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helicopter attempts to lift

off. As the rotor spins, the

helicopter mounted on the

platform tends to vibrate

and slide off the pan of the

balance. The simple expe-

dient of taping the platform

to the pan of the balance

eliminates the problem.

The lift produced by the

helicopter reduces the

mass recorded by the elec-

tronic balance. Increasing

amounts of power produce

increasing lift. The mass

lifted by the helicopter is

the difference between the

mass reading of helicopter plus platform with no power ap-

plied and the mass reading when the rotor is spinning. The

frequency f of the rotor blade can be determined with a stro-

boscope. A number of measurements of the mass lifted were

made at different frequencies. Table I shows the results and

Fig. 1 represents a graph of the rotational frequency squared

versus the mass lifted by the helicopter. There is a linear rela-

tionship between the mass lifted and the square of the rota-

tional frequency of the rotor.

The toy helicopter used in the experiment has two rotor

blades, a smaller stabilizer mounted above a larger rotor. Any

contribution of the stabilizer blade to the lift was ignored. The

Investigating Flight with a Toy

Helicopter

Michael Liebl, Mount Benedictine High School, Elkhorn, NE

F

light fascinates people of all ages. Recent advances

in battery technology have extended the capabili-

ties of model airplanes and toy helicopters. For those

who have never outgrown a childhood enthusiasm for the

wonders of flight, it is possible to buy inexpensive, remotely

controlled planes and helicopters. A toy helicopter offers an

opportunity to investigate and study some basics of flight.

1

An airplane is able to fly because of its wings.

2-4

A helicop-

ter flies by using a spinning rotor blade.

5

Those familiar with

the law of conservation of angular momentum immediately

recognize one of the problems a successful helicopter has to

overcome. Since the rotor is spinning in one direction, once

the helicopter lifts off, the body of the helicopter will spin in

the opposite direction so that the total angular momentum

remains zero. This is not an ideal situation for either the pilot

or the passengers in a helicopter. A small rotor mounted on

the tail of the helicopter with rotor plane perpendicular to

the ground provides a torque to counter the tendency of the

helicopter body to rotate. Large helicopters with two rotors

overcome the difficulty by the simple expedient of having the

rotors spin in opposite directions.

The rotor blade of a helicopter forces air downward. New-

tons third law requires that the air in turn exert an equal force

upward on the rotor. For a helicopter to hover, the force ex-

erted by the rotor blade on the air must be equal to the weight

of the helicopter. With a few simple assumptions and basic

laws of physics, we can find a reasonable expression for the

rotational frequency of the rotor blade given the weight of the

helicopter.

6

The appendix shows a derivation of the relation

between the rotational frequency of the rotor blade and the

helicopter weight:

f

2

= mg/(8

3

2

R

4

). (1)

In the equation, m is the mass of the helicopter, g is the free-

fall acceleration, is the air density, is a parameter called

the rotor inflow ratio, and R is the radius of the rotor blade.

It is possible to make an experimental test of Eq. (1). Add-

ing mass to a toy helicopter without disturbing its center of

mass is not simple. It is also problematic to measure the ro-

tational frequency of the rotor blade while the helicopter is

in flight. It is easier to keep the helicopter grounded. A small

platform was constructed with a few pieces from an erector

set. The helicopter was fixed to the platform. The mass of the

helicopter mounted on the platform is more than the helicop-

ter is capable of lifting. The platform and helicopter are then

placed upon the pan of an electronic balance. As power is ap-

plied to the helicopter via its infrared-linked controller, the

Frequency squared vs lifted mass

F

r

e

q

u

e

n

c

y

s

q

u

a

r

e

d

(

H

z

2

)

9000

8000

7000

6000

7.0 8.0 9.0 10.0 11.0

Lifted mass (g)

Linear Fit For: Data Set: Frequency Squared

y = mx+b

m(Slope): 858

b(Y-Intercept): 3.00

Correlation: 0.999

Fig. 1. Graph of frequency squared vs lifted mass.

Lifted mass

(g)

Frequency

(Hz)

10.8 97

9.8 91

9.3 89

8.8 87

8.3 84

7.8 82

7.3 80

6.8 76

6.3 74

Table I. Apparent mass loss for dif-

ferent rotational frequencies of the

rotor blade of the helicopter.

THE PHYSICS TEACHER Vol. 48, OCTOBER 2010 459

The conservation of energy requires that the rate of work

done by the rotor Fv be equal to the rate of change of kinetic

energy in the fluid, 1/2(dm/dt)w

2

:

Fv = 1/2 (dm/dt)w

2

. (5)

Dividing Eq. (5) by Eq. (4) leads to the result that w = 2v.

Combining the information, the force that the helicopter

rotor exerts must be:

F = 2(dm/dt)v = 2Av

2

. (6)

The speed of the tip of a rotor blade is R, where is the an-

gular frequency of the rotor as it turns and R is the radius of

the rotor. In general, the relationship between the speed of

the air v through the plane of the rotor blade and the speed of

the tip of the rotor R is complicated. The rotor of a helicop-

ter has a blade twist. The blade is twisted in order to keep its

angle of attack as constant as possible as one moves out along

the rotor blade. The angle of attack is measured away from

the vector sum of v and R (see Fig. 3). The speed of the air v

drawn down past the rotor blade is relatively constant. But the

tangential velocity of the rotor blade R increases with radius.

