Mistaken Ideas Concerning Helicopters: Rotary Flying Myths

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For many people, helicopter flight is a mystery

People often have mistaken ideas about helicopters.  Image by Helen Krasner

People often have strange ideas about helicopters and those who fly them; ideas that are often far from the truth. Let’s take a look at some of the common misconceptions and the reality about helicopters and rotary flying.

Flying a Helicopter: Isn’t It Dangerous?

Contrary to popular opinion, helicopters are not terribly dangerous. The accident report statistics show that the risks associated with helicopter flight is no different from fixed wing flying, and when helicopter accidents do occur, they are rarely caused by mechanical failure, but are usually caused by human error. Controlled flight into terrain (i.e., hitting the ground, often high ground) is the most common reason for accidents, closely followed by wire strikes, running out of fuel, and similar mistakes. Engine and other mechanical failures are way down the list.

If The Helicopter Engine Does Fail, Don’t You Plummet Like a Stone?

This is one of the most common helicopter myths. In reality, if the engine fails, the helicopter pilot puts the aircraft into a controlled descent in which the air coming up through the rotors keeps them turning, also known as autorotation in helicopter flight. Then all he or she has to do is find a flat area and land, which is not that difficult.

Aren’t Helicopters Really Difficult to Fly?

Actually, helicopters aren’t that difficult to fly. Almost anyone who has enough coordination to drive a car can probably learn to fly a helicopter. It does take time and practice, and some maneuvers, such as hovering a helicopter, feel as though they are impossible in the beginning. It is really no harder to learn to fly a helicopter than it is to learn to fly an airplane. In fact, having flown and gained licenses for both, I would say that a crosswind landing in a fixed wing aircraft is more difficult than any helicopter maneuver.

Aren’t Helicopters Incredibly Expensive?

Helicopters certainly aren’t cheap, but they don’t cost as much as many people think. You can buy a secondhand helicopter for about the price of a luxury car, and though some people might prefer the car, this fact does put things into perspective. When it comes to learning to fly, the cost of lessons is about double that of learning to fly airplanes in most countries, though there are individual variations. So, it does end up costing quite a lot of money, but you certainly don’t need to be a millionaire to learn to fly a helicopter as you might suppose.

Aren’t Helicopters Very Fragile – Unable to Cope With Strong Winds?

Despite the fact that two-seater helicopters like the Robinson R22 look fragile, they aren’t. These aircraft cope very well with high wind conditions if the pilot is skilled enough to handle them. And in many ways helicopters are easier to fly in strong winds than small aeroplanes – you don’t need to land them into the wind, and you aren’t flung around the sky in an uncomfortable manner.

Isn’t Flying Helicopters Addictive?

One of the things you hear about helicopters is true – flying helicopters is very addictive. Many people who have a try at flying one simply don’t want to stop. This process is how some of us ended up getting licenses, and even new careers in aviation.

Resources

National Transportation Safety Board. Review of Accident Data. Accessed February 27, 2013

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