The concept of using a rotary wing to provide a combination of lift and thrust has been around since the fifteenth century doodles of Leonardo da Vinci. In terms of its practical application to flight, however, the helicopter was a relative latecomer, with the first production aircraft making its appearance in the early 1940s.
So how does it work? A conventional aeroplane uses a means of thrust, such as an engine and propeller, to provide airspeed and the consequent movement of air over the surfaces of the wing to provide the pressure differential which, in turn, generates lift A helicopter uses a rotating wing – the rotor main blade – to provide lift. The faster the blade rotates, the greater the airflow over its rotary wing section and therefore the greater the lift generated. The shaft of the main rotor can, however, be tilted slightly off its vertical axis, which in turn tilts the rotor disc, to provide lateral thrust. This allows the aircraft to fly forwards, backwards, sideways or simply to hover. But there’s a snag. With only the main rotor the aircraft would be subject to the torque effect of the rotating masses and would be totally uncontrollable. To counter this, a machine with a single main rotor is equipped with a smaller vertically mounted tail rotor which acts to counter the torque effect and prevents the body of the machine from spinning in the opposite direction to the main rotor blades.
Flying in a helicopter is a wonderful experience. The visibility tends to be much better than from a conventional aircraft. The pilot (and passengers) are able to be much more selective about the view – hence the type’s preferred role as observation and spotter aircraft. Their main advantage, of course is the ability to take off and land vertically which gives the helicopter a much wider range of operation.
A great way to experience a helicopter flight is through one of the growing number of sites such as Groupon. As with most flying activities, helicopter flights can be rather expensive and the chance to save up to 70% on the experience is not to be sniffed at.