21 Types of Helicopters Explained (A Full Guide)

What is Helicopter?

A helicopter is a type of rotorcraft in which lift and thrust are supplied by horizontally-spinning rotors. This allows the helicopter to take off and land vertically, hover, and fly forward, backward, and laterally. These attributes allow helicopters to be used in congested or isolated areas where fixed-wing aircraft and many forms of VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) aircraft cannot perform.

In 1942 the Sikorsky R-4 became the first helicopter to reach full-scale production.

Although most earlier designs used more than one main rotor, the configuration of a single main rotor (monocopter) accompanied by a vertical anti-torque tail rotor has become the most common helicopter configuration.

Twin-main rotor helicopters (bicopters), in either tandem or transverse rotors configurations, are also in use due to their greater payload capacity than the monorotor design. Coaxial-rotor helicopters, tiltrotor aircraft, and compound helicopters are all flying today.

Quadrotor helicopters (quadcopters) were pioneered as early as 1907 in France, and other types of multi-copters have been developed for specialized applications such as drones.

Who Invented the Helicopter?

Paul Cornu, a French bicycle maker, is credited with inventing the helicopter in 1907. His invention is the first helicopter as we know it today, and it managed to lift off the ground about 1 foot, for about 20 seconds.

Another French inventor by the name of Etienne Oehmichen is credited with the first helicopter flight carrying two passengers. He did this shortly after winning a prize of 90 000 for flying his helicopter following a triangular circuit of 1 Kilometer in length.

On September 14, 1939, the VS-300, the world’s first practical helicopter, took flight at Stratford, Connecticut. Designed by Igor Sikorsky and built by the Vought-Sikorsky Aircraft Division of the United Aircraft Corporation, the helicopter was the first to incorporate a single main rotor and tail rotor design.

Piloted by Sikorsky, the September 14 tethered flight lasted just a few seconds. The first free flight took place on May 13, 1940. The innovative 28-foot diameter, three-blade rotor allowed for a variable pitch of the blades with a blade speed of 250 to 300 mph.

The concepts demonstrated in the VS-300 provided the basis for the first production helicopters and became the standard for helicopter manufacturing across the world. On June 27, 1931, Sikorsky submitted a patent application (no. 1,994,488) for a direct lift aircraft, which included all the major engineering features of the VS-300.

The patent was granted on March 19, 1935. Presented to Henry Ford and included in his Edison Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, on October 7, 1943, the VS-300 today remains on display at the Henry Ford Museum.

Types of Helicopters

A helicopter is a common sight in most parts of the world, whether it is to monitor traffic, police a community, or transport cargo. These aircraft have become an important part of our modern society’s infrastructure and provide a valuable service in many different roles.

Some models on this list were originally designed for the military, and others were civilian helicopters all the way. However, while they are often thought of as military craft, the fact remains that helicopters are incredibly versatile aircraft, and they can be used in many civilian roles.

Different Types of Civilian Helicopters

Maybe you want to rent a private helicopter for your own uses, or maybe you need the kind of emergency help only a chopper can give. Either way, the many types of civilian helicopters on this list are up to the task:

  • Police Helicopters
  • Firefighting Helicopters
  • First Aid Helicopters
  • Search and Rescue Helicopters
  • Coast Guard Helicopters
  • Stunt Helicopters
  • Transport Helicopters
  • Agricultural Helicopters
  • Oil Rig Helicopters
  • TV News Helicopters
  • Party Helicopters
  • Multipurpose Helicopters
  • Utility Helicopter
  • Site-to-Site Transport Helicopters

1. Police Helicopters

Members of the Thin Blue Line go off into the Wild Blue Yonder in the cockpit of helicopters that are capable of tracking suspects from the air. These helicopters are often adapted from or designed in the same fashion as military scout helicopters, such as the Bell series.

For example, the Los Angeles Police Department has used a Bell 412, which is also used by the Royal Air Force. Police departments such as the LAPD can use these helicopters to track suspects as they flee on the massive Los Angeles freeway system, giving squad cars vital aerial information.

The Bell 412 measures 56 ft 1 in., has a maximum takeoff weight of 11,900 lbs, a rotor diameter of 46 ft, and is powered by 1 × Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3D Twin-Pac or else 1 x PT6T-3DF Twin-Pac coupled turboshaft engine, which enables it to reach speeds of up to 160 mph.

