Helicopters can fly backwards, forwards, sideways, and hover in one spot.

This is accomplished by using the cyclic pitch control, which is a stick-type control that controls the direction of flight by changing the mechanical pitch angle or feathering angle of each main rotor blade independently.

In other words, a helicopter is able to fly backwards by changing the angle of attack of the blades of the rotor and thus the lift they provide.

Why Do Helicopters Take Off Backwards?

While it’s possible you might have seen a helicopter flying backwards if the pilot is flying into a strong headwind at a low speed, it’s far more likely that you’ve seen a helicopter flying backwards as it takes off.

If someone isn’t familiar with helicopters, it’s logical to think that a pilot would lift the helicopter off the ground vertically and then merrily fly away.

But this usually isn’t the case – and the reason a helicopter takes off backwards is to do with safety. This most commonly occurs in two scenarios.

Emergency Landings

Most commonly, in the event that an emergency landing is required during or shortly after takeoff, a pilot needs to be able to see the helipad to land clearly.

If a helicopter takes off vertically, the helipad would no longer be in sight, making it more challenging to land safely.

When there is a sudden problem immediately after takeoff, a pilot might only have a few seconds to act, so being able to see the helipad clearly can be the difference between safety and catastrophe.

Avoiding Obstacles

The other scenario is when the path in front of the helicopter is blocked by an obstacle.

Climbing vertically and then flying over the obstacle, especially in the case of flying over the top of buildings, is hardly the safest way to take off.

The pilot would therefore need to navigate around the obstacle to safely takeoff.

This could perhaps be done by going around the obstacle – and then only when having reached a safe altitude – flying over it if the obstacle is on the flight path.

It isn’t as if vertical climbs never happen, though.

They are sometimes done out of necessity, In the event of being in a confined area where there is no room to back up, a pilot has no choice but to take off vertically.

When the obstacle is something like trees or a low building, a vertical climb is usually also safe to do.

Michael Price - Aviation Expert
Aircraft Engineer

Michael is an aircraft engineer and aviation expert with an insatiable passion for all things aviation-related.

With decades of experience and knowledge under his belt, Michael is an authority on the intricacies of private, commercial, and military aircraft.

Michael has been quoted or mentioned in major publications, including Business Insider, The Observer, Next Big Future, HowStuffWorks, CleanTechnica, Yahoo, UK Defence Journal, 19FortyFive, as well as referenced on Wikipedia.