A helicopter is a type of aircraft in which thrust and lift are supplied by horizontally spinning rotor blades.
The helicopter is able to land and take off vertically, to fly forwards, backwards, and laterally, and to hover.
These abilities allow helicopters to be used in isolated or congested areas where fixed-wing aircraft and other types of Short TakeOff and Landing (STOL) and Short TakeOff and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft can’t perform without a runway.
There is no denying that the helicopter is a mighty feat of science and engineering, but how high can these rotorcraft fly? In this article, we look at the average altitude flight of helicopters, as well as the highest altitude flight ever achieved by a helicopter pilot, and the reasons why helicopters can’t fly as high as their fixed-wing counterparts.
How Does A Helicopter Fly?
When you give your helicopter engine power, it starts turning fast rotor blades that spin around on top of each other.
As they rotate, they push air downwards in front of them and upwards behind them.
So, instead of just falling straight down, the air above the helicopter rotates faster than the air below it. The result is lift.
What Factors Affect Helicopter Flight Performance?
The amount of lift generated depends on many factors, including the size of the helicopter, its weight, the speed at which the rotor turns, and the angle between the rotor blades and the wind.
For example, a small helicopter might generate less lift than a large one, even though both have the same rotor diameter.
What Is The Average Altitude For Helicopter Flight?
As for the average height a helicopter can reach, there isn’t any official rule about this.
However, most helicopters can only fly at altitudes up to about 10,000 feet (3048 meters), depending on their design. Some larger models can go higher, but not much further.
Helicopters can fly higher when in forward motion than they can when hovering.
What Is The Maximum Altitude For Helicopter Flight?
The record for the highest altitude that a helicopter has ever reached is held by the French test pilot, Fred North.
Fred North made his record in 2002, when he took his AS 350 B2 “Squirrel” to the amazingly high altitude of 12954 meters (42,489 feet) at the International Airport of Cape Town, South Africa. That is an impressive 11,000 feet higher than the peak of Mount Everest!!
The record was previously held by another French test pilot called Jean Boulet.
The French aviator flew his SA 315B Lama (a French single-engined helicopter) to the mighty height of 12,442 meters (40,814 feet), way back in 1972 and held the record for the next 30 years!
Can Helicopters Land On Mount Everest?
Yes! Although it may seem like a tall order, helicopters can actually land on mountains as high as 29,035 feet (8,843 meters).
They need special equipment called skids to make this possible, however, and landing gear designed specifically for use on mountain peaks.
Only one pilot has actually managed to land on the summit of Mount Everest, and this was Didier Delsalle.
The French test pilot landed his Eurocopter AS350 B23 on the world’s tallest mountaintop back in 2005, in a successful world record attempt for the highest altitude helicopter landing of all time.
Do You Have To Wear An Oxygen Mask To Fly A Helicopter?
For low altitude flights, helicopter pilots and passengers do not need to wear oxygen masks.
However, any jet turbine helicopter can fly high enough that the pilot and passengers would be required to wear an oxygen mask. This is because, as altitude increases, air density decreases.
The thinner atmosphere means that there is less oxygen, and if flying at 14,000 feet or higher, passengers and pilots would need a supplementary oxygen supply in order to survive.
For this reason, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) states that oxygen masks must be worn at altitudes of 12,500 feet or higher.
Why Can’t Helicopters Fly Higher Than Fixed-Wing Aircraft?
To understand why helicopters can’t fly as high as their fixed wing counterparts, let’s first consider the difference between a helicopter and a plane.
Commercial aircraft typically fly between 31,000 and 38,000 feet — about 5.9 to 7.2 miles — high and usually arrive at cruising altitudes about 10 minutes after takeoff.
By comparison, Helicopters are typically designed to fly short distances and typically fly much lower than airplanes, normally at under 10,000 feet.
They are also unable to ascend to the same height an airplane can because instead of wings, helicopters fly by rotating blades.
Usually, helicopters will fly at around 10,000 feet, as this will provide the best sort of atmosphere for nimble maneuvering.
When a helicopter exceeds this altitude, the air gets thinner, meaning the blades find it difficult to generate the same amount of lift.
10,000 feet is widely considered the top end of the spectrum in terms of optimal altitude for flying.
With increased altitude, the blades have to work against more drag and therefore cannot create as much forward airspeed, meaning climbing becomes tricky.
Beyond 10,000 feet, much of the stability helicopters are famous for goes out the window, and maneuverability starts to diminish.
How Does Air Density Affect Helicopter Flight?
Air density is critical when it comes to generating lift and optimizing engine functionality. With thinner air, the main rotor cannot create enough lift, and ascension is compromised.
The change in atmospheric pressure at high altitudes means that the engine and rotor blades of a helicopter have to work harder and harder to maintain lift in low air density.
While a helicopter can compensate for the thin atmosphere by increasing the blade pitch (rotation speed) as it climbs higher, at a certain altitude this no longer becomes possible.
Helicopters are hugely versatile and ingenious aircraft that can operate with great maneuverability and accuracy.
Sure, they are not able to fly as high as fixed-wing aircraft due to the nature of their rotor blades’ reliance on air density, however, they can perform many functions that planes cannot.