System Malfunctions (Part 2) - Helicopter Emergencies and Hazards

Main Rotor Disk Interference (285–315°)

Refer to Figure 1. Winds at velocities of 10–30 knots from the left front cause the main rotor vortex to be blown into the tail rotor by the relative wind. This main rotor disk vortex causes the tail rotor to operate in an extremely turbulent environment. During a right turn, the tail rotor experiences a reduction of thrust as it comes into the area of the main rotor disk vortex. The reduction in tail rotor thrust comes from the airflow changes experienced at the tail rotor as the main rotor disk vortex moves across the tail rotor disk.

Figure 1. Main rotor disk vortex interference

The effect of the main rotor disk vortex initially increases the AOA of the tail rotor blades, thus increasing tail rotor thrust. The increase in the AOA requires that right pedal pressure be added to reduce tail rotor thrust in order to maintain the same rate of turn. As the main rotor vortex passes the tail rotor, the tail rotor AOA is reduced. The reduction in the AOA causes a reduction in thrust and right yaw acceleration begins. This acceleration can be surprising, since previously adding right pedal to maintain the right turn rate. This thrust reduction occurs suddenly, and if uncorrected, develops into an uncontrollable rapid rotation about the mast. When operating within this region, be aware that the reduction in tail rotor thrust can happen quite suddenly, and be prepared to react quickly to counter this reduction with additional left pedal input.

Weathercock Stability (120–240°)

In this region, the helicopter attempts to weathervane, or weathercock, its nose into the relative wind. [Figure 2] Unless a resisting pedal input is made, the helicopter starts a slow, uncommanded turn either to the right or left, depending upon the wind direction. If the pilot allows a right yaw rate to develop and the tail of the helicopter moves into this region, the yaw rate can accelerate rapidly. In order to avoid the onset of LTE in this downwind condition, it is imperative to maintain positive control of the yaw rate and devote full attention to flying the helicopter.

Figure 2. Weathercock stability

Tail Rotor Vortex Ring State (210–330°)

Winds within this region cause a tail rotor vortex ring state to develop. [Figure 3] The result is a nonuniform, unsteady flow into the tail rotor. The vortex ring state causes tail rotor thrust variations, which result in yaw deviations. The net effect of the unsteady flow is an oscillation of tail rotor thrust. Rapid and continuous pedal movements are necessary to compensate for the rapid changes in tail rotor thrust when hovering in a left crosswind. Maintaining a precise heading in this region is difficult, but this characteristic presents no significant problem unless corrective action is delayed. However, high pedal workload, lack of concentration, and overcontrolling can lead to LTE.

Figure 3. Tail rotor vortex ring state

When the tail rotor thrust being generated is less than the thrust required, the helicopter yaws to the right. When hovering in left crosswinds, concentrate on smooth pedal coordination and do not allow an uncommanded right yaw to develop. If a right yaw rate is allowed to build, the helicopter can rotate into the wind azimuth region where weathercock stability then accelerates the right turn rate. Pilot workload during a tail rotor vortex ring state is high. Do not allow a right yaw rate to increase.

LTE at Altitude

At higher altitudes where the air is thinner, tail rotor thrust and efficiency are reduced. Because of the high density altitude, powerplants may be much slower to respond to power changes. When operating at high altitudes and high gross weights, especially while hovering, the tail rotor thrust may not be sufficient to maintain directional control, and LTE can occur. In this case, the hovering ceiling is limited by tail rotor thrust and not necessarily power available. In these conditions, gross weights need to be reduced and/ or operations need to be limited to lower density altitudes. This may not be noted as criteria on the performance charts.

Reducing the Onset of LTE

To help reduce the onset of LTE, follow these steps:
  1. Maintain maximum power-on rotor rpm. If the main rotor rpm is allowed to decrease, the antitorque thrust available is decreased proportionally.
  2. Avoid tailwinds below airspeeds of 30 knots. If loss of translational lift occurs, it results in an increased power demand and additional antitorque pressures.
  3. Avoid OGE operations and high power demand situations below airspeeds of 30 knots at low altitudes.
  4. Be especially aware of wind direction and velocity when hovering in winds of about 8–12 knots. A loss of translational lift results in an unexpected high power demand and an increased antitorque requirement.
  5. Be aware that if a considerable amount of left pedal is being maintained, a sufficient amount of left pedal may not be available to counteract an unanticipated right yaw.
  6. Be alert to changing wind conditions, which may be experienced when flying along ridge lines and around buildings.
  7. Execute slow turns to the right which would limit the effects of rotating inertia, and the loading on the tailrotor to control yawing would be decreased.

