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Why a helicopter crash is deadlier than a plane crash

Helicopter crashes tend to be deadlier than plane crashes because they are harder to safely land in emergency situations, multiple aviation experts told Newsweek.

Nine soldiers were reported killed after two Army Black Hawk helicopters—one containing four service members and the other containing five—crashed while conducting a nighttime training exercise in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home to the 101st Airborne Division and one of the largest U.S. military bases.

Brigadier General John Lubas, the 101st Airborne deputy commander, said during a press conference Thursday that the crashes occurred when “they were doing flying, not deliberate medical evacuation drills,” according to the Associated Press.

Which Is More Dangerous: Helicopter Crash or Plane Crash?

“First, it’s very difficult for the helicopter to crash land,” retired Air Force pilot Colonel Lee Ellis told Newsweek via email. “In plane scenarios, an airplane with wings can glide several miles with an opportunity to crash land more safely.

Pictures is an American Army Black Hawk helicopter taking off. Two Black Hawk helicopters crashed at a military base in Kentucky overnight today, causing nine service member deaths.

“Secondly, it’s also important to know that military helicopters generally have riskier missions flying closer to the ground. It’s always tragic to hear of the loss of our warriors.”

What’s The Difference?

Josh Verde, an aviation expert with over 25 years experience of flying planes, told Newsweek via phone that “the physics is really all the same” between helicopters and airplanes.

Helicopters work in the same way as fixed-wing airplanes, but their “wings” are rotors, he said. The cross-section of rotor blades has a similar shape to airplane wings.

“The primary difference is that there’s a lot more complex or complicated motion with helicopters as there are a lot of forces at work,” said Verde, who started the aviation consulting group Aerovise.

The torque of rotors is most powerful, he said, as they spin at very high speeds, and that creates a tendency for the fuselage of the helicopter to rotate in the opposite direction. Designers of helicopters countered that with tail rotors, which Verde said all “but a few rare exceptions” of helicopters have aligned vertically to counteract the rotational force.

Black Hawk helicopter Closeup
A Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk kicks up dust as it lands.

“It’s really, really, really important and if it stops working for whatever reason, then the helicopter can go out of control and crash,” he said. “The continued functioning of the tail rotor is very important.”

While helicopters can glide, he said it’s not like that of an airplane and “a little more severe”—comparing one in freefall to whirlybirds that fall off certain trees and mimic helicopters.

He said helicopter mishaps are slightly more common than fixed-wing mishaps for three primary reasons: one, each aircraft has complicated physical forces which means more can go wrong, such as equipment failure; two, a helicopter is more complicated and more demanding on the pilot and requires more skill and constant application of control inputs versus a plane “which is just easier to fly”; and three, helicopters operate at lower altitudes and that means there are more hazards and obstacles to be wary of avoiding.

Verde is hesitant to say one is deadlier than another, due to helicopters typically having few occupants compared to planes.

“Piloting a helicopter that is suffering from mechanical issues and landing safely is arguably more challenging than a fixed-wing airplane,” he said. “It’s riskier and there’s a greater chance of damage to the helicopter and fatalities because it’s harder to bring down.

“A lot more can go wrong.”

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