Patrick McCourt of Huntington, New York writes: “On fixed-wing aircraft, the pilot in command sits in the left seat, but on helicopters, the PIC seems to sit in the right seat. Is this always the case, and if so, why?”
For the answer, we turned to Roger Connor, curator of vertical flight in the aeronautics division of National Air and Space Museum. “The pilot in command often does sit on the right on a helicopter, but by no means is it all of the time,” Connor writes in an email.
“The reason is mostly historical, though there can be some operational advantage. Since most helicopters are more inherently unstable than most airplanes, a helicopter pilot rarely likes to let go of the cyclic stick with his or her right hand, even with trim, and particularly in hover operations where near-continuous control inputs are required. [The cyclic controls the helicopter’s attitude and direction of movement, almost like a combined elevator and aileron for an airplane.]
“In steady flight, the left hand that normally moves the collective lever [which changes all the blades’ pitch angles simultaneously] is sometimes free to push buttons or twiddle instrument knobs that are usually on a center console in a cabin with a side-by-side crew arrangement. Rotor brakes and clutches are also usually centrally located for the same reason.”
The cyclic is usually positioned between the pilot’s knees, so it can’t be shared. A left-handed pilot in the right side seat, presumably, would have to get used to using the right hand for it in much the same way that a lefty copes with a stick shift in a manual-drive car. Most helicopters with side-by-side seating have always had two cyclics.
Connor goes on to explain that when Igor Sikorsky built the world’s first mass-produced helicopter, the R-4 (“and no, Flettner Fl 282 prototypes were not in mass production beforehand,” he adds), weight was a serious issue. “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.
“Thus, the first generation of U.S. Army Air Forces, Coast Guard, and Navy pilots, along with those from Britain and its Commonwealth who learned on the R-4, and its follow-on, the R-6 (also with a single collective), flew exclusively from the right.”
That all changed in 1946 with the arrival of Bell’s Model 47, the first civilian-certified helicopter, which featured dual collectives. From then on, dual collectives became standard for side-by-side seating, and a helicopter pilot could fly from either the left or right seat.