When it comes to air transport or any transportation, safety comes first. Air transport safety is more scrutinized than any others before the operation. Maybe it’s because we are terrestrial and aviation is something unusual for us.

Which one is safer, a helicopter or an airplane?

autorotation
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The major air transport is of two kinds – helicopter and airplane. Both of them are different in terms of both the principle of flying and shapes. So one must be much safer than the other. Let us dig deep and find out.

Believed to be inspired by the way birds fly, helicopters and airplanes, both have only one thing in common and that is both of them fly. From a safety point of view, as they are compared to other means of transportation, they are much safer. They are operated by well-trained pilots and their condition is checked each time before the flight. Apart from this, they are engineered with maximum safety.

The comparison between the safety of helicopters and airplanes depends upon the condition that we apply. In some conditions, a helicopter seems safer, while an airplane seems safer in others.

Are Helicopters safer than Airplanes?

A helicopter is different from an airplane and uses a rotor that spins at high speed for providing lift in order to fly. It has less area and it does not need a lot of space to land as compared to an airplane. Due to its versatility, it is used in emergency situations like medical evacuations in extreme conditions such as fire, high altitude, and weather extremities.

If we are to evaluate safety, we must observe the worst-case scenario, which is high-altitude engine failure. As soon as the helicopter has an engine failure, a pilot follows the autorotation procedure. The rotor spins and drives the air upward while falling and the speed of the rotor depends on the aerodynamic forces due to the wind speed. This technique works well even at a higher altitude and every helicopter has to pass this test before obtaining certification.

Autorotation can be a better technique since it requires relatively less area to land in harsh circumstances. A pilot may not always get a large area to land during an engine failure and that is when autorotation works best.

Safe landing from the highest altitude autorotation was practiced during an engine failure from a height of 12,440 meters by Jean Boulet while setting a world record for flying a helicopter to the highest altitude in 1972. This also proves that autorotation works well.

Are airplanes safer than helicopters?

Airplanes are large as compared to a helicopter and they need a large runway to land as well as to take off. But, their large surface area with wide wings can be advantageous. The large surface area helps them to glide during engine failure. The gliding action won’t let the airplane fall vertically so that it can be maneuvered to safely land on open ground.

In 2009 captain Sully landed on the Hudson river by gliding Airbus A320 without casualties. Since airplanes fly relatively higher, the airplane can be glided to a long distance for a safe landing.

What do statistics say?

Statistics show that helicopter accidents are more in comparison to airplane accidents. That means statistically, airplanes are safer than helicopters.

Author’s conclusion: A helicopter is safer than an airplane

Airplanes have lesser accidents than helicopters, maybe it’s just because helicopters are used for med-evacs, rescues, etc. and they have to go to extremes. If helicopters would fly like airplanes, from one to the other airports, it would certainly be much safer.

The helicopter can land anywhere in a small area but an airplane crashes if the engine failure happens on terrains where there is not much plain for an airplane to land even by gliding.

One might argue that it takes a hefty skill for autorotation than simply gliding an airplane but it is a routine demonstration that every pilot needs to perform. So, a pilot is skillful enough to land using autorotation.

The small size and ability to take off and land on a small size makes a helicopter safer than an airplane. Also during engine failure, it can be landed safely using a commonly practiced autorotation procedure, unlike an airplane that has to glide over a large distance.

Ashwin Khadka is a PhD Scholar in Solar Cell and Aerosol Laboratory in Korea University, Republic of Korea under Korean Government Scholarship Program. He has a Masters Degree in Physics from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal. He is a science enthusiast, researcher and writer.