Settling With Power (Vortex Ring State) - Helicopter Emergencies and Hazards

Vortex ring state describes an aerodynamic condition in which a helicopter may be in a vertical descent with 20 percent up to maximum power applied, and little or no climb performance. The term “settling with power” comes from the fact that the helicopter keeps settling even though full engine power is applied.

In a normal out-of-ground-effect (OGE) hover, the helicopter is able to remain stationary by propelling a large mass of air down through the main rotor. Some of the air is recirculated near the tips of the blades, curling up from the bottom of the rotor system and rejoining the air entering the rotor from the top. This phenomenon is common to all airfoils and is known as tip vortices. Tip vortices generate drag and degrade airfoil efficiency. As long as the tip vortices are small, their only effect is a small loss in rotor efficiency. However, when the helicopter begins to descend vertically, it settles into its own downwash, which greatly enlarges the tip vortices. In this vortex ring state, most of the power developed by the engine is wasted in circulating the air in a doughnut pattern around the rotor.

In addition, the helicopter may descend at a rate that exceeds the normal downward induced-flow rate of the inner blade sections. As a result, the airflow of the inner blade sections is upward relative to the disk. This produces a secondary vortex ring in addition to the normal tip vortices. The secondary vortex ring is generated about the point on the blade where the airflow changes from up to down. The result is an unsteady turbulent flow over a large area of the disk. Rotor efficiency is lost even though power is still being supplied from the engine. [Figure 1]

Figure 1. Vortex ring state

A fully developed vortex ring state is characterized by an unstable condition in which the helicopter experiences uncommanded pitch and roll oscillations, has little or no collective authority, and achieves a descent rate that may approach 6,000 feet per minute (fpm) if allowed to develop.

A vortex ring state may be entered during any maneuver that places the main rotor in a condition of descending in a column of disturbed air and low forward airspeed. Airspeeds that are below translational lift airspeeds are within this region of susceptibility to settling with power aerodynamics. This condition is sometimes seen during quick-stop type maneuvers or during recovery from autorotation.

The following combination of conditions is likely to cause settling in a vortex ring state in any helicopter:
  1. A vertical or nearly vertical descent of at least 300 fpm. (Actual critical rate depends on the gross weight, rpm, density altitude, and other pertinent factors.)
  2. The rotor system must be using some of the available engine power (20–100 percent).
  3. The horizontal velocity must be slower than effective translational lift.

Some of the situations that are conducive to a settling with power condition are: any hover above ground effect altitude, specifically attempting to hover OGE at altitudes above the hovering ceiling of the helicopter, attempting to hover OGE without maintaining precise altitude control, pinnacle or rooftop helipads when the wind is not aligned with the landing direction, and downwind and steep power approaches in which airspeed is permitted to drop below 10 knots depending on the type of helicopter.

When recovering from a settling with power condition, the pilot tends first to try to stop the descent by increasing collective pitch. However, this only results in increasing the stalled area of the rotor, thereby increasing the rate of descent. Since inboard portions of the blades are stalled, cyclic control may be limited. Recovery is accomplished by increasing airspeed, and/or partially lowering collective pitch. In many helicopters, lateral cyclic combined with lateral tailrotor thrust will produce the quickest exit from the hazard assuming that there are no barriers in that direction. In a fully developed vortex ring state, the only recovery may be to enter autorotation to break the vortex ring state.

Tandem rotor helicopters should maneuver laterally to achieve clean air in both rotors at the same time.

For settling with power demonstrations and training in recognition of vortex ring state conditions, all maneuvers should be performed at an altitude of 2000–3000 feet AGL to allow sufficient altitude for entry and recovery.

To enter the maneuver, come to an OGE hover, maintaining little or no airspeed (any direction), decrease collective to begin a vertical descent, and as the turbulence begins, increase collective. Then allow the sink rate to increase to 300 fpm or more as the attitude is adjusted to obtain airspeed of less than 10 knots. When the aircraft begins to shudder, the application of additional up collective increases the vibration and sink rate. As the power is increased, the rate of sink of the aircraft in the column of air will increase.

If altitude is sufficient, some time can be spent in the vortices, to enable the pilot to develop a healthy knowledge of the maneuver. However, helicopter pilots would normally initiate recovery at the first indication of settling with power. Recovery should be initiated at the first sign of vortex ring state by applying forward cyclic to increase airspeed and/ or simultaneously reducing collective. The recovery is complete when the aircraft passes through effective translational lift and a normal climb is established.

Common Errors

  1. Too much lateral speed for entry into settling with power.
  2. Excessive decrease of collective pitch.

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