Ever since Igor Sikorsky invented the first helicopter back in 1939, literally hundreds of helicopters have been produced. Some of the helicopters have become wildly famous, whilst others are barely footnotes in the pages of history.
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The world’s most famous helicopters are so for many different, yet often interrelated, reasons, including:
- Operational history (usually what they do/did, the length of their service, or both!)
- Media portrayal
- International reputation
- Records they hold
Our list includes both military and civilian helicopters, so no one is left out. Ask anyone, be them a pilot, an avgeek or general member of the public, and they’ll certainly recognize at least a few of the names on this list, and probably recognize a few more visually.
So without further ado, and in no particular order, these are the nine most famous helicopters to ever grace our skies.
1. Boeing CH-47 Chinook
Among the largest Western-built helicopters ever, the Chinook is instantly recognizable thanks to its tandem rotor configuration, which features two rotors mounted one in front of the other. This is opposed to the standard helicopter configuration of a main rotor stabilized by a tail rotor.
Primarily a military cargo helicopter, the Chinook has been involved in practically every major conflict since its introduction in 1962. Interestingly, it’s one of the few aircraft still in use and production today that was designed in the 1960’s.
And whilst its service record is undoubtedly remarkable – be it for its service with the Americans in the Vietnam War, the British in the Falklands War, the Libyans in the Libya-Chad War and beyond – that’s not what makes it famous.
What has made the Chinook famous is its involvement in disaster relief missions over the last 60-odd years.
When hurricanes devastate communities in the American southeast, who delivers the supplies they desperately need? A fleet of Chinooks. When riverbanks break and flood entire cities in the UK, who reinforces them? A fleet of Chinooks.
I could go on and on about the Chinook’s involvement in disaster relief, because it’s been there to help after so many disasters: the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake and the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Accident to name but a few more.
And when we think about these events years later, we think about the now-famous photos of Chinooks dropping off supplies, or helping to lift rubble no construction equipment can, or helping to evacuate survivors.
But whilst it’s best known as a military helicopter and its role in disaster relief, the Chinook has also been a pioneer in the commercial sector too, namely as the helicopter of choice for now-defunct helicopter airlines like British Airways Helicopters or New York Airways.
2. Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk
What’s there to say about the Black Hawk that hasn’t already been said? It’s the helicopter of choice for special forces of every kind, from the Navy SEALs to the Special Troops Command (Polish special forces) to the Australian SAS and countless others.
Particularly in the United States (and to a lesser extent, the West as a whole), the Black Hawk is synonymous with one date in particular: May 2 2011.
That day, the famed SEAL Team Six arrived at Osama Bin Laden’s compound outside of Abbottabad, Pakistan onboard two Black Hawks as a part of Operation Neptune Star. That day concluded the decade-long manhunt for the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Recreations of the raid, as well as other portrayals of both real and fictional special forces teams, routinely use the Black Hawk, often stating its name to further reinforce its association with special forces groups.
Outside of its use as the go-to aircraft of choice for special forces, the Black Hawk is used by regular military personnel in everywhere from Colombia to Israel to Japan, doing everything from MEDEVAC to cargo to gunship flying.
Among the most produced helicopters in the world (currently sitting in tenth place), there are dozens of different variants of the Black Hawk. Perhaps the most recognizable of these variants is the VH-60N White Hawk.
Whilst this designation is irrelevant and easily forgotten, you probably know the VH-60N better as “Marine One”. Yes, that Marine One. The iconic green helicopter that transports US Presidents to places Air Force One and Presidential Motorcades can’t.
3. Bell Huey
Ok, this one’s cheating a little.
The rest of the helicopters on this list are a single helicopter, some of which have several variants, the Huey on the other hand, is an entire helicopter family, comprising nearly 100 different military and civilian models.
The family’s been around since the first flight of the first XH-40 prototype back in October 1956, and Bell churn out new members of the family on a regular basis.
Older military members of the family, like the UH-1 Iroquois, have become iconic. Symbols of bygone wars like Vietnam, even despite other helicopters seeing just as much service there, it’s the Iroquois we most associate with the War.
More modern members have done everything from MEDEVAC to electronic warfare to surveillance to search and rescue (SAR), and most recently, an attack helicopter armed to the teeth!
