12 May 2005

Safety- Airplane vs. Helicopter

I made the comment earlier that helicopters are safer than airplanes. That's a statement that takes most people, particularly the fixed-wing drivers, by surprise!

I'll tell you why I think it's true, but first let me remind you that I fly both. My last logbook entry puts me over the mark of having two full years of flight time under my belt! That's hard for me to imagine......two full years being supported by air flowing over a wing!

The lion's share of that time is in something with a rotary-wing. But about 1,000 of those hours are in airplanes, both single, and twin engine.

"But what if the rotor falls off?" That's one I hear a lot, from folks that know almost nothing about aviating. The truth is, the likelihood of the rotor falling off a helicopter is about the same as pulling the wing off an airplane......not very.

Consider this: An airplane cannot, while it is flying and under control, go slower than its stall speed. And that is important. In an emergency landing, when the airplane wheels touch the ground, they will be traveling at or above the airplane's stall speed. Depending on the airplane, that will be 50 m.p.h. or above........ maybe considerably above. The airplane I have logged most of my time in stalled at 60, so I normally approached at about 65. Run into something stationary at that speed, and you're gonna know it!

If the engine begins to make interesting noises on an airplane, the pilot will grab the map and start looking for the nearest airport. Should the front fan quit turning, he'll be lookin' for the longest piece of flat, unobstructed real estate he can find!

Now, do this for me. Imagine again that you are at altitude in a helicopter. Point your finger straight beneath you. That's where you can land if the helicopter's engine begins to stutter.

And should everything get really quiet around you, the helicopter can "autorotate".......like the Maple seed we talked about in an earlier post, only as we approach the ground, we can slow the helicopter to a stop, and also apply "pitch" or angle of attack to the main rotor to slow our vertical speed.

Done properly, an autorotation can be done to an area the size of a tennis court.

So emergencies, and for that matter, marginal weather, are a lot less stressful in the helicopter.

If I need to get from point "A" to point "B" quickly, my weapon of choice will be the airplane, because of speed, and cost.

But if I want to fly for relaxation and fun, give me the helicopter ANY DAY!


Anonymous said...

Agreed! Although I'd take the helicopter any day, even if distance was an issue.

Anonymous said...

Well, we always agreed that flying a helicopter was the most fun you could have with your pants on. Plus, those squirrely little machines are just plain exciting.

Jetta Windstar said...

I totally agree. While helicopters are slower, theyre still safer than people think. when they autorotate they just dont drop out of the sky. they still have a dual magneto system too. Supposedly f/w aircraft could glide like a glider down to flat land or an airport, but it would be harder. in a helicopter you can garantee a successful autorotation-as long as youre not overseas. I love helicopters, especially since they're so maneuverable and hovering is just downright AWESOME.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree, I'm becoming a helicopter pilot and I know where he is coming from .

Fixed wing pilots winge alot about the turbulance while it is not really bad in a helicopter .

Maybe the only disadvantage in a helicopter would be the fact that everything happens faster .

If you have engine failure you have a very small amount of time to lower down the collective(what changes angle of attack on the blades) to enter autorotation, especially in low inertia rotor systems like R22 (2 seated) ones which is about 1-2 seconds, otherwise you are a gonner !

Unknown said...

Hey if anyone would like to Help me, That would be great. Im Andres..34..and looking into what steps i need to take to become a helicopter pilot! Figured I would do something I would absolutely Enjoy!...I'm scared as hell to do it, which makes it even more fun. I live in Roseville, ca. Email me Please?.. YeaEmailMe@gmail.com
Thank You.

David said...

Thanks for the information. I was just wondering this this very morning and here you are.

Anonymous said...

The statistics say you couldn't be more wrong -- you're over 100 times likelier to die on a commercial helicopter ride than on a commercial plane ride.

Greybeard said...

As I said in the post, Anon...
I fly both. Ask anyone that is dual-rated and see which machine they'd prefer to be in when things begin to go wrong.
Statistics include the airlines, which are just city buses with wings.
That ain't flyin'.

Anonymous said...

I've talked to a helicopter pilot yesterday and I and he is still wondering what the glide performance of helicopters are like when autorotating. I've seen videos and heard of fixed wing gliding to landing sites but I've only seen helicopters autorotate to a location almost directly below in the videos I've seen. If you were to be over mountains without much flat land, how far can a typical light turbine helicopter autorotate (approximate glide angle or distance from a specific altitude would be helpful) without losing too much RPM and lift

Greybeard said...

Any helicopter pilot that has questions about autorotative performance was not well trained, anon. Knowing how far you can safely glide is a MUST.

Autorotative performance varies. Helicopters like the Schweitzer 300 and R22 with low-inertia rotors don't glide well, so, with that in mind you'd want to maintain a higher altitude to increase your number of possible forced landing areas. Glide distance is also dependent on how much wind there is to resist your forward movement across the ground, obviously.
But remember, when you hit that mountain in an airplane you'll be doing 50 mph or more. In a helicopter you can slow to zero.
Which would you prefer?

JMartin said...

I thoroughly enjoy reading the rotary wing perspective from someone who's been there. I do have a question concerning the tail rotor and loss of tail rotor effectiveness. In reviewing NTSB crash reports, that seems to be a major concern with loss of control and an inability to recover in low altitude situations. How much of a concern is that among helicopter pilots? I am a fixed wing pilot and am considering going for the rotary wing as a retirement gift to myself. Thanks.

Greybeard said...

It's a valid question, JMartin.
But it's less and less a problem with newer helos.
The problem was first identified in OH-6's being used as scouts while I was in Viet Nam. The little Cayuse would enter what was then called "The Hughes Spin"...
An uncommanded right yaw followed by a nose down attitude, resulting in a condition that could not be recovered from, considering the altitude those birds were flying in.

As tail rotors have become more effective you hear less and less about the problem. But it is something you need to keep in mind. There are plenty of sites where you can go and study it, and I suggest you do that. But IF you land with your nose into the wind, (and why wouldn't you?), you are likely never to have a problem.

Get your training. Come back afterwards and tell us about your experience.
Good luck.