By Jim Davis 2023-12-16 (Last Updated February 3, 2024)
As soon as helicopter technology became practical, militaries around the world sought to use it in various roles.
Today’s military helicopters are used for attack, search/rescue, cargo/transport, observation and/or training.
They’ve been used in virtually every international conflict since World War 2.
Their ability to takeoff and land without a runway makes them crucial for many military operations.
While ideas for helicopter-like machines date back hundreds of years, it wasn’t until the 1930s that they became practical.
In the late 1930s, public demonstrations of the
Focke Wulf Fw 61 revealed that these machines could hover and fly for a reasonable amount of time.
Militaries around the world quickly realized their potential.
The Fw 61 was quickly followed by the
Flettner Fl 282 which
the Luftwaffe hoped would provide submarine spotting and other reconnaissance and transport capabilities.
Many Fl 282s were being built late in the war, but the Munich plant was destroyed by allied bombing.
The FI 282s that entered service were mostly destroyed by Soviet fighters and anti-aircraft fire.
Meanwhile, in the US
Igor Sikorsky built and flew a multi engine helicopter in 1939.
It was called the
VS-300 and was soon followed by the more refined
XR-4—the first mass-produced helicopter.
The XR-4 was used by the US Army Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard.
In 1942, the UK commissioned the construction of hundreds of XR-4s for their Royal Air Force and Navy.
Despite its humble speed and range, the XR-4 proved useful in rescuing personnel from enemy territory.
In May of 1944 an American pilot logged the first helicopter combat mission by rescuing four downed airmen behind Japanese lines.
His squadron ended up completing 43 rescues by the end of the war.
The Korean War (1950-1953) was the first conflict in which helicopters played a substantial role.
H-13 Sioux and
Hiller H-23 Raven provided
medevac, transport (troops and equipment), reconnaisance and ground attack capabilities.
The Sioux reportedly transported about 18,000 of the 23,000 casualties to hospitals.
These helicopters proved useful despite having piston engines, which were far from ideal.
Helicopters became more useful when they were fitted with
These engines allow helicopters to carry more weight without as much power loss at high temperatures and altitudes.
The first such helicopter was the Bell UH-1 “Iroquois,” AKA the “Huey.”
The Huey was known as the workhorse of the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and may be the most iconic helicopter in history.
Over 16,000 Hueys were built from 1956 to 1987.
Hueys have seen action in a number of conflicts and been used for air assault, cargo transport,
aeromedical evacuation, search and rescue, electronic warfare, and ground attack missions.
The specialized attack helicopter was also introduced in the Vietnam War.
In the 1950s militaries began arming helicopters with weapons.
The US experimented with a bazooka mounted on a Sioux as early as 1950.
H-34 and the Soviet
Mi-4 were also used in experiments with onboard weapons.
A major weakness was that these helicopters lacked speed and armor—they were vulnerable to ground fire.
For example, Viet Cong troops were often armed with heavy machine guns and anti-tank rockets that could easily take down one of these choppers.
For reasons above, the US military desired a dedicated attack helicopter with more maneuverability,
a smaller frontal area (smaller target for the enemy) and increased armor.
Many prototypes were created and evaluated by the Army in the 1960s.
Ultimately Bell Helicopter was selected to build 110
AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters in 1966.
Hunting submarines was one of the first motivations for military helicopters.
Indeed, the German helicopters created in WWII were intended partially for submarine spotting.
After WWII, the superpowers began arming submarines with nuclear weapons and the importance of antisubmarine warfare (ASW) grew.
Specially-adapted ASW helicopters were built in the 1960s.
ASW helicopters have included various types of SONAR and image processing to detect submarines and
even find periscopes when they briefly peak above the ocean’s surface.
Middle East Conflicts
Battles in the Middle East in the late 1900s and early 2000s showcased more modern helicopters
like the UH-60 Blackhawk (pictured below) and AH-64 Apache.
Relative to the earlier helicopters, these modern aircraft have more powerful/efficient engines, improved avionics, and improved weapons.
Improved avionics allow pilots to be more efficient in managing the aircraft and battlefield.