2. Firefighting Helicopters

These helicopters are on the front lines of firefighting efforts across the world. That said, terms such as “air tanker” (used by US firefighting agencies) or “waterbomber” (used in Canada) are typically reserved for the fixed-wing craft. By contrast, helicopters engaged in firefighting missions are often classified as helitack models.

These are further subdivided into four categories by US agencies according to how much they can carry. Buckets and tanks on the craft are filled by submerging them in nearby lakes, rivers, or other sources of water. Some models are outfitted with front-mounted foam cannons.

The Bell 212 is one example of a helitack-capable craft. It measures 57 ft 1.68 in., can carry 14 passengers, has a maximum takeoff weight of 11,200 lbs, is powered by 1 × Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-3 or -3B turboshaft engines, and boasts a top speed of 140 mph over a range of 273 mi.

3. First Aid Helicopters

Larger helicopters sometimes have helicopters of their own, and sometimes they are run by other medical teams, such as Boston Med Flight. Either way, these helicopters obviously have a tough task, needing to be fast while housing lots of medical equipment.

Some earlier civilian medical helicopters were adaptations of military ones – again, think of the MASH-style Bell series. Modern examples include the Airbus H145 and EC145, both of which are used by Boston Med Flight.

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The EC145 measures 42 ft 9 in., has a main rotor diameter of 36 ft 1 in., a range of 420 mi, and features 2 × Turbomeca Arriel 1E2 turboshaft engines that enable it to reach speeds of up to 167 mph.

4. Search and Rescue Helicopters

These helicopters have an especially tricky balance to strike. On the one hand, they need to be speedy and nimble enough to get to the scene of an accident as fast as possible. On the other hand, they need to be able to carry a full payload of emergency equipment.

As a result, search and rescue helicopters are often modified versions of other models that have been outfitted with things such as sliding doors or more powerful engines. The S-76C variant of the Sikorsky S-76 is a perfect example of this and is used in this role today.

This model measures 52 ft 6 in., is powered by 2 × Turbomeca Arriel 2S2 turboshaft engines, has a main rotor diameter of 44 ft, and can obtain a maximum speed of 178 mph and a range of 473 mi.

5. Coast Guard Helicopters

The helicopters employed by the United States Coast Guard and similar services across the world need to be able to carry out land-to-see and air-to-sea missions. The MH-90 Enforcer variant was employed by the United States Coast Guard from 1998 to 2000. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Hungary have also used it.

Today, the Coast Guard uses the Airbus MH-65, which they have employed in rescue missions ranging from Hurricane Katrina and Rita in 2005 to Maria and Harvey in 2017. These helicopters are specially designed to work well at all elevations, from high altitudes in mountainous areas to sea level.

The Airbus MH-65 measures 38 ft 1 in., has a maximum takeoff weight of 9,480 lbs, has a maximum service range of 409 mi, and is powered by 2 × Turbomeca Arriel 2C2-CG turboshaft engines which enable it to reach speeds of 210 mph.

6. Stunt Helicopters

The movie industry employs a ton of helicopters and pilots to help bring all manner of action film scenes to life. The helicopters that are used for this purpose are typically on the fast and lightweight side, and

The Bell 206 was for decades one of the most prominent examples. Different versions of Bell Jet Rangers can be found in the James Bond films On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, and For Your Eyes Only.

You can also find one in Terminator 2. The Bell 206 enjoys leather interiors and is powered by 1 x Rolls Royce 250-C20J engine, which can enable it to reach an average speed of around 134 mph.

7. Transport Helicopters

These helicopters are the heavy lifters on this list. They require a ton of storage capacity and, for that reason, are typically among the heaviest helicopters employed for civilian use. That said, given their heavy-duty nature, they often have military backgrounds.

The Chinook CH-47 is a perfect example of this. Despite its Vietnam-era origins, it has enjoyed an afterlife as a heavy transport helicopter, carrying massive amounts of supplies on relief missions to Singapore in 2004 following a tsunami as well as after the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake in Northern Pakistan.

The Chinook has a crew of 3, can house 24 stretchers and 24,000 lbs of payload in relief roles, measures 98 ft, is powered by 2 × Lycoming T55-GA-714A turboshaft engines, and has a maximum speed of 200 mph and an operational range of 460 mi.

