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So far as I am aware, in a fixed wing aircraft having side-by-side seating and dual controls but only a single set of instruments, those instruments are always positioned in front of the left seat. Even when an aircraft (such as commercial air transport) is fitted with dual instruments, the left seat is designated as the "pilot-in-command" or "captain's" position. This "left-seat as principal" designation appears to hold true for any fixed wing aircraft from a Cessna 152 to a Boeing 747, in all jurisdictions of manufacture and operation.

For a helicopter, the situation appears to be reversed - the "pilot in command" appears to always occupy the right seat.

Is this true, always, or is it an observational bias? Is this simply convention or is it specified by regulation? What would account for exceptions, if any?

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    $\begingroup$ There are exceptions. The EC 130 has three seats in front: the PIC occupies the left seat and the copilot (if there is one) the middle seat. I don't know the reason for this arrangement. Also, the Ka-26 (an possibly other russian helicopters) has the PIC position on the left seat. As a helicopter pilot flying from the right seat makes sense, because I can keep my right hand on the cyclic all the time and I operate any other equipment with my left hand. $\endgroup$ – Emil Aug 18 '14 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting that this just caught my eye. I just finished watching A Chopper is Born about kit-building a RotorWay Exec 162F. Every shot of that helicopter, from the demo flights at the factory to the test pilot giving the finished kit it's initial shakedown flight, shows the PIC on the left. $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 23 '15 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Emil When you mentioned the EC-130, were you referring to the C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft? If so, the third seat is the flight engineer's position, and the copilot sits in the right seat. In the Air Force, the flight engineer is not a pilot, and that position's job is to monitor engine functions. $\endgroup$ – Howard Miller Oct 23 '15 at 23:32
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    $\begingroup$ @HowardMiller No, I meant the Eurocopter EC130 (which now it's called Airbus Helicopters H 130) $\endgroup$ – Emil Oct 25 '15 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Emil Thanks for clearing that up for me. $\endgroup$ – Howard Miller Oct 25 '15 at 6:30
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The reason is both historical and operational.

The first mass produced helicopter was the Sikorsky R-4. It had a single collective located between the two pilot seats, so by necessity, the person on the right would control the cyclic with their right hand, and the person on the left would control the cyclic with their left (because their right is needed on the collective). The cyclic in the R-4 was very difficult to manipulate and required a lot of strength and coordination. Since the vast majority of student helicopter pilots were right handed, they sat in the right seat, allowing them to use their dominant hand on the cyclic. Thus, the first generation of helicopter pilots all sat in the right seat, since they all learned on the R-4 (or the R-6). That's how traditions begin.

The operational applications of sitting in the right seat relate to the inherent instability of a helicopter. A helicopter pilot rarely wants to let go of the cyclic, as it often requires continuous control inputs, especially when hovering. The collective, on the other hand, does not need to be monitored as closely and can be held steady with a friction adjustment, so that hand is occasionally free to manipulate things like radios and other equipment, which are located in the center of the cockpit.

Most helicopters these days have a collective for each seat, located on the left, so the pilot wants to use the hand in the middle of the cockpit to work the radios and things. Hence, they sit on the right side, which places the collective hand in the middle of the cockpit.

You can read a longer article about this: Why do helicopter pilots sit in the right seat?

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  • $\begingroup$ The person on the right would control cyclic (in the middle) with their right? I seem to be missing something. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Aug 17 '14 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Jan Hudec: The left hand controlled the collective. The collective is always (as far as I know) between the seats. $\endgroup$ – Skip Miller Aug 17 '14 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ @SkipMiller: So it's really the same as aircraft that have power in the middle and the outer hand always holds the flight controls. Except controlling aircraft is easier, so noone appears to mind controlling it with left hand (including monsters like A380 which has single-handed controls on the outer, so captain's left, hand). $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Aug 17 '14 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ Editing my comment above is timed out, so: Comment Continues...or to the left of the seat in aircraft with more than one collective control. Thanks to Ralgha. I have not seen a dual collective helicopter. $\endgroup$ – Skip Miller Aug 17 '14 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec the important point you're missing is that the fly by wire joystick on an airbus is electronic and requires no force (not, particularly, precision), whereas the collective on the early helicopters needed a fair bit of strength, plus constant attention and accuracy. The Airbus requires little more effort to fly with the left hand than the right, especially after a little practice (similar to how I'm typing this response with both hands). $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 6 '15 at 12:07
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The thrust from the tail rotor on a counter-clockwise spinning helicopter tends to create a translational shift to the right which is countered by rigging the cyclic neutral position to be slightly left of centre. This results in the left skid "hanging low". So as not to make this skid even lower, it is a practical reason to sit a solo occupant on the right. Even when solo, the left skid still hangs visibly lower. Some light helicopters are prohibited from solo flight in the left seat (e.g. R22) as it would be possible to run out of cyclic authority in some circumstances.

Here is the lateral CG chart for the R-22. As you can see, the right side of the helicopter has a greater lateral CG envelope than the left, which is why the solo pilot always sits on the right.

enter image description here

The opposite is true for clockwise spinning main rotors.

