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For the Love of Igor Sikorsky, Stop Calling It an Airplane!

By Todd Vorenkamp | August 1, 2007
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IN THIS WORLD OF ULTRA-POLITICAL correctness, it is amazing to me how many educated people in aviation circles insist on referring to rotary-wing aircraft as "airplanes."

Many aviators in today's U.S. military, from admirals to ensigns and from generals to second lieutenants, regularly refer to helicopters as airplanes. I have seen countless aviators use this incorrect usage on a daily basis. The latest, and most annoying, violation of aviation political correctness is from shipmates who used to populate Grumman EA-6B Prowler squadrons referring to our Sikorsky Aircraft MH-60S Knighthawks as "jets."

In the January issue of Rotor & Wing, the Rotorcraft Report quoted a high-ranking U.S. Air Force officer who showed that this has permeated to the highest levels of the Pentagon ("CSAR-X Choice Surprised Even USAF Chief," January 2007, page 8).


In my short Navy career, I have seen many PowerPoint presentations from various Navy sources listing, for example, the number of "airplanes" that a helicopter squadron will have in a future fiscal year. It is obvious that this issue ranges far and wide.

Simply stated, referring to a rotary-wing aircraft as an airplane is wrong. It is incorrect on two levels. The first is on a personal level of respect to the uniqueness of the helicopter. The second is on the basis of correct English. To support my argument, I call upon Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition.

air plane noun, pronounced ’ar-,plAn, ’er-,plAn [Etymology: alteration of aeroplane]: 1. a powered heavier-than-air aircraft that has fixed wings from which it derives most of its lift

Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers even include a drawing to help readers understand.

Suddenly unsure what to say when referring to a rotary-wing aircraft such as the Black Hawk, Chinook, or Super Puma? Here are a few of Merriam-Webster’s suggestions:

he li cop ter noun, pronounced ’he-l-"käp-tr, ’hE-l-"käp-tr [Etymology: from the French hélicoptère, from the Greek heliko- + pteron wing — more at FEATHER]: 1. an aircraft whose lift is derived from the aerodynamic forces acting on one or more powered rotors turning about substantially vertical axes

The accepted U.S. Navy slang for helicopter even appears in this dictionary:

he lo noun, pronounced ’hE-(,)lO. Inflected Form(s): plural helo" [Etymology: formed by shortening and altering "helicopter."]: HELICOPTER

In deference to my U.S. Army aviator and soldier friends, the fifth definition of "chopper" can also be used to correctly describe the helicopter:

chop per noun, pronounced ’chä-pr: 1. one that chops 2. plural, slang: TEETH 3. a device that interrupts an electric current or a beam of radiation (as light) at short regular intervals 4. MACHINE GUN 5. HELICOPTER 6. a high-bouncing batted baseball 7. a customized motorcycle

The word "helicopter" can even be used as a verb. Not so for "airplane."

helicopter verb: 1. (In the intransitive sense) to travel by helicopter 2. (In the transitive sense) to transport by helicopter

Merriam-Webster’s presents another option for those wanting to use the word "air" in their description of the helicopter:

air craft noun, pronounced ’ar-,kraft, ’er-,kraft. Inflected Form(s): plural aircraft: 1. a vehicle (as an airplane or balloon) for traveling through the air

"Aircraft" is an option that seems to work well. It is the politically correct aviation equivalent to the multitude of gender-non-specific words used in modern-day professional writing. You can use the word "aircraft" to refer to a helicopter, an airplane, or even NASA’s space shuttle orbiter (when it is operating within Earth’s atmosphere) without worry of offending anyone.

Here is another alternative:

aero-dyne: noun, pronounced ’er-"dIn [Etymology: derived from aerodynamic]: 1. a heavier-than-air aircraft (as an airplane, helicopter, or glider)

The word "aircraft" is so useful it appears in the definition for "tilt-rotor." The sensitivity and potential usage mess that tilt-rotor aircraft present to the wordsmiths of the aviation world is something that must be dealt with now, before people start getting in the habit of referring to the V-22 Osprey as an "airplane." Here is trusty Merriam-Webster’s definition:

tilt-ro tor: noun, pronounced ’rO-tr): 1. an aircraft that has rotors at the end of each wing which can be oriented vertically for vertical takeoffs and landings, horizontally for forward flight, or to any position in between

Is a tilt-rotor a "helicopter"? Only when it is in helicopter mode. Is it an "airplane?" Only when it is in airplane mode. To avoid confusion and offensive language, a tilt-rotor aircraft may be referred to as a "tilt-rotor" or as an "aircraft" or "aerodyne."

But wait one moment. Checking the definition of "aeroplane" in The Cambridge Aerospace Dictionary, we find the following:

aeroplane (U.S. = airplane): A flying machine with plane(s) fixed in flight. Modern definition might be "mechanically propelled aerodyne sustained by wings which, in any one flight regime, remain fixed." Explicitly excludes gliders and rotorplanes, but could include man-powered aircraft, VTOLs and convertiplanes that behave as in translational flight.

Sincere apologies are due those who live in the politically correct world of airplanes, aircraft, helicopters, and tilt-rotors. It’s now time for me to go fly in my helicopter or rotorcraft or aerodyne or aircraft or rotorplane....

Todd "Stalker" Vorenkamp until July 31 was a U.S. naval aviator flying the MH-60S at NAS Whidbey Island, Wash. Search and Rescue. This month he is to join the U.S. Coast Guard as an aerodyne aviator.

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