8. Agricultural Helicopters

While we typically think of crop dusters when we think of agricultural aircraft, helicopters can serve that purpose as well. In fact, recent years have seen helicopters be used more for hydroseeding and other fast-planting purposes.

For example, the Mi-8ATS, a variant of the Soviet-made Mi-8 series, is used for agricultural purposes. However, there is some controversy surrounding agricultural helicopters and other crop dusters due to concern over pesticides drifting over a broader area.

The Mi-8ATS has a crew of three, can typically carry between seven and nine passengers, while the helicopter itself measures 60 ft 4 in. long and features 2 × Klimov TV3-117MT turboshaft engines and a top speed of 160 mph.

9. Oil Rig Helicopters

Flying from platforms to rigs to land and back again is no easy task, but oil rig helicopters are up to the challenge. They are designed to help with everything from scouting out locations to pipeline patrol duty to cargo lifts.

Turnaround time between missions can be short, so operators of these helicopters have to work quickly to get them ready. Once again, Airbus provides some of the most popular models for this industry, with the H135 being among the most used today.

The H135 measures 33 ft 6 in., can carry up to seven passengers (or four for an ambulance variant), has a maximum takeoff weight of 6,415 lbs, a range of 395 mi, and is powered by 2 × Turbomeca Arrius 2B2 or 2 x Pratt & Whitney Canada PW206B turboshaft engines capable of 178 mph.

10. TV News Helicopters

News choppers have the difficult task of having to be fast and maneuverable to get to the scene of breaking news while still being steady enough to allow camera crews to get a good shot. It’s only fitting; therefore, the first TV news chopper was a helicopter TV made famous.

One of the first TV news helicopters was a Bell 47 leased to Los Angeles TV mainstay KTLA in 1958. Few helicopters in American history are more iconic than the Bell 47, with it appearing in the iconic opening of M*A*S*H. Since the Korean War, it’s been used as a TV news chopper.

The H-13 variant of the Bell 47 measures 31 ft 7 in. x 9 ft 8 in., has a gross weight of 2,952 lbs, is powered by 1 × Lycoming TVO-435-A1A six-cylinder which enables it to obtain a top speed of 105 and a cruising speed of 84 mph.

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11. Party Helicopters

The lifestyles of the rich and famous take to the skies in these models. They are typically outfitted to be especially spacious, offering expanded cabin space so as to fit more people for bigger airborne parties.

The interiors are typically given extra attention, with leather seating and opulent designs. They can also feature extra features for added comfort, such as cabin heaters and defoggers. Models such as the Robinson R-22 are also quite easy to transport.

The R22 measures 28 ft 8 in., is powered by 1 × Lycoming O-320-A2B or -A2C 4-cylinder air-cooled horizontally-opposed piston engine, has a top speed of 117 mph, and a service range of 241 mi.

12. Multipurpose Helicopters

Some helicopter designs are versatile enough to be used for a variety of purposes. These offer a mixture of speed and power and are often among the most “balanced” civilian helicopters in terms of their overall capabilities.

For example, the AStar Eurocopter has been used in several of the jobs listed above, from transport to firefighting to TV crew work. In fact, it was an AStar, piloted by Zoey Tur, which was used to capture the O.J. Simpson police chase with the LAPD in LA in 1994.

The AS350 variant of the AStar Eurocopter can house six passengers, measures 35 ft 10 in., has a rotor diameter of 35 ft 1 in., and is powered by a 1 × Turbomeca Arriel 2B turboshaft engine which can reach a top speed of 178 mph.

13. Utility Helicopter

These are the Swiss Army Knives of the helicopter industry. They are typically light in build and can fulfill a wide range of roles, from search and rescue and medical assistance.

In addition, these often tend to rank among the more experimental copters. Take, for example, the HAL Light Utility Helicopter, which has been in development for years, and finally saw prototype demonstrations on September 9, 2020, around the Siachen Glacier. A Final Operational Clearance Test is scheduled for 2021.

The HAL Light Utility Helicopter will be able to house six passengers, measures 37 ft 8.25 in., is powered by 1 × HAL/Turbomeca Shakti-1U turboshaft engine, has a main rotor diameter of 11.6 m, and is anticipated to have a maximum speed of 155 mph.