While it may technically be categorized as a tiltrotor rather than a helicopter,
the V-22 Osprey entered service in 2005, sharply increasing the range and speed of vertical takeoff aircraft.
The V-22 pictured below is transitioning from "airplane mode," where the rotors propel the helicopter forward, to "helicopter mode"
where the rotors become horizontal like a helicopter.
Military Helicopter Types
As evidenced by the history above, military helicopters are often designed for particular missions.
This is analogous to cars which may be optimized for
speed (sports car), passenger space (van) or cargo (truck).
As with cars, traits that make a helicopter good for one role are not good for another role.
For example, a helicopter used for observation is ideally small while one used for transport or cargo should be big.
An attack helicopter only needs to carry 1-2 people (the pilot and copilot), while a transport helicopter ideally carries
dozens of troops.
Below are seven military helicopter types, followed by a short description of each.
Attack helicopters are designed primarily to fire weapons at ground targets.
Newer models like the Bell AH-1Z Cobra (below) may also fire air-to-air missiles, making other aircraft potential targets.
Attack helicopters like the Cobras have a small frontal area making them more difficult targets for enemies.
They typically carry just 2 people in a tandem configuration: the pilot and copilot.
Small “stub wings” often exist to carry additional weapons.
Attack helicopters tend to be faster and more nimble than other helicopter types, in order to evade enemy fire.
Observation helicopters may be used to locate enemy targets or weapons.
They can direct air strikes and even guide missiles with laser targeting.
These helicopters are often small, but carry a host of communication and observation tools like infrared cameras, low-light television, and laser systems.
Search are Rescue
Search and rescue helicopters are typically small to medium size.
They must be able to fly in extreme weather conditions and pickup passengers from rough seas, severe storms, and rugged terrain like mountains.
These helicopters are equipped with specialized radar systems and avionics to achieve these goals.
Training helicopters are used primarily to develop pilot’s skills.
These helicopters are typically small with a low cost per flight hour.
This means they will typically use smaller engines that guzzle less gas, among other things.
Transport helicopters carry troops and/or equipment, primarily to/from locations where it’s difficult or impossible to use fixed wing aircraft.
These are often larger helicopters with lots of power to enable lifting heavy loads.
Utility military helicopters are a hybrid of many of the above-mentioned types.
They are larger than attack helicopters, but smaller than most transport helicopters.
Most can transport troops and equipment, but not the extent of a dedicated transport helicopter.
Likewise, they can often carry and fire weapons, but are not as capable as an attack helicopter in such roles.
They are often used for command/control, logistics, troop evacuation, and fire support.
Naming and Designation
U.S. military aircraft are given abbreviations that indicate the type of the aircraft.
For example fighters like the F-22 and F-16 include the letter F while bombers like the B-2 include the letter B.
Likewise, helicopter’s use the letter H.
In addition to the H, helicopters use a preceding letter to indicate the type of helicopter.
The following letters are used for the associated helicopter types.
You may ask: “what about the MV-22?” The V-22 is technically not a helicopter, only a vertical takeoff aircraft.
This means the “H” is replaced by “V”.
The M stands for Marine.
Incidentally, there’s also a CV-22 for the US Air Force special operations command.
The C reportedly stands for combat.
Army Helicopter Names
In 1947 General Hamilton Howze was put in charge of Army aviation.
Names were important to Howze, and he didn’t like the names of the first helicopters, the Hoverfly and Dragonfly.
Seeing a resemblance in how both attacked at the flanks and quickly faded away,
he started a tradition of naming helicopters after Native Americans.
He named the next helicopter—the Bell H-13—the Sioux.
Since then, most Army helicopters were named after Native Americans, including the AH-64 Apache, the UH-60 Black Hawk and the UH-72 Lakota.
Manufacturers / Models
Major manufacturers of military helicopters are listed below.
Airbus is the leading helicopter manufacturer in terms of deliveries and revenue.
Many insiders believe they are also the most technologically advanced.
Due to mergers and acquisitions, Airbus’ heritage includes Aerospatiale, DASA, Messerschmitt, and the
original Focke-Wulf helicopters from Germany, among many others.
Airbus has many technical accomplishments including the first fly-by-wire helicopter,
the first turboshaft helicopter, and the first shrouded tail rotor.