The civilian members of the family include the older Bell 204/205 and slightly newer Bell 206 among countless others. And they too, are every bit as famous as their militarized cousins.
The 204 and 205 models became famous for basically doing everything: crop dusting, VIP transportation, cargo flying. The whole nine yards. The Model 206 was similarly known for its versatility, which made it a favorite of police departments and news crews the world over.
4. Mil Mi-26
Also known by its NATO name Halo, the Mi-26 is famous for being the world’s heaviest helicopter to have gone into mass production. What’s more is that it’s also the world’s largest too.
Indeed, it’s so large and so powerful that when scientists wanted to move a fully preserved, 23,000-year old Woolly Mammoth they’d found in the Siberian Tundra to their lab, the only helicopter that could do it was the Mi-26.
Similar things have also happened when other militaries’ helicopters have been shot down. This happened most notably in 2002 when one Mi-26 was contracted to extract two US Army Chinooks from Afghanistan after they’d been shot down; a job it completed successfully.
Originally designed to transport outsize cargo (including brief plans to transport bits of the Buran project) for the Soviet and Eastern Bloc militaries and states, it has long been famous among the people there due to the role it played in propaganda.
Propaganda machines in countries there played up the Mi-26’s “victories over capitalism” in radio broadcasts and newspaper articles about the Mi-26, and featured it in movies/TV shows, on stamps and on propaganda posters.
However, the Mi-26 became famous among Western audiences for the center-stage role it has played in multiple humanitarian crises around the world, both during and after the Cold War.
To date, the Mi-26 has been involved in delivering food, water and other relief supplies during crises such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and countless wildfires in different places across the globe.
5. Boeing AH-64 Apache
A helicopter in service for the last 35 years, the Apache has become synonymous with the attack class of helicopters and modern helicopter warfare as a whole.
Whilst it has been used in dozens of combat zones; everywhere from Iraq to the Gaza Strip to Kosovo to Lebanon to Panama, the conflict most associated with the Apache is the War in Afghanistan.
Known as the helicopter that made the Taliban run, the Apache was the most deployed helicopter during the conflict by both the US and many of their allies, where it was the primary attack helicopter.
Due to its fearsome reputation among Taliban fighters, the Apache has been used repeatedly in military recruitment videos, ads and posters by those military branches who operate it. This has subsequently seeped into other forms of media such as TV and film, further enhancing the Apache’s already fearsome reputation.
Perhaps due to this reputation, and the fame the Apache enjoys among people of all ages, it is a favorite at airshows across the world.
Particularly common as a flying rather than a static display, Apache displays often recreate engagements with insurgents using live ammunition and rockets, much to the awe of the public. After airshows, videos of these displays are uploaded to YouTube and from there, picked up by other media.
In the UK, the Apache also enjoys something of a royal connotation too. During his time in the Army, Prince Harry served a four month combat tour in Afghanistan as a gunner and co-pilot onboard an Apache.
6. Bell 47
Today, helicopters can be used by either civil or military operators. But back in the mid-1940s, when helicopters were first coming about, they were firmly military use only.
Then, on March 8 1946, the Bell 47 made history by becoming the first helicopter certified for civilian use by the FAA. In effect, every civilian helicopter that’s followed has done so on the Bell 47’s coattails.
And whilst the Bell 47 remained popular with militaries across the world as a light observation helicopter, the Bell 47 was huge among early GA helicopter pilots, many of whom had returned home after flying helicopters in WWII.
For those who grew up in, and remember, the 1950s through 1980s, the Bell 47 was inextricably linked with the media, even if the Bell 47 wasn’t directly named.
Indeed, it became the go-to helicopter for film studios during this time and featured in all manner of movies and TV shows from the campy 1960s Batman show to the hit show M*A*S*H (1972-1983) and the cult-classic James Bond film Thunderball (1965).
But it wasn’t just films and TV shows where it was popular with the media. The Bell 47 was also the first news helicopter, flying for the first time in this capacity in 1958. It continued in some capacity as a news helicopter until the early 1990s.
Despite the last Bell 47 rolling off the factory floor almost 50 years ago, the Bell 47 remains one of the most common helicopters in our skies!
