Science & Technology

A Helicopter Won't Drop Like a Rock if the Engine Fails in Mid-Air

Helicopters are the nimble, wily cousins of airplanes. While that may seem like they're much more dangerous, that's not necessarily the case. In July 2015, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that a "helicopter whose engine fails is a brick." Then Twitter came in and did what Twitter does best: They roasted him with facts.

Mayday! Nevermind!

Airplane travel is ridiculously, nearly miraculously safe, and it's only getting safer. People might feel a little more sky-shy when it comes to helicopters. But even on that front, things don't look too shabby. You have a better chance at surviving in a helicopter when the engine fails than you do in an airplane. Helicopters are specifically designed to land safely if the engines were to fail mid-flight, and oftentimes with no damage at all.

Landing a helicopter completely without power is actually part of helicopter pilot training. Helicopter pilot hopefuls have to practice powerless landings in order to earn their pilot's license. (To be fair, they don't shut the power off entirely, just in case. That way, the vehicle can be throttled back up quickly in case of emergency.) The name of the game is autorotation.

Routine Rotation

There's a reason those little seed pods that glide down in graceful spirals from trees are called helicopters. A helicopter landing without power using autorotation works in a similar way. Basically, when a helicopter is climbing in altitude, the pitch (tilt) of the blades is designed to keep them spinning with the help of the air underneath. If the engine were to die, the pilot is trained to know to readjust the pitch of the blades to catch the moving air. This is called autorotation because the moving air will keep the powerless blades automatically moving the same way the wind can keep a pinwheel moving.

If, for some reason, the blades were to freeze in space, the helicopter would indeed drop like a rock. Technically, you're right there, Neil. But for anyone with any ounce of helicopter pilot training, you'll glide down to the ground with a graceful, soft landing.

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For more flying machines, check out "Wings: A History of Aviation from Kites to the Space Age" by Tom D. Crouch. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Joanie Faletto November 13, 2017

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