How Helicopters Work

By: Tom Harris & Talon Homer  | 

Flying a Helicopter: Taking Off

A Z-8 helicopter takes off above the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics venues during a rehearsal of patrol and rescue missions. Yue Shuhua/VCG/Getty Images

The ability of helicopters to move laterally in any direction or rotate 360 degrees makes them exciting to fly, but piloting one of these machines requires great skill and dexterity. To control a helicopter, the pilot grips the cyclic in one hand, the collective in the other. At the same time, his feet must operate the foot pedals that control the tail rotor, which allows the helicopter to rotate in either direction on its horizontal axis. It takes both hands and both feet to fly a helicopter!

During takeoff, the pilot works the collective and the foot pedals simultaneously. Before we discuss how to take off, you should know that the collective typically looks like a handbrake whose grip functions as the throttle. Twisting the grip controls the power output of the engine, increasing or decreasing the speed of the main rotor. With that in mind, we're ready to begin a typical helicopter takeoff:


  1. First, the pilot opens the throttle completely to increase the speed of the rotor.
  2. Next, he or she pulls up slowly on the collective. The collective control raises the entire swash plate assembly as a unit. This has the effect of changing the pitch of all rotor blades by the same amount simultaneously.
  3. As the pilot increases collective pitch, he or she depresses the left foot pedal to counteract the torque produced by the main rotor.
  4. The pilot keeps pulling up slowly on the collective while depressing the left foot pedal.
  5. When the amount of lift being produced by the rotor exceeds the weight of the helicopter, the aircraft will get light on its skids and slowly leave the ground.

At this point, the pilot feels the cyclic become sensitive. He or she grips the cyclic and, in most cases, nudges the helicopter forward. Directional flight is the topic of the next section.