How do helicopters work? Helicopters are the most versatile flying machines in existence today. This versatility gives the pilot complete access to three-dimensional space in a way that no airplane can. If you have ever flown in a helicopter you know that its abilities are exhilarating!
The amazing flexibility of helicopters means that they can fly almost anywhere. However, it also means that flying the machines is complicated. The pilot has to think in three dimensions and must use both arms and both legs constantly to keep a helicopter in the air! Piloting a helicopter requires a great deal of training and skill, as well as continuous attention to the machine.
In this article, you will learn about all of a helicopter's different capabilities and how it's able to do such amazing things!
Comparing Modes of Transport
To understand how helicopters work and also why they are so complicated to fly, it is helpful to compare the abilities of a helicopter with those of trains, cars and airplanes. By looking at these different modes of transportation, you can come to understand why helicopters are so versatile! If you have ever been inside of the cab of a locomotive, you know that trains are fairly simple to drive. After all, there are only two directions that a train can travel in -- forward and reverse. There is a brake to stop the train's travel in either direction, but there is no steering mechanism of any kind on a train. The tracks take the train where it needs to go.
Because a train has only two directions in which it can travel, you can drive a train with one hand.
A car, of course, can go forward and backward like a train. While you are traveling in either direction you can also turn left or right:
To handle the steering, a car uses a steering wheel that the driver can turn clockwise or counterclockwise. It is possible to drive a car with one hand and one foot.
Anyone who has taken pilot lessons or looked inside the cockpit while boarding a jumbo jet knows that planes are a lot more complicated to fly than a car is to drive. However, a plane is really only one step away from a car:
A plane can move forward and turn left or right. It also adds the ability to go up and down. However, it loses the ability to reverse. So a plane can move in five different directions instead of a car's four directions. The ability to go up and down adds a whole new dimension to a plane, and this dimension is one of the things that makes airplanes different from a car. To control the upward and downward motion of the plane, either a joystick replaces the steering wheel or the steering wheel gains the ability to move in and out (in addition to turning clockwise and counterclockwise). In most planes (but not all), the pilot also has access to two pedals to control the rudder. Therefore, a pilot could fly a plane with one hand and two feet.
A helicopter can do three things that an airplane cannot:
A helicopter can fly backwards.
The entire aircraft can rotate in the air.
A helicopter can hover motionless in the air.
In a car or a plane, the vehicle must be moving in order to turn. In a helicopter, you can move laterally in any direction or you can rotate 360 degrees. These extra degrees of freedom and the skill you must have to master them is what makes helicopters so exciting, but it also makes them complex. To control a helicopter, one hand grasps a control called the cyclic, which controls the lateral direction of the helicopter (including forward, backward, left and right). The other hand grasps a control called the collective, which controls the up and down motion of the helicopter (and also controls engine speed). The pilot's feet rest on pedals that control the tail rotor, which allows the helicopter to rotate in either direction on its axis. It takes both hands and both feet to fly a helicopter!
Special Capabilities of Helicopters
Helicopters have a number of...