Near the rotor hub, the airfoil of the rotor needs to be at a large

angle to the horizontal plane defined by the path of the rotor

because of the relative magnitudes of v and R. Far from the

hub near the rotor tip, the airfoil of the rotor needs to be at a

toy helicopter used for this experiment has a mass of 11 g. The

radius of the larger rotor blade is 6.5 cm. Take the density of

air to be 1.3 kg/m

3

and the free-fall acceleration g to be 9.8

m/s

2

. The graph in Fig. 1 of the frequency squared versus the

mass lifted yields a slope that, when combined with the other

known values, enables one to experimentally determine the

value of . The best fit to the data results in a value of =

0.044. Since is the ratio of inflow air speed to rotor tip speed,

it is possible to arrive at a speed for the air passing through

the plane of the rotor. At a frequency of 80 Hz, R is 32.7 m/s.

That gives an air speed through the rotor plane of 1.4 m/s,

which seems a reasonable result.

It is possible with practice to fly the helicopter so that it

hovers with little motion. A stroboscopic measurement of the

rotational frequency of the flying helicopter while hovering

resulted in a frequency of 84 Hz. This measurement indicates

that the helicopter produces more lift when it is not tied to

a platform. That is interesting because it is well known that

a hovering helicopter produces better lift near the ground.

Some factor in being tethered to the platform makes the toy

helicopter seem less capable of lifting than it actually is. With

the aid of Eq. (1), a mass of 11 g for the freely hovering heli-

copter and a frequency of 84 Hz for the rotor blade yields a

value of = 0.052.

In spite of ignoring many complicated effects in the flight

of a helicopter, it is interesting that a simple physics model can

predict the relationship between the rotor frequency and the

lifting capability of a toy helicopter.

Appendix

The rotor blades of a helicopter that is hovering with the

rotor plane horizontal will push air through the circular

plane swept out by the blades (see Fig. 2). Assume a smooth,

well-defined airstream flowing through the rotor disk area.

The mass flux through the disk is given by the expression:

dm/dt = Av. (2)

In the equation dm/dt is the rate at which a mass of air

passes through the rotor disk area, is the density of the air,

A is the area swept out by the rotor blade, and v is the speed

of the air moving down through the rotor disk area. The

force exerted by the rotor is equal to the time rate of change

of momentum:

F = dp/dt. (3)

Far above the helicopter, the air is at rest. Below the heli-

copter, assign the speed of the downstream airflow to be w.

Assume the air stream is incompressible and inviscid. Then

the force exerted by the rotor is:

F = (dm/dt)w. (4)

v

A

w

Fig. 2. Air stream for hovering helicopter.

a) near rotor hub b) near rotor tip

R R

v

v

v v

sum sum

sum of v and R.

460 THE PHYSICS TEACHER Vol. 48, OCTOBER 2010

of the battery is 50 mAh. The large rotor and the tail rotor are

controlled by an infrared-linked transmitter. This inexpensive

helicopter is available in large discount stores.

2. Chris Waltham, Scaling in model aircraft, Am. J. Phys. 65,

10821086 (Nov. 1997).

3. Chris Waltham, The flight of a balsa glider, Am. J. Phys. 67,

620623 (July 1999).

4. Holger Babinksy, How do wings work? Phys. Educ. 38(6),

497503 (Nov. 2003).

5. Yee-kong Ng, Se-yuen Mak, and Choi-man Chung, Demon-

stration of Newtons third law using a balloon helicopter, Phys.

Teach. 40, 181 (March 2002).

6. The development of the equations in the appendix follows the

outline of texts on helicopter aerodynamics. See for example

Wayne Johnson, Helicopter Theory (Princeton University Press,

Princeton, NJ, 1980); J. Seddon and Simon Newman, Basic He-

licopter Aerodynamics, 2nd ed. (Blackwell Science Inc, 2001); or

J. Gordon Leishman, Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics, 2nd

ed. (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005).

7. Thanks to the reviewer whose expertise provided many helpful

suggestions throughout the article.

Michael Liebl is a member of the Benedictine community of Mount

Michael Abbey, which is responsible for the operation of Mount Michael

Benedictine High School. Among other responsibilities, he has been a

physics teacher there since 1977.

Mount Michael Benedictine High School, 22520 Mount Michael Road,

Elkhorn, NE 68022; mliebl@mountmichael.org

smaller angle to the horizontal plane because the direction of

the vector sum of v and R has changed.

7

If we limit ourselves

to the situation in which a helicopter is hovering, one can now

define a parameter l called the rotor inflow ratio. By definition

l is the ratio of the speed of the air v through the rotor plane

to the speed of the rotor tip R:

l = v/R. (7)

Using this equation to replace v, we arrive at the expression:

F = 2Al

2

2

R

2

. (8)

Since is the angular frequency, = 2f, and since A = R

2

,

we can relate the force required to make a helicopter hover

to the frequency of the rotor blade:

mg = 8

3

2

R

4

f

2

. (9)

Note that the expression indicates that the weight lifted by

the helicopter is proportional to the square of the rotor blade

frequency.

References

1. The toy helicopter is an Air Hogs RC Apache Havoc. It is

powered by a 3.7-V lithium poly battery. The charge capacity

www.aapt.org

Join your colleagues today.

Learn how at www.aapt.org

American Association of

Physics Teachers

AAPT

Members

AAPT

Members

create new programs. demonstrate proven principles.

have fun with other physicists. win prizes.

research, test, prove, and

share knowledge.

American Association of

Physics Teachers

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