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What Is a Helicopter?
November 16, 2010

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A helicopter is a type of aircraft. It uses rotating, or spinning, wings called blades to fly. Rotating blades, or a rotor, let helicopters do things airplanes cannot.

How Does A Helicopter Work?
In order to fly, an object must have "lift." Lift is what pushes something up. Lift is made by wings. Wings have a curved shape on top and are flatter on the bottom. That shape makes air flow over the top faster than under the bottom. The faster air on top of the wing makes suction on the top of the wing and the wing moves up. Airplanes get lift from their wings. A helicopter's rotor blades are spinning wings. A helicopter moves air over its rotor by spinning the blades. The rotor makes the lift that carries the helicopter up.

What Can A Helicopter Do?
Helicopters can do things airplanes cannot. They can move straight up or down. Most airplanes cannot do this. Helicopters can take off or land without a runway. They can turn in the air in ways airplanes cannot. Helicopters can fly backwards or sideways. They can also hover in one spot in the air without moving.
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What Are Uses of Helicopters?
Helicopters can be used for many things. They can be used as flying ambulances to carry patients. They can be loaded with water to fight large fires. Military forces use helicopters to move troops and get supplies to ships. Helicopters can move large objects from place to place. Helicopters can rescue people in hard-to-reach places like mountains or in oceans. Television and radio stations use helicopters to fly over cities and report on traffic. Helicopters are used by police and by people on vacation. These uses are just some of the many things that can be done with helicopters.

What Does NASA Do With Helicopters?
NASA conducts research on ways to make helicopters better. Crash tests help make helicopters safer. NASA studies how new materials can keep passengers safe if a helicopter crashes. Wind tunnel tests show how to make helicopters quieter. In the wind tunnel, air moves past things just like when they are flying, so engineers can test helicopters, models of helicopters or even just new parts. Then the engineers can study how much noise the helicopters or parts make in the air. New ideas could help engineers create bigger, better and faster helicopters. Someday helicopters could carry 100 people. NASA has even studied how helicopters could be flown on Mars!
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Related Resources
› What Is Aerodynamics?
› What Are Wind Tunnels?
› Chopper Crash Test a Smash Hit
› XV-15 Tilt-Rotor Video
› Future Flight Design   →
 


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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services

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A helicopter pulls a Mercury capsule from the ocean
A Marine helicopter recovers the Mercury spacecraft used for the first U.S. spaceflight.
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NASA
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A rotor test article in a wind tunnel
NASA tested this rotor design in a wind tunnel to research ways to make helicopters quieter.
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NASA
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A helicopter in front of a NASA hangar
This NASA Skycrane helicopter can pick up and move very big things. It can even pick up and move a small house.
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NASA
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Page Last Updated: September 3rd, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator