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How do Helicopters Stay up?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Essentially, helicopters stay up for the same reason airplanes move forward through the air. A rotating propeller creates changes in air pressure, lowering it in some areas and raising it in others. Combined with a specially curved wing, the effect is known as lift, and its what pulls an airplane forward or allows helicopters to lift off the ground vertically. Without some sort of rotary propeller system, neither aircraft would ever leave the ground.

There are two basic types of aircraft, fixed-wing and rotary-wing. A traditional airplane would be considered a fixed-wing aircraft, because the wings are in a rigid position behind or over the propellers. Helicopters, on the other hand, are rotary-wing aircraft, because the wing-shaped rotor blades spin in a circle above the aircraft's body. The individual blades of a helicopter's rotor are adjustable during flight, while a fixed-wing aircraft's wings have very few moving parts.

The reason why helicopters stay up in the air is because the individual rotary blades are shaped like airplane wings. Once the spinning rotor assembly has reached a certain speed, the curved blades chop up the air around them, creating lower pressure above the blade and higher pressure below. This action creates a pushing or lifting force from below. The pilot uses hand and foot controls to change the angle of attack on each blade as they spin. This angle affects whether the helicopter will rise, descend, turn, or even hover.

When the blades are held level, the helicopter may remain in place or lift slightly. If the pilot lowers the back of the blades, the resulting change in lift will send the helicopter upwards, much like a kite will fly higher when angled against the wind. If the pilot raises the back edge of the blades, the helicopter will descend. By varying the position of each rotary blade, the helicopter will move to the left or right. As long as the rotor is spinning at a sufficient speed, a helicopter should remain in the air.

One major problem helicopter pilots face is the tendency of the helicopter to turn in the opposite direction of the rotary blades. A second rotary propeller placed in the rear of the helicopter helps to counteract this natural tendency by pushing against the spin. This second rotor also helps stabilize the helicopter during a difficult hovering maneuver. Without the aid of a rear rotor blade, helicopters would routinely spin out of control and crash.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WikiMotors, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon285220 — On Aug 14, 2012

Interesting what you say about plane (not curved) blades. Surely, if the blades are flat, the velocity of the air below and above the blades is the same and so there is no pressure differential to provide any lift.

By olphrt — On Aug 11, 2008

Interesting article. I would like to read comments other readers have to this article.

By anon16674 — On Aug 11, 2008

The wings aren't necessarily in a rigid position behind or over the propellers. The B-36 Peacemaker was a huge bomber used by the US in the 1950s. It used six engines driving pusher propellers.

By anon16373 — On Aug 04, 2008

Lift is created by plane wings too. Curved wings are used just for increased efficiency. Curvature does not condition lift - after all, a kite is not necessarily curved, and still flies.

In order for a helicopter to keep its altitude, the blades cannot stay level. If the blades are level, there is no lift, and gravity pulls the helicopter down. The blades have to stay sloped just enough for the lift to compensate the grqacitational force acting upon the helicopter.

In some larger helicopters, two separate propellers, located one beneath the other, and rotating in opposite directions, are used to cancel each other's effect of spinning the helicopter in the opposite direction. The rear, small, vertical propeller is then used just for steering.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WikiMotors, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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