August 9, 2011 by Tim McAdams Flying a rotor system edgewise through the air creates a problem known as dissymmetry of lift. One side of the disc advances into the wind (headwind) while the other side is retreating (tailwind). For a fixed angle of attack, the lift on the advancing side is greater creating a lift imbalance that increases with airspeed. The rotor system equalizes lift by flapping.
How flapping works is by changing the angle of attack in response to the varying airspeeds the blade encounters as it moves around the rotor disc. When the advancing blade experiences a higher airspeed, the lift on that blade increases forcing it to move up. This upward movement changes the direction of the blade’s relative wind reducing its angle of attack. On the retreating side just the opposite happens. The reduced airspeed causes a decrease in lift causing the blade to move down, increasing its angle of attack. You can only increase an airfoil’s angle of attack so much before it stalls. As the helicopter continues to fly faster the retreating side must continue to increase its angle of attack to compensate. At some airspeed, the retreating blade begins to stall.
From the pilot’s perspective, when this happens an abnormal vibration will be felt, the nose can pitch up, and the helicopter can have a tendency to roll in the direction of the stalled side. The amount and severity of pitch and roll will vary depending on the rotor system design.
The tendency for the nose to pitch up is because the spinning rotor system acts like a gyroscope and therefore experiences gyroscopic precession (a physical property that states when an external force is applied to a rotating body the effect will happen approximately 90 degrees later in the direction of rotation). As such, when the retreating blade stalls and stops producing lift, the effect of this happens toward the rear of the rotor disc. This causes the disc to tilt back, and the nose to pitch up. The pilot should lower the collective pitch first and then reduce forward airspeed to recover.
Conditions like high density altitude, steep or abrupt turns, high blade loading (caused by high gross weight), turbulent air and low rotor rpm will increase the likelihood of encountering retreating blade stall when operating close to a helicopter’s Vne (never exceed speed).