UNLIKE a helicopter, aeroplanes are inclined to fly, Harry Reasoner, a veteran American newsman, wryly observed after watching choppers in action during the Vietnam war. He wrote:
A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in the delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying, immediately and disastrously.
Despite their mechanical complexity and the need for piloting skills akin to riding a unicycle, a helicopter’s idiosyncrasies can quickly be forgiven. It does things aeroplanes cannot. The ability to take off and land vertically, and to hover, have made helicopters indispensable to the military since their first mass deployment by America in Vietnam, where the ubiquitous UH-1 “Huey” led to that conflict becoming known as “the helicopter war”. Civilian roles are just as vital, from rescuing people stranded on mountains to use as air ambulances, from putting out wildfires to carrying people and presidents to and from places where there are no runways.
The helicopter, though, has a new rival. Some drones also take off and land vertically, and with rotors powered by electric motors, they are mechanically more straightforward. Drones are also quieter, cheaper and easier...