Helicopter Seating Arrangement


This is one of those basic questions to which no one seems to know the definitive answer, and those who do have an answer usually say little more than an eloquent "just because." Being one who believes that every decision an engineer makes has a reason, I found a more than adequate answer in R. W. Proutyís booklet More Helicopter Aerodynamics. Some may argue that this view has a decidedly American bias, but given the history of helicopters and the importance of Igor Sikorskyís contributions, it is understandable that the reasons can be traced to the United States.

The origins of the pilotís position are a bit vague, and everyone seems to have their own opinion on how it came to be, but there are a couple convincing explanations. You can judge for yourself which explanation you think is the most reasonable. Also, before I get into the details, I should admit that my helicopter history might not be 100% accurate. The dates I have listed are what I have found, but it seems like for every source I find, there is another source that lists a different date.

Les Morris was one of the first helicopter test pilots for Igor Sikorsky, and he had time in the first American helicopter, the VS-300. On the single seat VS-300, which made its debut on 8 December 1941, the collective control was fitted on the left side of the seat (for reasons unknown to me). The next year brought the introduction of the XR-4 helicopter, which was designed to the flown from the left seat (again for reasons Iím not sure of...it is possible that Mr. Sikorsky was trying to follow the convention of fixed wing aircraft). In these early helicopters, the collective controls were always mounted between the seats, unlike modern helicopters, which have collective controls on the left of each seat. Morris, being a good test pilot, retrained himself to fly from the left seat, with the collective in his right hand. In his own words, it took him "many hours before I mastered an inordinate desire to use the wrong control at the right time!" Once he had retrained himself, Morris began training other pilots in the XR-4. Morris, however, didn't want to give up the left seat and risk confusing the controls should a student pilot make a mistake that required a quick correction, so all the new pilots were trained in the right seat. From this point on, all new helicopter pilots learned to fly from the right seat, which is one possible explanation for their position in modern helicopters.

Some may find it hard to believe that this one man's seating preference was enough to influence the standards of the entire helicopter industry. A few years after Morris' early impact, after helicopters had been in use in the military for a few years, a poll was taken of many U.S. Navy, Marine, and Army helicopter pilots. This poll revealed that the majority of military helicopter pilots preferred to fly from the right seat, for several reasons, including manipulation of the other controls, the placement of the rescue hoist on the right side of the helicopter, and the aircraft carrier environment. Some of these reasons are a bit sketchy, and some may be a "chicken and the egg" type of issue. It is very possible that the rescue hoist was placed on the right side because of the location of the pilot's seat, not the other way around. Of course, there are plenty of helicopter history "experts" that would tell you that the pilot sits on the right side "just because."

Personally, I tend to think that the early test pilots using the left seat to train the new guys played a major role in the location of the pilotís seat, and that it sounds most reasonable that the rescue hoist was placed as a result of this decision. Unfortunately, that is only my personal opinion, and shouldn't be taken by anyone to be any more truthful than someone elseís "just because" explanation!
- answer by Doug Jackson, 7 April 2002


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