While doing an image search, I found many different shaped propellers and asked about them in this question.

In it, Peter Kampf answered my question with his usual thoroughness. However, as I looked at more images of various shaped blades, I saw images of the helicopters of my youth, Bells. The Bell Huey and the Cobra both have very long, very squared off primary blades. They don't have an aerodynamic looking shape and both the leading and trailing edges are straight.

Why would Bell have chosen this shape and not the shape more like a 'normal' plane propeller?

  • $\begingroup$ As wingtip evolves for fix-wing aircraft, helicopter's blade tips are less and less square-shaped. Nevertheless, they still are long and thin. $\endgroup$
    – Manu H
    Oct 7, 2014 at 9:15
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    $\begingroup$ To address your title question: because they are not propellers. They are rotating wings. See also the common terms "fixed wing" and "rotary wing" as applied to airplanes and helicopters respectively. Peter covers some of the details with his usual thoroughness. $\endgroup$ May 23, 2018 at 21:34

3 Answers 3


Helicopter blades need to be long and thin. The diameter of the rotor disc determines the efficiency of the rotor at low speeds and can be compared to the wing span in fixed-wing airplanes. The rotation creates strong centrifugal loads at the blade roots which grow with the square of the tip radius at a given rotation speed, so they cannot be tapered much. Adding chord to the middle of the blade would increase its area and add more friction drag, increasing the torque needed to keep the rotor spinning. If the helicopter is only designed for hover, the blade tips could be tapered, but the added complications of forward flight make a rectangular blade the better choice.

In forward flight, the speeds due to the blade's rotation and the flight speed add up, increasing local airspeed at the advancing blade and reducing it at the receding blade. Since the center of lift is trimmed to be at the rotor hub using the swash plate, the advancing blade has a smaller angle of attack and the receding blade a higher angle of attack. On the receding blade at high flight speed, the root will be in reverse flow since here the rotation speed will not be high enough to compensate for the flight speed. Dynamic pressure is around zero at the middle radius, and only the tip area sees sufficient dynamic pressure to create the lift which is demanded from the blade. Reducing this tip area would reduce the lift which can be produced there, so designers kept the blade chord constant.

Two effects limit the maximum forward speed: The remaining dynamic pressure at the blade tip of the receding blade, and the maximum Mach number at the advancing blade's tip. In order to increase this maximum Mach number, modern rotor tips are swept, but simple sweep will lead to torsion moments which will twist the blade. The pitching moment along the blade needs to be finely balanced so no torsion loads result. To achieve this, helicopter blade airfoils are either symmetric or reflex, and the tip is first swept forward and then backward, so the resulting lift acts exactly at the elastic axis of the blade. See the picture of such a blade tip below. The small trim tab you can see at the trailing edge is used for fine-tuning the pitching moment of the blade.

Eurocopter Blue Edge rotor blade

Eurocopter Blue Edge rotor blade (picture source)

I would not be surprised if an optimized rotor shape has non-rectangular blades, but my impression is that the gains of optimization are small, especially with the wide spread of operation conditions of all rotor blade sections. The rectangular blade is easy to manufacture and good enough for most cases. However, I have not designed a rotor myself and do not know enough about the details to be more specific.

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    $\begingroup$ I had seen those blades, that you show and didn't understand the why of it. Thank you for your understandable explanation. I'd accept this, but want to give it a day or three to see if anyone else will chime in. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 4, 2014 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ I've added another answer regarding the shape of heli blades below because it addresses an equally important factor in blade design: autorotation behavior. Both answers must be taken together to answer the OPs question. $\endgroup$
    – rbp
    Nov 22, 2014 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Interestingly, this tip shape can be seen on some modern high speed propellers, or 'unshrouded fans', where the tip speed is transonic. $\endgroup$ Jul 2, 2019 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @RobinBennett: Right, and for the same reasons. $\endgroup$ Jul 2, 2019 at 14:47

There is a second very important consideration for the shape & size of rotor blades: how they behave during an autorotation.

I can think of two factors relating to autorotation in blade design:

  1. the ability of the blades to be driven by airflow up through the blades (the "driven" region of the blade in photo 2), while at the same time generating lift (the "driving" region of the blade):

  2. The amount of inertia stored in the rotating blades which can be expended in the flare by pulling up on the collective to cushion the landing. Small rotors (or group of them, such as in a quadcopter), just don't have enough inertia to nearly eliminate vertical motion in the autorotation flare.

Chapter 11 of the FAA Helicopter Flying Handbook describes heli flight in autorotation.

driven by air flow up through the blades enter image description here


A helicopter blade must perform on a wider parameter than a propeller designed mostly for thrust.

The straight and or flat blade was found to be good enough for the all the situations that it will encounter and was easy and cheap to produce. Specialized blades can be found but these were matched for the needs such as high speed performance, more quiet blades etc.

One thing that can be said about these special blades is that it uses more exotic materials as normal aluminum honeycombs would not withstand forces produced by such design.


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