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Ground effect

The high power requirement needed to hover out of ground effect is reduced when operating in ground effect. Ground effect is a condition of improved performance encountered when operating near (within 1/2 rotor diameter) of the ground. It is due to the interference of the surface with the airflow pattern of the rotor system, and it is more pronounced the nearer the ground is approached. Increased blade efficiency while operating in ground effect is due to two separate and distinct phenomena.

First and most important is the reduction of the velocity of the induced airflow. Since the ground interrupts the airflow under the helicopter, the entire flow is altered. This reduces downward velocity of the induced flow. The result is less induced drag and a more vertical lift vector. The lift needed to sustain a hover can be produced with a reduced angle of attack and less power because of the more vertical lift vector:

The second phenomena is a reduction of the rotor tip vortex:

When operating in ground effect, the downward and outward airflow pattern tends to restrict vortex generation. This makes the outboard portion of the rotor blade more efficient and reduces overall system turbulence caused by ingestion and recirculation of the vortex swirls.

Rotor efficiency is increased by ground effect up to a height of about one rotor diameter for most helicopters. This figure illustrates the percent increase in rotor thrust experienced at various rotor heights:

At a rotor height of one-half rotor diameter, the thrust is increased about 7 percent. At rotor heights above one rotor diameter, the thrust increase is small and decreases to zero at a height of about 1 1/4 rotor diameters.

Maximum ground effect is accomplished when hovering over smooth paved surfaces. While hovering over tall grass, rough terrain, revetments, or water, ground effect may be seriously reduced. This phenomena is due to the partial breakdown and cancellation of ground effect and the return of large vortex patterns with increased downwash angles.

Two identical airfoils with equal blade pitch angles are compared in the following figure:

The top airfoil is out-of-ground-effect while the bottom airfoil is in-ground-effect. The airfoil that is in-ground-effect is more efficient because it operates at a larger angle of attack and produces a more vertical lift vector. Its increased efficiency results from a smaller downward induced wind velocity which increases angle of attack. The airfoil operating out-of-ground-effect is less efficient because of increased induced wind velocity which reduces angle of attack.

If a helicopter hovering out-of-ground-effect descends into a ground-effect hover, blade efficiency increases because of the more favorable induced flow. As efficiency of the rotor system increases, the pilot reduces blade pitch angle to remain in the ground-effect hover. Less power is required to maintain however in-ground-effect than for the out-of-ground-effect hover.

Paul Cantrell
paul at copters.com (replace " at " with "@" to email me - this avoids SPAMMERS I hope)

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