Autorotation is the state of flight where the main rotor system of a helicopter is being turned by the action of air moving up through the rotor rather than engine power driving the rotor. In normal, powered flight, air is drawn into the main rotor system from above and exhausted downward, but during autorotation, air moves up into the rotor system from below as the helicopter descends. Autorotation is permitted mechanically by a freewheeling unit, which is a special clutch mechanism that allows the main rotor to continue turning even if the engine is not running. If the engine fails, the freewheeling unit automatically disengages the engine from the main rotor allowing the main rotor to rotate freely. It is the means by which a helicopter can be landed safely in the event of an engine failure; consequently, all helicopters must demonstrate this capability in order to be certified. [Figure 1] If a decision is made to attempt an engine restart in flight (the parameters for this emergency procedure will be different for each helicopter and must be precisely followed) the pilot must reengage the engine starter switch to start the engine. Once the engine is started, the freewheeling unit will reengage the engine with the main rotor.

Helicopter aerodynamics of flight
Figure 1. During an autorotation, the upward flow of relative wind permits the main rotor blades to rotate at their normal speed. In effect, the blades are “gliding” in their rotational plane

Hovering Autorotation

Most autorotations are performed with forward speed. For simplicity, the following aerodynamic explanation is based on a vertical autorotative descent (no forward speed) in still air. Under these conditions, the forces that cause the blades to turn are similar for all blades regardless of their position in the plane of rotation. Therefore, dissymmetry of lift resulting from helicopter airspeed is not a factor.

During vertical autorotation, the rotor disk is divided into three regions (as illustrated in Figure 2): driven region, driving region, and stall region. Figure 3 shows three blade sections that illustrate force vectors. Part A is the driven region, B and D are points of equilibrium, part C is the driving region, and part E is the stall region. Force vectors are different in each region because rotational relative wind is slower near the blade root and increases continually toward the blade tip. Also, blade twist gives a more positive AOA in the driving region than in the driven region. The combination of the inflow up through the rotor with rotational relative wind produces different combinations of aerodynamic force at every point along the blade.

Helicopter aerodynamics of flight
Figure 2. Blade regions during autorotational descent

Helicopter aerodynamics of flight
Figure 3. Force vectors in vertical autorotation descent

The driven region, also called the propeller region, is nearest the blade tips. Normally, it consists of about 30 percent of the radius. In the driven region, part A of Figure 3, the total aerodynamic force (TAF) acts behind the axis of rotation, resulting in an overall drag force. The driven region produces some lift, but that lift is offset by drag. The overall result is a deceleration in the rotation of the blade. The size of this region varies with the blade pitch, rate of descent, and rotor rpm. When changing autorotative rpm blade pitch, or rate of descent, the size of the driven region in relation to the other regions also changes.

There are two points of equilibrium on the blade—one between the driven region and the driving region, and one between the driving region and the stall region. At points of equilibrium, TAF is aligned with the axis of rotation. Lift and drag are produced, but the total effect produces neither acceleration nor deceleration.

The driving region, or autorotative region, normally lies between 25 to 70 percent of the blade radius. Part C of Figure 3 shows the driving region of the blade, which produces the forces needed to turn the blades during autorotation. Total aerodynamic force in the driving region is inclined slightly forward of the axis of rotation, producing a continual acceleration force. This inclination supplies thrust, which tends to accelerate the rotation of the blade. Driving region size varies with blade pitch setting, rate of descent, and rotor rpm.

By controlling the size of this region, a pilot can adjust autorotative rpm. For example, if the collective pitch is raised, the pitch angle increases in all regions. This causes the point of equilibrium to move inboard along the blade’s span, thus increasing the size of the driven region. The stall region also becomes larger while the driving region becomes smaller. Reducing the size of the driving region causes the acceleration force of the driving region and rpm to decrease. A constant rotor rpm is achieved by adjusting the collective pitch so blade acceleration forces from the driving region are balanced with the deceleration forces from the driven and stall regions.

The inner 25 percent of the rotor blade is referred to as the stall region and operates above its maximum AOA (stall angle), causing drag, which tends to slow rotation of the blade. Part E of Figure 4 depicts the stall region.

Helicopter aerodynamics of flight
Figure4. Blade regions in forward autorotation descent

Autorotation (Forward Flight)

Autorotative force in forward flight is produced in exactly the same manner as when the helicopter is descending vertically in still air. However, because forward speed changes the inflow of air up through the rotor disk, all three regions move outboard along the blade span on the retreating side of the disk where AOA is larger. [Figure 4] With lower AOA on the advancing side blade, more of the blade falls in the driven region. On the retreating side, more of the blade is in the stall region. A small section near the root experiences a reversed flow; therefore, the size of the driven region on the retreating side is reduced.

Prior to landing from an autorotative descent (or autorotation), the pilot must flare the helicopter in order to decelerate. The pilot initiates the flare by applying aft cyclic. As the helicopter flares back, the airflow patterns change around the blades causing the rpm to increase. Pilots must adjust the collective as necessary to keep the rpm within operating limits.