Recovery Technique

If a sudden unanticipated right yaw occurs, the following recovery technique should be performed. Apply forward cyclic control to increase speed. If altitude permits, reduce power. As recovery is affected, adjust controls for normal forward flight. A recovery path must always be planned, especially when terminating to an OGE hover and executed immediately if an uncommanded yaw is evident.

Collective pitch reduction aids in arresting the yaw rate but may cause an excessive rate of descent. Any large, rapid increase in collective to prevent ground or obstacle contact may further increase the yaw rate and decrease rotor rpm. The decision to reduce collective must be based on the pilot’s assessment of the altitude available for recovery.

If the rotation cannot be stopped and ground contact is imminent, an autorotation may be the best course of action. Maintain full left pedal until the rotation stops, then adjust to maintain heading. For more information on LTE, see Advisory Circular (AC) 90-95, Unanticipated Right Yaw in Helicopters.

Main Drive Shaft or Clutch Failure

The main drive shaft, located between the engine and the main rotor gearbox, transmits engine power to the main rotor gearbox. In some helicopters, particularly those with piston engines, a drive belt is used instead of a drive shaft. A failure of the drive shaft clutch or belt has the same effect as an engine failure because power is no longer provided to the main rotor and an autorotation must be initiated. There are a few differences, however, that need to be taken into consideration. If the drive shaft or belt breaks, the lack of any load on the engine results in an overspeed. In this case, the throttle must be closed in order to prevent any further damage. In some helicopters, the tail rotor drive system continues to be powered by the engine even if the main drive shaft breaks. In this case, when the engine unloads, a tail rotor overspeed can result. If this happens, close the throttle immediately and enter an autorotation. The pilot must be knowledgeable of the specific helicopter’s system and failure modes.

Pilots should keep in mind that when there is any suspected mechanical malfunction, first and foremost they should always attempt to maintain rotor RPM. If the rotor RPM is at the normal indication with normal power settings, an instrument failure might be occurring and it would be best to fly the helicopter to a safe landing area. If the rotor RPM is in fact decreasing or low, then there is a drive line failure.

Hydraulic Failure

Many helicopters incorporate the use of hydraulic actuators to overcome high control forces. A hydraulic system consists of actuators, also called servos, on each flight control; a pump, which is usually driven by the main rotor gearbox; and a reservoir to store the hydraulic fluid. A switch in the cockpit can turn the system off, although it is left on during normal conditions. A pressure indicator in the cockpit may be installed to monitor the system.

An impending hydraulic failure can be recognized by a grinding or howling noise from the pump or actuators, increased control forces and feedback, and limited control movement. The required corrective action is stated in detail in the appropriate RFM. However, in most cases, airspeed needs to be reduced in order to reduce control forces. The hydraulic switch and circuit breaker should be checked and recycled. If hydraulic power is not restored, make a shallow approach to a running or roll-on landing. This technique is used because it requires less control force and pilot workload. Additionally, the hydraulic system should be disabled by placing the switch in the off position. The reason for this is to prevent an inadvertent restoration of hydraulic power, which may lead to overcontrolling near the ground.

In those helicopters in which the control forces are so high that they cannot be moved without hydraulic assistance, two or more independent hydraulic systems are installed. Some helicopters use hydraulic accumulators to store pressure that can be used for a short time while in an emergency if the hydraulic pump fails. This gives enough time to land the helicopter with normal control.