14. Site-to-Site Transport Helicopters

These are something of a combination of private/party helicopters and utility options. While they are often quite comfortable, they aren’t designed with the eye toward opulence as party copters. Instead, they are more for getting to areas that might be otherwise inaccessible (for example, traveling between island archipelagos).

Even so, these copters are often quite comfortable. These helicopters are often employed for everything from transport systems to regional tours. The McDonnell Douglas MD 900 is an example of a helicopter that has been employed in this fashion.

The MD 90 measures 32 ft 4 in., has a maximum takeoff weight of 6,250 lbs, and is powered by 2 × Pratt & Whitney Canada PW206E turboshaft engines, which can reach a maximum speed of 160 mph and give this model a range of 337 mi.

Different Types of Military Helicopters

Helicopters are among the most adaptive and versatile weapons systems worldwide. Helicopters are integral during times of war and peace. After its development in the 1930s, the military helicopter became paramount during World War 2 military operations.

The helicopter provided the military with unparalleled flexibility: its rotors allowed for vertical take-off and landing, and it possessed capabilities to hover and fly in all four directions.

Various category types of advanced military helicopters exist:

  • Military Attack Helicopters
  • Military Troop Carrier Helicopter
  • Military Observation Helicopters
  • Military Utility Helicopters
  • Military Maritime Helicopters
  • Military Multi-Role Helicopters
  • Military Search and Rescue Helicopters

1. Military Attack Helicopters

Attack helicopters’, also known as helicopter gunships, the main purpose is to fire on the enemy. To achieve this purpose, attack helicopters are capable of reaching high speeds and are well-armed with an array of weaponry such as machine guns, missiles, and auto-cannons.

Equipped with advanced radar for identifying enemy targets and guiding projectiles, the attack helicopter armory is used to effectively destroy enemy armed tanks and vehicles. The attack helicopter exists as a means of air support for ground troops and other aircraft.

The AH-1W Super Cobra is the Marine Corps main attack helicopter. The AH-1W Super Cobra, manufactured by Bell Helicopter, is an attack helicopter derived from the Huey design. The Super Cobra was the first attack helicopter qualifying for both the sidearm anti-radiation missile and the sidewinder air-to-air missile—it can also support hellfire missiles.

The Super Cobra has been operational since its fielding in 1967, and was deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The Super Cobra functions as the primary attack helicopter forming the backbone of the USMC air-ground task force utilized when fire power is needed—whether providing ground cover or escorting other air support.

The Marine Corps has flown the Super Cobra since 1986 and the last of this helicopter was delivered in 1998. The AH-1W Super Cobra replaced the AH-1 Cobra, and the AH-1Z Viper replaced the Super Cobra. In 2020, the Viper is expected to replace the last Super Cobra.

2. Troop Carrier Helicopter

From its inception, the helicopter has had military application, and the defense forces of many nations saw the benefit that this type of aircraft could offer to various branches of its military force. The troop carrier helicopter became a means to get troops to a battle zone or to launch an attack with speed and agility.

This type of troop delivery is known as an air assault. The troops can be delivered directly to the frontlines without the need to land at an airstrip and then ferry the troops to the battleground with ground-based vehicles.

As a troop carrier, there are various models of helicopters that have been developed for this function, from large capacity troop carriers to small strike force troop carriers.

The helicopter can land or hover just above the ground to deposit the troops on the ground, or the helicopter can hover at a higher altitude, and the specially trained troops can rappel from the helicopter to the ground. This method of troop delivery is particularly useful in areas of dense bush or tall trees.

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3. Military Observation Helicopters

Helicopters have the ability to fly at low altitudes, high altitudes and to operate with stealth. These abilities of the helicopter resulted in many models being developed specifically for observation, reconnaissance, and espionage roles, both for military and civilian use.

Helicopters can be packed pull of electronic surveillance equipment, infra-red and night vision cameras, laser targeting, radar, and communications listening devices. The stealth ability of helicopters outfitted in this manner allows them to avoid detection by radar and even by physical senses of the enemy.

Helicopters used in this role have been invaluable in the sector of information gathering for scientific, law enforcement, and military purposes.

4. Military Utility Helicopters

Utility helicopters are highly versatile aircraft that excel in all environments. These helicopters can be utilized for all functions from reconnaissance or attack to transport and evacuation operations. The most iconic and notorious utility helicopter is the Black Hawk.

