Helicopters usually fly at altitudes of 10,000 feet, though turbine-engined helicopters can fly as high as 25,000 feet.
When it comes to hovering, it depends on whether a helicopter is In Ground Effect (IGE) or Out of Ground Effect (OGE).
When IGE, a helicopter can hover at a higher altitude because it gets help from the proximity of the ground, which reduces the rotor tip vortices – i.e reduces the drag on the rotor.
In any case, the maximum altitude a helicopter can hover is much lower than when in forward flight, at an altitude of around 12,000 feet.
What Stops a Helicopter From Flying Higher?
A helicopter is unable to fly at very high altitudes because it simply isn’t designed to do so.
The main issue is that in order to fly, a helicopter’s blades must produce lift. Because the lift is proportional to the density at a particular altitude, as the altitude increases, the density decreases – i.e. the air becomes thinner.
While a helicopter can compensate by increasing the blade pitch, at a certain altitude this no longer becomes possible.
When a helicopter’s blades are no longer able to produce left, the maximum density altitude is reached and it cannot fly any higher. In aviation, this point is called the ceiling.
Furthermore, in aviation, there is always a trade-off between performance, engineering, aerodynamics, and cost.
While technically feasible to fly higher, the cost of designing such a helicopter wouldn’t make sense unless there would be enough demand for it.
What Happens When a Helicopter Flies Too High?
A helicopter pilot needs to be very careful that a helicopter does not exceed its maximum operating altitude because it causes extreme turbulence, resulting in the helicopter becoming extremely unstable and perhaps even powerless as its blades stall.
Additionally, helicopter cabins are usually not pressurized. So even if a helicopter were to fly very high, supplemental oxygen would be required when above 12,500 feet MSL for more than 30 minutes, and anytime above 14,000 feet MSL.
This is according to regulations set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Maximum Altitude of Some of the Most Famous Helicopters
- Mil Mi-8: 30,000 feet
- AS350: 29,000 feet
- Aerospatiale SA-313 Alouette II: 26,932 feet
- Sikorsky H-60 Black Hawk: 19,151 feet
- Bell 47: 18,550 feet
- Boeing CH-47 Chinook: >18000 feet
- Bell UH-1 Iroquois: 14,500 feet
- Robinson R-22: 14,000 feet
- AgustaWestland AW109: 13,800 feet
- Eurocopter X3: 12,500 feet
- Sikorsky R-4: 12,000 feet
- Mil Mi-26: 10,200 feet
What is the Highest Altitude a Helicopter Has Flown?
The highest altitude a helicopter has ever reached is 40,820 feet (12,442 meters). This was set by Jean Boulet in 1972 while piloting an Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama, which is a French single-engined helicopter and still in service to this day.
Interestingly, Jean set a couple more records on that day, though they were achieved unintentionally.
When Jean began to descend, the engine flamed out due to the extreme cold.
This resulted in him performing the highest ever, power off, full touch down autorotation, landing with absolutely no power.
Additionally, Jean is also credited with the largest altitude flown with an autogyro due to his unpowered flight back to the ground.
Can a Helicopter Fly to the Top of Mount Everest?
In 2005, Didier DelSalle flew to the top of and even landed on the 8,848 m (29,030 ft) summit of Mount Everest in a Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel, where he remained for 3 minutes and 50 seconds.
He became the first (and only) person to achieve this feat. In fact, the very next day, when conditions were even more challenging, he repeated the landing to prove that it wasn’t just luck.
Related: How High Do Planes Fly?