Flying Airplanes and Helicopters
What's different?

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2018

(power point)


What is it like to fly an airplane or a helicopter? How do the two types of aircraft compare? What to airplane pilots and helicopter pilots think of each other?

with Todd McCaffrey and Kevin Evans

What's different?

Planes and helicopters are different in both their flying characteristics and the tasks they get used for. These differences mean that the pilots are different sorts of people as well. Think of the difference between truckers and bus drivers. This will be about those differences.

Some Background

My experience with pilots first dates to my days as an Air Traffic Controller in the Army in the 1960's. I was stationed in Vietnam at Hotel 3, the heliport that served Saigon. It was next to Tan Son Nhut AFB, the big Air Force airport which served the Saigon region. I was dealing exclusively with helicopter pilots and I dealt with a whole lot of them. The heliport was a busy place.

I added to that experience as a controller at Dugway, Utah. There I dealt with fixed wing pilots. In contrast to Hotel 3 it was a lonely place. While I was at Dugway I also learned to fly and got a private pilot license. A few years later after I finished college and got a job as a rocket scientist at Promontory, Utah I upgraded to a commercial pilot licence with an IFR rating -- but no helicopter flying for me.

Flying Differences

Fixed wing planes, airplanes, need runways to take off and land. They generally fly from Point A to Point B carrying cargo and the journey is generally a simple and straightforward one. There are exceptions, such as those which are being used to watch something -- surveillance missions and firefighting -- but these are not the ordinary tasks for fixed wing planes.

Helicopters, on the other hand, are routinely going to places that aren't runways. And they are going for much less routine reasons than fixed wing planes are tasked with. This means there is a lot more variety in the way helicopters fly.

For these reasons piloting a helicopter is a lot more complex and takes a lot more attention than piloting a fixed wing aircraft.

Task Differences

Most fixed wing plane journeys are carrying cargo from runway A to runway B. The cargo can be material goods or human passengers. These are handled differently, but they are still going from runway A to runway B and the flight itself is a straightforward one of getting from the departing runway to the destination runway.

There are some exciting alternative such as combat missions, and small planes landing on roads or level farm fields, but they are not a common part of fixed wing airplane activity.

Helicopters pick up those tasks that involve other activities besides going from runway to runway. These are quite varied, and as a result how the helicopter flies will be much more varied than how a fixed wing flies.

As technology has advanced, drones are now picking up some of the tasks that helicopters have traditionally been doing. Times are changing.

Pilot Differences

During my military days the experience I had was that helicopter pilots were Army warrant officers while fixed wing pilots were Air Force officers. This meant that the tasks, the ranks, and the military organizations of these pilots were different. The Army pilots were flying helicopter-style tasks while the Air Force pilots were flying fixed wing-style tasks. (In rank, the warrant officers are between sergeants and full officers.)

The result was there were completely different cultures between the helicopter pilots and the fixed wing pilots. They rarely mixed either socially or on the job. The helicopter pilots tended to be more informal and they were more ready for surprises in their schedule. The fixed wing pilots lived more predictable lives.

I am not familiar with today's military or civilian style activities. I haven't done much with aviation for decades. But I'm sure the differences remain similar. Helicopter and small plane fixed wing pilots are more comfortable with seat-of-the-pants style flying and missions. They are comfortable with the unexpected in terms of when and where they will be flying and what they will be accomplishing with the flight. Large plane fixed wing pilots are more comfortable with regular schedules and being sure things are happening in an orderly fashion and according to plan.


Airplanes and helicopters are different. They both fly, but that is about all they have in common. How they fly is different, where they fly is different, and the tasks they get call upon to perform are different. As a result the pilots who enjoy flying them are a different mix of personalities. Both enjoy flying but the styles of flying they enjoy are different.



--The End--