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Hovering is the term applied when a helicopter maintains a constant position at a selected point, usually a few feet above the ground (but not always, helicopters can hover high in the air, given sufficient power). For a helicopter to hover, the main rotor must supply lift equal to the total weight of the helicopter. With the blades rotating at high velocity, an increase of blade pitch (angle of attack) would induce the necessary lift for a hover. The forces of lift and weight reach a state of balance during a stationary hover.

Hovering is actually an element of vertical flight. Assuming a no-wind condition, the tip-path plane of the blades will remain horizontal. If the angle of attack of the blades is increased while their velocity remains constant, additional vertical thrust is obtained. Thus, by upsetting the vertical balance of forces, helicopters can climb or descend vertically.

Airflow during hovering

At a hover, the rotor tip vortex (air swirl at the tip of the rotor blades) reduces the effectiveness of the outer blade portions. Also, the vortexes of the preceding blade severely affect the lift of the following blades. If the vortex made by one passing blade remains a vicious swirl for some number of seconds, then two blades operating at 350 RPM create 700 longlasting vortex patterns per minute. This continuous creation of new vortexes and ingestion of existing vortexes is a primary cause of high power requirements for hovering.

During hover, the rotor blades move large volumes of air in a downward direction. This pumping process uses lots of horsepower and accelerates the air to relatively high velocities. Air velocity under the helicopter may reach 60 to 100 knots, depending on the size of the rotor and the gross weight of the helicopter. The air flow pattern of a hovering helicopter is illustrated here:

Note how the downwash (induced flow) of air has introduced another element into the relative wind which alters the angle of attack of the airfoil. When there is no induced flow, the relative wind is opposite and parallel to the flightpath of the airfoil. In the hovering case, the downward airflow alters the relative wind and changes the angle of attack so less aerodynamic force is produced. This condition requires the pilot to increase collective pitch to produce enough aerodynamic force to sustain a hover. Although this does increase the lift, it also increases the induced drag, and so total power required is higher.

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

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