How do helicopters approach and land at an airport? Do they use the same general traffic pattern as fixed-wing aircraft?
The FAA AIM, in 4-3-17 and the Air Traffic Controller Handbook, Section 11, explains VFR helicopter operations at controlled airports. The procedure will depend on the airport and the current traffic.
Insofar as possible, helicopter operations will be instructed to avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft to minimize overall delays; however, there will be many situations where faster/larger helicopters may be integrated with fixed-wing aircraft for the benefit of all concerned.
Helicopters may operate from a designated helicopter landing area. The tower is responsible for separating them from other traffic. The helicopter can fly a much closer pattern than other aircraft, and may stay on the other side of the runway from the typical pattern. They may also operate straight in/out of the landing area, depending on wind and traffic.
They may also be cleared to take off or land in a "nonmovement" area that is not specifically designated for that activity, which could be a ramp at the airport or a location off-airport. This will be up to the tower to provide clearance and the pilot to execute safely.
Helicopters can also operate similarly to fixed-wing aircraft, taking off and landing using a runway, and following taxiways. Wheeled helicopters taxi on the ground. Otherwise, helicopters may either hover taxi, where they fly in ground effect at low speed, or air taxi, where they will fly out of ground effect up to 100 ft AGL and up to 60 kts, as directly as possible to the next point on the field, avoiding obstacles as needed.
Like ratchet freak says, they will generally come in horizontally while descending, flying into the wind, and then come into hover, where they will then be instructed by the tower to taxi to wherever they are going on the field.
Some airports, like in this photo of "spot Charlie" on Taxiway Zulu at Hayward Aiport, may have marked spots on the taxiways or non-movement areas for helicopter operations. In this case, students practicing landings and autorotations will be instructed: "Clear to land, Spot Charlie" to keep them off of the main runway 28L, while in left traffic on the opposite side of the runway of the smaller 28R.
As with any aircraft, the final authority for safety is the pilot, and they must be aware of their limitations and the conditions around them.
At non-towered airports, the procedures can be similar. The pilot should take the wind direction and traffic into account, and announce their intentions on the appropriate frequency.
They won't come in at altitude and then descend vertically until touch down.
The major reason is that rapid vertical descent has the danger that the rotor could end up in its own downwash and lose most of its lift. You don't want that.
So what they will do is come in horizontally while descending until over the landing site only a few dozen feet from the ground.
Airports generally have specific landing pads for VTOL capable aircraft (like helicopters), so they will direct them there instead of the runway.
Depends on the airport. When I fly to KBUR I was almost always asked to fly standard patterns and land on runways before taxiing out.
Some other airports wants you to go directly on pads, and sometimes has a published procedure to land there like KLGB
Sometimes they ask you to land on a taxiway, and then say "taxi parking," which means you can do whatever you want from there.
Only adding this answer as my experience is a little different. this is based on my Canadian experience.
At Controlled airfields, as a pilot you can request anything you want, as long as it complies with things like noise abatement etc, the limiting factor is ATC and how much they trust you to not land on trucks, or wander in front of the landing 737. at the airfield I trained, with lots of helicopters, [15+ trainers plus 4-5 other company's] there are published helicopter approaches and a dedicate circuit, the tower knew what we could do, and would approve almost anything you wanted, many of the other towers were less familiar and if there was traffic would sometimes make you join the pattern, but if you asked nicely sometimes they would let you cut in line if you stayed away from the active.
Uncontrolled airfields, it is a judgment call depending on if theirs other traffic and where you need to land. generally I would fly a much tighter circuit than the fixed wing guys, as my cruse and there landing speeds are close.