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    $\begingroup$ French helicopters have clockwise spinning main rotors and most of them still have the PIC on the right seat. $\endgroup$ – Emil Aug 18 '14 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Emil Why the PIC would still sight on the right, I do not know (can you provide an example?) but the skid low tendency would be on the right. $\endgroup$ – Simon Aug 18 '14 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ All French-built Eurocopters, except the 130 have the PIC on the right side (including older Aerospatiale Dauphin). Indeed, the skid low tendency is on the right, so I suppose there are more important reasons to keep the PIC on the right side than adjusting the CG position. $\endgroup$ – Emil Aug 18 '14 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon this is a very good answer. many FWers don't realize that helis have a lateral CG. the R22, being so light, is particularly sensitive to lateral CG, as you rightly described, and indeed has a minimum solo pilot weight as well. robinsonheli.com/manuals/r22_poh/r22_poh_2.pdf $\endgroup$ – rbp Jan 4 '15 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ (continuation...) its not clear, however, if this is cause or effect, in the sense that rotors go CCW historically and the radios are in the middle, so the CG envelope was designed for a right-seat solo pilot. $\endgroup$ – rbp Jan 4 '15 at 19:10
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Another reason helicopter pilots sit on the right is because the cyclic is held in the right hand, and the collective in the left.

Its safer for the pilot to take his left hand off the collective to operate the radios.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ Is that a single, common cyclic in the center, instead of separate sticks joined at foot level? $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Oct 23 '15 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ its not any different than any other mechanical heli, except this one is an "outie" (visible) versusu an "innie" (invisible, under the floor boards): incolor.inetnebr.com/iceman/data/fltcls2.jpg $\endgroup$ – rbp Oct 23 '15 at 15:40
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In the early years when helicopters were under powered and their rotor systems were simple and basic it made sense for the pilot to sit on the right because the advancing blade, on the right create more lift then the retreating blade on the left since the forward speed of the chopper is added to the rotational speed of the blade. This caused asymmetrical lift and it was partially compensated for by having the pilot sit on that side of the helicopter. When flying The H 13 in Korea with both seats occupied we always placed the litter on the right skids for that reason. Ren

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to aviation.SE! $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Aug 8 '17 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ Asymmetrical lift would roll the helicopter over, the left skid low flight would be caused by the tail rotor being lower that the main rotor. But that's a minor detail, welcome to the site. $\endgroup$ – Koyovis Aug 8 '17 at 14:13
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Short answer:

In a helicopter, because the right hand is stronger and more accurate for many people, and the cyclic control is the most demanding, the right hand is permanently dedicated to the cyclic control. Other actions have to be conducted with the left hand.

If there are many switches and controls to be reached by the pilot with his/her left hand, the most logical place to seat is on the right seat.

Bonus: If we want to remove one collective lever in a dual control rotorcraft, we must keep the right one, and then this looks like this when piloting from the left seat:

Operating a helicopter with hands reversed (Sikorsky XR-4, 1942)
Operating a Sikorsky XR-4 with hands reversed - 1942. Source

Not something your want when you're a student. So in 1942 the student will use the right seat, and takes the habit to seat on this side.


Single control

The stick (the cyclic pitch control) is used with the right hand, the most agile one for a right-handed pilot. This control is of prime importance as a helicopter is inherently unstable requiring a constant adjustment of its attitude by the pilot using the cyclic.

The vertical speed is adjusted with the collective pitch control and the left hand. This hand also operates all other controls required during the flight, as the collective doesn't require a permanent adjustment.

For helicopters of the WW2 era which can be flown from one seat only, this seat was on the left. Typical arrangement:

enter image description here
Bell H-13 Sioux (Bell 47) operations during Korean War, ca 1952. Sources: Left, right

The pilot seat is on the left side, like on any aircraft. Helicopters of that era had cockpits not as complex as today.

Dual control

With a dual control helicopter, two seats are fitted with the same controls which are mechanically linked. The pilot can use any seat depending on their preference.

As helicopters were getting more complex, the number of controls and switches also increased and they couldn't be all located at a convenient place to be reached by the left hand from the left seat. Obviously from the right seat the left hand would reach more remote elements and more easily. A rationalization was necessary.

Part of it was to not duplicate all buttons, switches and controls to simplify the panels and to save weight. The non duplicated elements were moved between the two pilots, either on the vertical panel, or between the seats (on some models the middle third seat was removed too).

Collective on Sikorsky H-19

Sikorsky H-19 (Youtube)

Sikorsky R-4 trainer

If this wasn't enough to select the right seat and leave the left one to the fixed wing aircraft, there was a huge engine problem with the Sikorsky R-4 (the first civil mass-manufactured helicopter):

The R-4 was intended as a trainer, but was so underpowered that Sikorsky was looking for any potential savings, so Igor and his engineers decided to let the instructor and student share a single collective. The only place to put it then was in the middle between the two seats. Given the coordination and strength required to manipulate an R-4 cyclic for any length of time, the student always flew from the right

Source

Sikorsky HNS-1 CG (YR-4B):

Sikorsky HNS-1 CG (YR-4B)
Source

Even if other helicopters after the R-4, and still today have two collective controls, the habit of flying the first trainer from the right seat was sufficient to question returning to the left seat, the right seat allowing more freedom to the left hand.

And there is no need to fight with swords in our era :-)


Your question mentions PIC place. Pilot In Command is not synonymous to pilot flying (PF). PIC means the pilot legally responsible on board. PF means the person who flies the aircraft, pilots may alternate this latter role during the flight. The answer pertains to PF.

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  • $\begingroup$ This cavalry theory might explain why airplanes were 'mounted' from the left side (although to me the naval legacy is more plausible here), but hardly the seat arrangement. Nearly all airplanes of that era (that had more than one seat) had tandem seating rather than side-by-side. $\endgroup$ – Zeus Nov 25 '18 at 23:54

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