The UH-60 Black Hawk, manufactured by Sikorsky, is a medium-lift, twin-engine, four-bladed utility helicopter. The Black Hawk is the U.S. Army’s tactical transport helicopter and air assault aircraft. The Black Hawk features a dragging tail wheel landing gear system. This military helicopter operates in all-weather conditions. In arctic environments, the Black Hawk can be fitted with landing skis.

The Black Hawk was first fielded by the Army in 1978 after Sikorsky’s UH-60 Black Hawk design won the United States Army Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System (UTTAS) competition in 1976. Today, upward of 2K UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter variants are in U.S. military service. The UH-60 Blackhawk became well-known by the American public through the film “Black Hawk Down” released in 2001.

Originally, Army Regulation 70-28 dictated the naming of helicopters after Native American tribes. Said regulation no longer exists, but the tradition remains, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is involved in the naming of new helicopters. The UH-60 Black Hawk was named in honor of the Native American War Leader, Black Hawk.

The utility helicopter “UH-1Y Venom” is known for its survivability. The UH-1Y Venom, manufactured by Bell Helicopter, is a new Marine Corps utility helicopter set to replace the Huey. The Venom is nicknamed “Super Huey” and “Yankee” acknowledging the phonetic pronunciation of its variant letter “Y.” This helicopter began fielding in 2008 replacing the Marine Corps fleet of UH-1N Twin Huey aircrafts.

5. Military Maritime Helicopters

Maritime helicopters are newer aircraft equipped with advanced electronics and weapons systems. These helicopters were developed to support various U.S. Naval missions including search and rescue and surveillance, but their largest role is anti-submarine warfare and weapon delivery including air-launching torpedoes.

The most widely known maritime helicopter is the MH-60R Seahawk. The Seahawk, also called “Romeo” due to its designating letter “R,” is a multi-mission Naval helicopter with the primary role of an anti-submarine warfare anti-surface weapon system asset. Today, the U.S. Navy considers this maritime helicopter to be the most capable helicopter available.

6. Military Multi-Role Helicopters

A versatile type of helicopter, multi-role helicopters supporting wide-ranging missions across service branches. These helicopters are utilized when inhospitable environments and difficult terrain exists during rescue, medivac, and recovery missions.

The Apache is a multi-role helicopter widely recognizable by its dual rotors. The AH-64 Apache, manufactured by Boeing, is a twin-engine, multi-mission, heavy division attack helicopter with two four-bladed rotors (one main and one tail). The Army utilizes the Apache for precision strike and armed reconnaissance missions during day and night, and in all-weather conditions. The Apache features advanced navigation, avionics, onboard sensor suites, and systems redundancy improving survivability and lethality in combat.

The Apache offers numerous distinguishing features including shielding between cockpits promoting survival of one or more crew members if the aircraft is hit, and the Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System (IHADSS) where the automatic M230 ChainigGun can be mounted to the pilot or gunners’ helmet pointing in the direction they look.

This helicopter also exhibits a nose-mounted sensor suite for night-vision systems and target acquisition, and has four hardpoints mounted with a mixture of Hydra 70 rocket pods and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and is armed with a 30 mm (1.18 in) M230 Chain Gun. Since its conception in 1984, the U.S. Army Apache fleet has 3.9M+ flight hours.

7. Military Search and Rescue Helicopters

Helicopters have been used in search and rescue operations for many decades. They are the perfect aircraft for this type of application because they can fly low and at slow speeds, which allows for inspection of the terrain below in greater detail.

Another aspect of helicopters that makes them ideal for search and rescue is that once the person has been found, the helicopter can, in most cases, pick up the person immediately without having to call in another vehicle to the location to affect the rescue.

Helicopters that are ideal for search and rescue efforts are ones that have long-range capability, sufficient capacity to pick up multiple people, fitment of a winch to extract injured people, and also the fitment of sophisticated electronics for rescues such as infra-red and night vision capability.

A popular helicopter for this type of application is the Sikorsky S-92 which has all these capabilities or the capacity to retrofit the equipment. It also has a good range and large capacity inside for rescue personnel and for multiple rescue victims.

The MH-65 recently underwent significant upgrades including addressing obsolete components and upgrading the communications package through a conversion-sustainment initiative. Notably, since 2007, the Coast Guard’s Dolphin fleet received engine upgrades adding 40-percent more airborne use of force and power capabilities.