How Things Work: Ground Resonance

When is a helicopter like a Patsy Cline song? When it falls to pieces.

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In December 2005, an Aerospatiale Alouette III landing at Escalante National Monument in Utah suffered ground resonance that tore the helicopter apart in four seconds. All aboard survived. ALICIA TANRATH/ZION NATIONAL PARK

“I was standing right next to it,” says Frank Robinson, founder of the world’s leading helicopter company, describing a close call he had during a 1961 test of a gyroplane. “I had to grab hold of it and hang on and ride the damn thing down. You don’t want to be standing out there when it starts to jump around — it can jump on you. And there’s not a good way to get out of it. Just cut everything, hang on and hope.”

What Robinson wrestled with is ground resonance, a demon that has demolished helicopters and killed pilots, passengers, and bystanders. The National Transportation Safety Board records 34 incidents in the United States since 1990, but that does not include military helicopters or incidents that did not injure people or destroy the helicopter.

Not all types of helicopters are susceptible to ground resonance. All those two-blade Robinsons are exempt because their “teetering” rotors are a single rigid structure, like a see-saw. The only rotors that can produce ground resonance are those with three or more blades. Multi-blade rotors have lead-lag hinges, which allow blades to speed up and slow down at different points as they circle the mast while the helicopter is moving forward. The hinges keep the fluctuating lift and drag forces on each blade from inflicting excessive stresses on the rotor hub. Snubbers and dampers limit the motions of the blades.

Because it is massive and spinning at a high speed, the rotor of a helicopter must be properly balanced. If the lead-lag hinges allow the blades to depart from perfect symmetry, the rotor’s center of gravity shifts slightly to one side of the mast, throwing the system out of balance.

Anything that’s springy has a favorite frequency of vibration—its natural frequency—which is determined in part by its size and mass. That’s why tuning forks always produce a certain tone, and why boats of different sizes rock at different rates. When two things with the same or similar natural frequencies are in contact, or sometimes even merely close to each another, and one of them begins to vibrate, it may “excite” the other to vibrate as well. The ability of one vibrating object to create this sympathetic vibration in another is what enables the rotor blades to gain control of the entire helicopter.

The helicopter’s airframe has its own natural frequency, which can be excited by an out-of-balance rotor. Usually there is a triggering event: a bump or a landing or takeoff on sloping ground or with a little sideways or forward motion. A jolt moves the mast while the blades, because of the freedom of motion allowed by their hinges, lag a little behind. The rotor, now slightly out of balance, begins to wobble like a slowing top. If the characteristic vibration frequency of the airframe is close enough to the rate of rotation of the rotor, it joins the dance, amplifying the rotor wobble.

The destruction is wrought by the considerable energy stored in the rotor blades. The shaking rapidly grows in violence, exceeding the strength of the mast, transmission mounts, and landing gear. The cyclic control in the cockpit flails about so violently that the pilot cannot hold it, the rotor blades strike the tail boom or the cockpit, parts begin falling off, and moments later the helicopter may be a heap of scrap.

If ground resonance begins, the pilot’s best option is to get the helicopter into the air. Once the tires or skids are no longer touching the ground, the vibration fades. If the rotors do not have sufficient speed for flight—or if, as in Robinson’s case, the aircraft is a gyroplane and can not hold itself aloft—the next best remedy is to eliminate lift by reducing blade pitch; shut down the engine; and hope for the best while waiting for the rotor to slow.

The wait-and-hope approach is only sometimes successful, so a better solution to ground resonance is to prevent it. Helicopters with multiple-blade rotors have shock-absorbing landing gear with powerful dampers that allow it to soak up the energy that would otherwise set the helicopter shaking. When ground resonance occurs in these craft, it is usually because tires or shock absorbers have been improperly serviced.