Ground Resonance - Helicopter Emergencies and Hazards

Helicopters with articulating rotors (usually designs with three or more main rotor blades) are subject to ground resonance, a destructive vibration phenomenon that occurs at certain rotor speeds when the helicopter is on the ground. Ground resonance is a mechanical design issue that results from the helicopter’s airframe having a natural frequency that can be intensified by an out-of-balance rotor. The unbalanced rotor system vibrates at the same frequency or multiple of the airframe’s resonant frequency and the harmonic oscillation increases because the engine is adding power to the system, increasing the magnitude (or amplitude) of the vibrations until the structure or structures fail. This condition can cause a helicopter to self-destruct in a matter of seconds.

Hard contact with the ground on one corner (and usually with wheel-type landing gear) can send a shockwave to the main rotor head, resulting in the blades of a three-blade rotor system moving from their normal 120° relationship to each other. This movement occurs along the drag hinge and could result in something like 122°, 122°, and 116° between blades. [Figure 1] When one of the other landing gear strikes the surface, the unbalanced condition could be further aggravated. If the rpm is low, the only corrective action to stop ground resonance is to close the throttle immediately and fully lower the collective to place the blades in low pitch. If the rpm is in the normal operating range, fly the helicopter off the ground, and allow the blades to rephase themselves automatically. Then, make a normal touchdown. If a pilot lifts off and allows the helicopter to firmly re-contact the surface before the blades are realigned, a second shock could move the blades again and aggravate the already unbalanced condition. This could lead to a violent, uncontrollable oscillation.

Figure 1. Ground resonance

This situation does not occur in rigid or semi-rigid rotor systems because there is no drag hinge. In addition, skid-type landing gear is not as prone to ground resonance as wheeltype landing gear since the rubber tires are not present and change the rebound characteristics.