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A helicopter is a type of rotorcraft in which lift and thrust are supplied by one or more engine driven rotors. In contrast with fixed-wing aircraft, this allows the helicopter to take off and land vertically, to hover, and to fly forwards, backwards and laterally. These attributes allow helicopters to be used in congested or isolated areas where fixed-wing aircraft would not be able to take off or land. The capability to efficiently hover for extended periods of time allows a helicopter to accomplish tasks that fixed-wing aircraft and other forms of vertical takeoff and landing aircraft cannot perform.
There are two basic flight conditions for a helicopter; hover and forward flight.
- Hovering is the most challenging part of flying a helicopter. This is because a helicopter generates its own gusty air while in a hover, which acts against the fuselage and flight control surfaces. The end result is constant control inputs and corrections by the pilot to keep the helicopter where it is required to be. Despite the complexity of the task, the control inputs in a hover are simple. The cyclic is used to eliminate drift in the horizontal plane, that is to control forward and back, right and left. The collective is used to maintain altitude. The pedals are used to control nose direction or heading. It is the interaction of these controls that makes hovering so difficult, since an adjustment in any one control requires an adjustment of the other two, creating a cycle of constant correction.
- Forward flight
- In forward flight a helicopter's flight controls behave more like that in a fixed-wing aircraft. Displacing the cyclic forward will cause the nose to pitch down, with a resultant increase in airspeed and loss of altitude. Aft cyclic will cause the nose to pitch up, slowing the helicopter and causing it to climb. Increasing collective (power) while maintaining a constant airspeed will induce a climb while decreasing collective will cause a descent. Coordinating these two inputs, down collective plus aft cyclic or up collective plus forward cyclic, will result in airspeed changes while maintaining a constant altitude. The pedals serve the same function in both a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft, to maintain balanced flight. This is done by applying a pedal input in whichever direction is necessary to center the ball in the turn and bank indicator.
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The main limitation of the helicopter is its low speed. There are several reasons why a helicopter cannot fly as fast as a fixed wing aircraft. When the helicopter is hovering, the outer tips of the rotor travel at a speed determined by the length of the blade and the RPM. In a moving helicopter, however, the speed of the blades relative to the air depends on the speed of the helicopter as well as on their rotational velocity. The airspeed of the advancing rotor blade is much higher than that of the helicopter itself. It is possible for this blade to exceed the speed of sound, and thus produce vastly increased drag and vibration. See Wave drag.
Because the advancing blade has higher airspeed than the retreating blade and generates a dissymmetry of lift, rotor blades are designed to "flap" – lift and twist in such a way that the advancing blade flaps up and develops a smaller angle of attack. Conversely, the retreating blade flaps down, develops a higher angle of attack, and generates more lift. At high speeds, the force on the rotors is such that they "flap" excessively and the retreating blade can reach too high an angle and stall. For this reason, the maximum safe forward airspeed of a helicopter is given a design rating called VNE, Velocity, Never Exceed. In addition, at extremely high speeds, it is possible for the helicopter to travel faster than the retreating blade which would inevitably stall the blade, regardless of the angle of attack.
During the closing years of the 20th century designers began working on helicopter noise reduction. Urban communities have often expressed great dislike of noisy aircraft, and police and passenger helicopters can be unpopular. The redesigns followed the closure of some city heliports and government action to constrain flight paths in national parks and other places of natural beauty.
Helicopters also vibrate; an unadjusted helicopter can easily vibrate so much that it will shake itself apart. To reduce vibration, all helicopters have rotor adjustments for height and weight. Blade height is adjusted by changing the pitch of the blade. Weight is adjusted by adding or removing weights on the rotor head and/or at the blade end caps. Most also have vibration dampers for height and pitch. Some also use mechanical feedback systems to sense and counter vibration. Usually the feedback system uses a mass as a "stable reference" and a linkage from the mass operates a flap to adjust the rotor's angle of attack to counter the vibration. Adjustment is difficult in part because measurement of the vibration is hard, usually requiring sophisticated accelerometers mounted throughout the airframe and gearboxes. The most common blade vibration adjustment measurement system is to use a stroboscopic flash lamp, and observe painted markings or coloured reflectors on the underside of the rotor blades. The traditional low-tech system is to mount coloured chalk on the rotor tips, and see how they mark a linen sheet. Gearbox vibration most often requires a gearbox overhaul or replacement. Gearbox or drive train vibrations can be extremely harmful to a pilot. The most severe being pain, numbness, loss of tactile discrimination and dexterity.
- (2007) Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, 3–7, Washington: Skyhorse Publishing, Inc..