7. Robinson R44
A development of the equally famous R22, the Robinson R44 is among the most produced helicopters ever. More specifically, it is the world’s most produced general aviation (GA) helicopter, holding that record every year from 1999 to date.
To say the R44 is versatile would be an understatement.
Not only has it been used by the standard police, military and VIP operators, but it’s also been used by cargo operators and air tour operators as well as flying clubs and flight schools by virtue of it being a simple, easy-to-handle GA helicopter first and foremost.
Aside from its being versatile, immensely popular and a derivative of another famous helicopter, the R44 has distinguished itself as having saved, or at least slowed, the decline of the newscopter.
With costs rising and revenues dwindling, traditional cable news networks have begun removing their older newscopters from service. Those larger ones still able to afford such an expensive news reporting machine have turned to the cheapest helicopter available: the R44.
Although a lot of these newscopters are used less and less each year, the R44 has kept the newscopter class of helicopter alive when many media executives have said publicly that without it, newcopters would be dead.
In addition to holding the record of being the cheapest mass-production helicopter (in terms of operating costs), the R44 has also broken its fair share of actual records too:
- The world’s first helicopter circumnavigation of the globe by a woman (Jennifer Murray; March 17-May 28 1997)
- Piston helicopter speed record (141 mph; 227 km/h)
Much like the Bell 47 many say it succeeded, the R44 is also a favorite of the media. When it comes to shooting helicopter scenes in modern films and TV shows, the R44 is used where studios had previously used the Bell 47.
Among the literally countless movies and TV shows to feature the R44 are cult classics like 2010 comedy The Spy Next Door and TV shows like Hawaii Five-0 and FBI. Every year, more and more films and TV shows featuring the R44 are released, further enhancing the R44’s fame.
8. AgustaWestland AW109
Like many helicopters with a nearly 50 year-long service history, the AW109 has done a lot. Originally designed as a multipurpose commercial helicopter, the AW109 has been used as everything from a newscopter to SAR to military helicopter.
But what sets the AW109 from all the other immensely popular, multipurpose helicopters out there is its status as the undisputed king of VIP helicopters. Many say it’s the pinnacle of luxury flying.
Yes, other VIP helicopters are indeed available, and incredibly popular at that, no VIP helicopter is as widespread as the AW109. It’s used by everyone from Donald Trump, to the British Royal Family to Russian oligarchs among countless others.
Whilst you probably don’t know its name, the AW109 is probably the helicopter you most associate with VIP helicopters because of it being seemingly everywhere.
If you’ve ever been to a big city with lots of helicopter travel (New York, London, São Paulo etc.) or have ever been to an airport with a helipad as well as a runway, you’ve probably seen an AW109 transporting an oil baron, celebrity or other millionaire to and fro.
And that’s without looking at its popularity in places like Switzerland as a MEDEVAC covering the Alps (in addition to it being used as a VIP helicopter there!) or its use as a police helicopter.
9. Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey
When Bell and Boeing teamed up in 1983 to produce a tiltrotor military aircraft, the aviation community balked at the idea. They said it couldn’t be done, no matter how confident both firms were and the previous successes Bell had with tiltrotor technology.
Nearly 20 years later, thanks to the combined resources of two of the biggest names in the helicopter industry, the V-22 Osprey took its maiden flight, proving all the naysayers wrong. A feat that would make the V-22 famous on its own.
But they didn’t just prove that tiltrotor technology was viable. They also proved it could outcompete both helicopters and turboprops (which they were designed to encompass the best parts of) in terms of speed and range.
In terms of speed, the Osprey is considerably faster than both the SOCATA TBM 900 and aforementioned Chinook, whilst its range is nearly two and a half times as long as the latter and 25% greater than the former.
Coupled with its impressive cargo capacity, triple redundant fly by wire controls, a potential onboard weapons array fit for a fighter jet and the ability to fly from literally anywhere, you can see why they’re popping up in strategic locations as well as warzones.
Even in spite of a recent string of high-profile crashes stemming from the temperamental nature of switching from rotary to fixed-wing flying, leading to a brief fleet-wide grounding at one point, military pilots for those countries and military branches that operate the V-22 are dying to fly it.
Both because of how good it is technically-speaking and because of the fame most associated with it.