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Controlling flight

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Main article: Helicopter flight controls

A typical helicopter has four separate flight control inputs. These are the cyclic, the collective, the anti-torque pedals, and the throttle. The cyclic control is usually located between the pilot's legs and is commonly called the cyclic stick or just cyclic. On most helicopters, the cyclic is similar to a joystick. Although, the Robinson R22 and R44 have a unique teetering bar cyclic control system and a few helicopters have a cyclic control that descends into the cockpit from overhead.

The control is called the cyclic because it changes the pitch of the rotor blades cyclically. The result is to tilt the rotor disk in a particular direction, resulting in the helicopter moving in that direction. If the pilot pushes the cyclic forward, the rotor disk tilts forward, and the rotor produces a thrust in the forward direction. If the pilot pushes the cyclic to the side, the rotor disk tilts to that side and produces thrust in that direction, causing the helicopter to hover sideways.

The collective pitch control or collective is located on the left side of the pilot's seat with a settable friction control to prevent inadvertent movement. The collective changes the pitch angle of all the main rotor blades collectively (i.e. all at the same time) and independently of their position. Therefore, if a collective input is made, all the blades change equally, and the result is the helicopter increasing or decreasing in altitude.

The anti-torque pedals are located in the same position as the rudder pedals in an airplane, and serve a similar purpose, namely to control the direction in which the nose of the aircraft is pointed. Application of the pedal in a given direction changes the pitch of the tail rotor blades, increasing or reducing the thrust produced by the tail rotor and causing the nose to yaw in the direction of the applied pedal. The pedals mechanically change the pitch of the tail rotor altering the amount of thrust produced.

Helicopter rotors are designed to operate at a specific RPM. The throttle controls the power produced by the engine, which is connected to the rotor by a transmission. The purpose of the throttle is to maintain enough engine power to keep the rotor RPM within allowable limits in order to keep the rotor producing enough lift for flight. In single-engine helicopters, the throttle control is a motorcycle-style twist grip mounted on the collective control, while dual-engine helicopters have a power lever for each engine.

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Flight conditions

There are two basic flight conditions for a helicopter; hover and forward flight.

  • Hover
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 an airplane, 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. Read more...

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