Governor or Fuel Control Failure

Governors and fuel control units automatically adjust engine power to maintain rotor rpm when the collective pitch is changed. If the governor or fuel control unit fails, any change in collective pitch requires manual adjustment of the throttle to maintain correct rpm. In the event of a high side failure, the engine and rotor rpm tend to increase above the normal range. If the rpm cannot be reduced and controlled with the throttle, close the throttle and enter an autorotation. If the failure is on the low side, normal rpm may not be attainable, even if the throttle is manually controlled. In this case, the collective has to be lowered to maintain rotor rpm. A running or roll-on landing may be performed if the engine can maintain sufficient rotor rpm. If there is insufficient power, enter an autorotation. As stated previously in this site, before responding to any type of mechanical failure, pilots should confirm that rotor rpm is not responding to flight control inputs. If the rotor rpm can be maintained in the green operating range, the failure is in the instrument, and not mechanical.

Abnormal Vibration

With the many rotating parts found in helicopters, some vibration is inherent. A pilot needs to understand the cause and effect of helicopter vibrations because abnormal vibrations cause premature component wear and may even result in structural failure. With experience, a pilot learns what vibrations are normal and those that are abnormal, and can then decide whether continued flight is safe or not. Helicopter vibrations are categorized into low, medium, or high frequency.

Low-Frequency Vibrations

Low-frequency vibrations (100–500 cycles per minute) usually originate from the main rotor system. The main rotor operational range, depending on the helicopter, is usually between 320 and 500 rpm. A rotor blade that is out of track or balance will cause a cycle to occur with every rotation.

The vibration may be felt through the controls, the airframe, or a combination of both. The vibration may also have a definite direction of push or thrust. It may be vertical, lateral, horizontal, or even a combination of these. Normally, the direction of the vibration can be determined by concentrating on the feel of the vibration, which may push a pilot up and down, backwards and forwards, or in the case of a blade being out of phase, from side to side. The direction of the vibration and whether it is felt in the controls or the airframe is important information for the mechanic when he or she troubleshoots the source. Out-of-track or out-of-balance main rotor blades, damaged blades, worn bearings, dampers out of adjustment, or worn parts are possible causes of low frequency vibrations.

Medium- and High-Frequency Vibrations

Medium-frequency vibrations (1,000–2,000 cycles per minute) range between the low frequencies of the main rotor (100–500 cycles per minute) and the high frequencies (2,100 cycles per minute or higher) of the engine and tail rotor. Depending on the helicopter, medium-frequency vibration sources may be engine and transmission cooling fans, and accessories such as air conditioner compressors, or driveline components. Medium-frequency vibrations are felt through the entire airframe, and prolonged exposure to the vibrations will result in greater pilot fatigue.

Most tail rotor vibrations fall into the high-frequency range (2,100 cycles per minute or higher) and can be felt through the tail rotor pedals as long as there are no hydraulic actuators to dampen out the vibration. This vibration is felt by the pilot through his or her feet, which are usually “put to sleep” by the vibration. The tail rotor operates at approximately a 6:1 ratio with the main rotor, meaning for every one rotation of the main rotor the tail rotor rotates 6 times. A main rotor operating rpm of 350 means the tail rotor rpm would be 2,100 rpm. Any imbalance in the tail rotor system is very harmful as it can cause cracks to develop and rivets to work loose. Piston engines usually produce a normal amount of high-frequency vibration, which is aggravated by engine malfunctions, such as spark plug fouling, incorrect magneto timing, carburetor icing and/or incorrect fuel/air mixture. Vibrations in turbine engines are often difficult to detect as these engines operate at a very high rpm. Turbine engine vibration can be at 30,000 rpm internally, but common gearbox speeds are in the 1,000 to 3,000 rpm range for the output shaft. The vibrations in turbine engines may be short lived as the engine disintegrates rapidly when damaged due to high rpm and the forces present.

Tracking and Balance

Modern equipment used for tracking and balancing the main and tail rotor blades can also be used to detect other vibrations in the helicopter. These systems use accelerometers mounted around the helicopter to detect the direction, frequency, and intensity of the vibration. The built-in software can then analyze the information, pinpoint the origin of the vibration, and suggest the corrective action.

The use of a system such as a health and usage monitoring system (HUMS) provides the operator the ability to record engine and gearbox performance and provide rotor track and balance. This system has been around for over 30 years and is now becoming more affordable, more capable, and more commonplace in the rotorcraft industry.

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