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A helicopter flies for the same basic reason that any conventional aircraft flies, because aerodynamic forces necessary to keep it aloft are produced when air passes about the rotor blades. The rotor blade, or airfoil, is the structure that makes flight possible. Its shape produces lift when it passes through the air. Helicopter blades have airfoil sections designed for a specific set of flight characteristics. Usually the designer must compromise to obtain an airfoil section that has the best flight characteristics for the mission the aircraft will perform.

Airfoil sections are of two basic types, symmetrical and nonsymmetrical. Symmetrical airfoils have identical upper and lower surfaces. They are suited to rotary-wing applications because they have almost no center of pressure travel. Travel remains relatively constant under varying angles of attack, affording the best lift-drag ratios for the full range of velocities from rotor blade root to tip. However, the symmetrical airfoil produces less lift than a nonsymmetrical airfoil and also has relatively undesirable stall characteristics. The helicopter blade must adapt to a wide range of airspeeds and angles of attack during each revolution of the rotor. The symmetrical airfoil delivers acceptable performance under those alternating conditions. Other benefits are lower cost and ease of construction as compared to the nonsymmetrical airfoil.

Nonsymmetrical (cambered) airfoils may have a wide variety of upper and lower surface designs. They are currently used on some CH-47 and all OH-58 Army helicopters, and are increasingly being used on newly designed aircraft. Advantages of the nonsymmetrical airfoil are increased lift-drag ratios and more desirable stall characteristics. Nonsymmetrical airfoils were not used in earlier helicopters because the center of pressure location moved too much when angle of attack was changed. When center of pressure moves, a twisting force is exerted on the rotor blades. Rotor system components had to be designed that would withstand the twisting force. Recent design processes and new materials used to manufacture rotor systems have partially overcome the problems associated with use of nonsymmetrical airfoils.

Airfoil Sections

Rotary-wing airfoils operate under diverse conditions, because their speeds are a combination of blade rotation and forward movement of the helicopter. An intelligent discussion of the factors affecting the magnitude of rotor blade lift and drag requires a knowledge of blade section geometry. Blades are designed with specific geometry that adapts them to the varying conditions of flight. Cross-section shapes of most rotor blades are not the same throughout the span. Shapes are varied along the blade radius to take advantage of the particular airspeed range experienced at each point on the blade, and to help balance the load between the root and tip. The blade may be built with a twist, so an airfoil section near the root has a larger pitch angle than a section near the tip.

Paul Cantrell
paul at copters.com (replace " at " with "@" to email me - this avoids SPAMMERS I hope)

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