended periods of time, and the aircraft’s handling properties under low airspeed conditions—it has been chosen to conduct tasks that were previously not possible with other aircraft or were too time- or work-intensive to accomplish on the ground. Today, helicopters are used for transportation, construction, firefighting, search and rescue, and a variety of other jobs that require its special capabilities. [Figure 3]

helicopter flying training
Figure 3. The many uses for a helicopter include search and rescue (top), firefighting (middle), and construction (bottom)

Helicopter Rotor System
Controlling Flight