Bell is a subsidiary of Textron and one of the earliest helicopter manufacturers in the US.
The UH-1 Huey helicopter—a work
horse of the Vietnam War—maybe the company’s biggest success.
Bell is also well-known for the V-22 tiltrotor.
Bell was recently awarded the future long-range assault aircraft contract from the US Army.
Bell proposed a new tiltrotor design, the V-280, which won the contract.
This was a major victory that, if not cancelled, will provide military revenue for years into the future.
Although Boeing is best known for fixed wing jets, it has a significant vertical lift division that produces military helicopters.
Boeing created the Apache attack helicopter and the tandem rotor Chinook transport aircraft.
Boeing also manufactures and integrates the fuselage, cockpit, avionics and flight controls for the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor.
More recently, Boeing has proposed a design for the Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft program.
You can find more information about this design
Cicare is headquartered in Argentina and produces small, light helicopters like the
Harbin Aircraft Industry Group (China)
The Harbin Aircraft Industry Group (Hafei for short) opened in 1952 in Harbin, China.
The company initially repaired existing aircraft.
In the late 1950s Hafei produced liscensed copies of the
Russian Mi-4 helicopter and other aircraft.
In the 1970s Hafei designed its own fixed wing planes.
Later the company began working with Eurocopter and other helicopter manufacturers to produce military helicopters.
Most recently, it’s created the Z-20
medium lift utility helicopter for the Chinese armed forces.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was founded in 1940 to produce aircraft for the Indian Air Force.
HAL has created a number of legit military helicopters including the
Prachand, and the
Indian Multi Role medium-lift helicopter currently under development.
Kaman was founded in 1945 and quickly designed a number of record setting helicopters.
They made a number of helicopters with twin intermeshing rotors.
Kaman designed and manufactured the
SH-2G Super Seasprite.
Kawasaki is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan and produced a number of fixed wing military aircraft in WWII.
After the war, Kawasaki produced helicopters under license from oversees contractors including the KH-4 (from the Bell 47), the KV-107 (from the Boeing 107 Model ||), and the CH-47J Chinook frm Boeing.
Kawasaki then designed and built the
OH-1 observation helicopter in 1996.
Leonardo is a large defense company headquartered in Rome, Italy and partially owned by the Italian government.
It’s named after the famous Italian inventor Leonardo da Vinci.
AgustaWestland is the helicopter division of Leonardo (before 2016 it was a subsidiary of Leonardo).
Leonardo produces a range of military helicopters listed below.
AgustaWestland acquired the Polish helicopter manufacturer PZL-Swidnik in 2010, putting the PZL SW-4 under its name.
Lockheed / Sikorsky (US)
In 2015 Lockheed acquired Sikorsky from United Technologies.
Sikorsky was founded by Igor Sikorsky in 1923 in Stratford, Connecticut.
They initially produced fixed wing aircraft, but later created some of the earliest successful helicopters.
Sikorsky is known for a number of successful US military helicopters including the
Formerly known as McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems, MD Helicopters is headquartered in the US and produces light utility helicopters including the MD
Explorer series of helicopters.
All of these have seen both civilian and military use.
MD also produced the
AH-64 Apache until it was transferred to Boeing in 1998.
Mitsubishi heavy industries has produced military helicopters like the
H-60 under license from Sikorsky.
Mitsubishi has the distinction of creating the first indigenous Japanese helicopter—the MH2000.
Headquartered in Moscow, Rostec is a state-owned defense conglomerate.
Rostec took over the assets of the leading Russian helicopter manufacturer Oboronprom in January 2018 (Oboronprom was dissolved).
Some of the helicopters created by Oboronprom are listed below.
PT Dirgantara was established in 1976 as a state owned aircraft manufacturer and has diversified into many other areas.
PT Dirgantara has built a number of military helicopters under license from Eurocopter including Puma variants and the EC725.
They’ve also built Bell 412s and Kawasaki BK117s.
Subaru has produced a few helicopters under license from other companies including the
Bell UH-1 Iroquois, Boeing Apache, and an ongoing collaboration with Bell
on a variant of the Bell 412 called the Subaru-Bell UH-X.