Types of Helicopters

Types of Helicopters

The helicopter has come a long way since its humble origins as a child’s toy in China. As the years passed, the helicopter underwent numerous tweaks in its design, leading to different models emerging. Most of the time, these were born out of a need for greater specialization, including features like greater load capacity, easier maneuverability, and higher speeds. However, due to the level of customization involved, it can be challenging to classify all helicopters under a single banner.

How Helicopters are Classified

There are a few criteria to consider when categorizing helicopters. While the type of rotor is one of the main ways of identifying a helicopter, other factors are also important. 

By Purpose

Helicopters have several uses and are often customized in a certain way to suit a unique purpose. For instance, military helicopters utilized by armed forces will often have additional weaponry and sensory equipment, which civilian helicopters used for transportation and tourism will lack.

  1. Utility Helicopters: Used for general purposes, including transport, cargo lifting, and other similar applications.
  1. Attack Helicopters: Used in military operations, often equipped with additional weapon systems.
  1. Search and Rescue (SAR) Helicopters: Used to locate and rescue individuals in trouble, often possess specialized equipment like hoists and winches.
  1. Medical Evacuation (Medevac) Helicopters: Used to transport injured or critically ill patients, often configured with medical equipment and personnel.
  1. Transport Helicopters: Used for passenger transportation like VIPs, tourists, and corporate travel.
  1. Heavy-lift Helicopters: Used to lift heavy loads, often used in construction, logging, and related industries.
  1. Training Helicopters: Used to train pilots, often with simplified controls and systems.
  1. Scout Helicopters: Used for reconnaissance and surveillance missions, often with sensors.

By Size

  1. Light Helicopters: Small but nimble, with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of under 4,400 lbs.
  1.  Medium Helicopters: Intermediate, with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) between 4,400 lbs and 17,600 lbs.
  1.  Heavy Helicopters: Large and durable, with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of over 17,600 lbs.

By Rotors

Types of Helicopters

Helicopters take flight with the help of rotors. These generally consist of a main rotor that helps generate lift and an anti-torque control that opposes the aerodynamic drag of the main rotor.

Type of HelicopterHow Does it WorkPurposeSizeRangeSpeedExamples
Single RotorUses a single main rotor for lift and a tail rotor to remain stableHas been utilized for all purposesLight, medium, and heavy250-700 miles100-180 mphBell UH-1 Huey, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk
Tandem RotorFeatures two main rotors mounted behind each other, providing enhanced lift capabilityUtility and heavy-liftingMedium and heavy200-400 miles120-170 mphBoeing CH-47 Chinook, Boeing Vertol 107-II
TiltrotorCan vertically take off and land like a helicopter but rotate its rotors to fly like an airplane for higher speed and efficiencyUtility, attack, SAR, medevac, and transportMedium and heavy400-800 miles250-350 mphBell Boeing V-22 Osprey, Focke-Achgelis Fa 269
Coaxial RotorUtilizes two rotors mounted on the same axis but spinning in opposite directions, eliminating the need for a tail rotorUtility and heavy-liftingMedium and heavy150-350 miles140-200 mphKamov Ka-50, Sikorsky X2 
Intermeshing RotorUses two main rotors that overlap but don’t touch, providing excellent lift and maneuverabilityUtility and heavy-liftingMedium250-450 miles100-150 mphKaman K-MAX, SNCAC NC.2001 Abeille

Certain helicopters, like the Sikorsky S-97 Raider, utilize additional propulsion systems and fixed wings. These helicopters, called compound helicopters, do not solely rely on the lift generated by the main rotor. As such, they can often reach speeds of up to 220 mph and cover ranges of around 600 miles.

By Motor

While most helicopters still use traditional combustion engines, newer ones are being developed to run on electric batteries. An electric helicopter has several noteworthy advantages over its older counterparts – reduced emissions, lower operation costs, and fewer mechanical components that could potentially fail. However, these helicopters remain mostly experimental and can only travel over short ranges, though models with larger ranges will most likely be developed.


1. Are there helicopters you can fly without a license?
The ultra-light Mosquito XEL can be flown without a pilot’s license. However, a certain amount of additional training is necessary before even an amateur can fly one.