On Words: Helicopter or Chopper?

I fly a helicopter, not a chopper.

When people find out I’m involved with helicopters, they often make comments about choppers. I often get the feeling they’re doing it to make themselves sound knowledgeable or cool. Like they’re in on the industry slang.

But when I hear the word chopper, I think of a ridiculously proportioned, terribly uncomfortable, likely loud motorcycle. Something from Easy Rider. I don’t think of anything that flies.

I don’t use the words helicopter and chopper interchangeably. I fly helicopters. I might see a chopper parked in front of a biker bar or tattoo parlor. I wouldn’t ride one, though. I have two motorcycles I occasionally ride.

I’ve been told that folks who live in San Francisco hate to hear their city referred to as Frisco. I don’t know if it’s true, but I suspect my feelings about the word chopper are similar.

Are you a helicopter pilot or someone who works with helicopters? If so, please do leave a comment letting us know which you prefer. I have to admit that I don’t know any helicopter pilots who call their rides choppers — unless they have two wheels and a kickstand. If you’re one who does, speak up!

38 thoughts on “On Words: Helicopter or Chopper?

    • Markk: I guess they’re thinking M*A*S*H.

      Paul: It popped into my head, too. It seemed the perfect analogy.

      Dan: Helo or Heli (my preferred version) isn’t so bad. It’s chopper that helicopter pilots don’t seem to like. And Frisco is a lot easier to say than San Francisco, but I stopped using it when I heard that it bothered San Franciscans.

  1. What about “whirlybird”? Anybody got a Dictionary of Americal Regional English handy — an etymological expedition in the making.

    And yes, “please don’t call it Frisco” — Frisco is a town in the Colorado Rockies. Around here, we just say “I’m heading into the city today”, and that doesn’t mean Oakland.

    Love the blog!

    Marie from Berkeley

    (not, thank you, “berzerkeley”)

  2. I’m only half your size Maria (an R22 pilot) but agree completely. I doubt you’d ever hear the word “chopper” come out of my mouth.

    I do have an “aged” neighbor however whose dentist just put a new set of “choppers” in his mouth! LOL


  3. Marie: Sadly, whirlybird is seriously outdated. So is eggbeater when used in this sense. That doesn’t mean people who aren’t helicopter pilots don’t use those words. They might. But I don’t think you’ll find a helicopter pilot who does.

    Tom: Very funny! :-)

  4. Thanks Marie. Something about Maria’s post somehow sparked a fragment of memory about a TV programme that used to be on when I was a kid and that was about or featured helicopters. Tada: it was called Whirlybirds – a word that had disappeared from my brain. Found info on it in Wikipedia.

  5. Prefer helicopters, but it’s sooo cumbersome in conversation. Chopper, helis, helos…none really do the trick. I end up interchanging them.

  6. @Maria Langer

    Yup. One of the many CFIs that finished just before the economy tanked (fortunately, I’m also a medical writer, and that’s helping to pay the bills). Your blog has been a great resource. Thanks.

  7. I was the writer/helicopter pilot who stirred anew the outrage, and in some replies it was; about ‘copter being a non-pilot, wannabe reference to helicopters, to which the above entries make direct and indirect reference.

    Interestingly when I began my instruction, a 15,000+ hour military- trained co-owner of the FBO with whom I flew some and the 10,000+ hour CP both used ‘copter after the first call to a tower or Approach, or when announcing their position to avoid traffic, then they’d shorten it down, thus my use of the contraction which entered my vocabulary accordingly as a student.

    They aren’t the only two, high time turbine people, in my perhaps dimuinutive and needless defense, who do so, at least around Southern California.

    As I mentioned on JH today, one of the big time pilot types who criticized me, apparently he read pussy, said he calls it a “helo.” and how out of order I was to use ‘copter. Funny, there’s such animosity and snobbery in our midst, while I agree, “chopper,” “whirlybird,” “egg beater,” “mix-master,” etc., are out of the park, I also think helo is wrong as it implies one can’t spell helicopter if it’s serving as an abbreviation.

    At age 71, I am a lot more tolerant of such horrible “transgressions” than I used to be, while “San Fran,” still irritates me like “Frisco,” for describing the City.

    When we become less self absorbed as age progress and humbles us and decide that being a pilot, doctor, lawyer, isn’t really who we are–doesn’t define us as people like father, son, brother , sister, we don’t clamp down on good intentions and jump quite so fast to make the other guy or lady wrong. Sparp, sarcastic retorts to the good intentions of folks only signify not feeling very well about one’s self to my mind.

    Another psychologically insecure and likely dangerously demented critic of my query said that he wished he could be a writer, sit around and do nothing all day, unlike pilots like himself.

    Funny, he never gave thought that it was a post 40 year career avocation that pays me about $0.02 an hour at best. Too bad there are so many pilots, many pros at what they do, who ccan be so miserable inside. It’s a good job, requiring talent and skills well beyond what so many in the working field posses, yet because so many pilots are under or uneducated, it’s very pitfully, all they can do and they life in misery. Hats off to the pros, though, who fly, love it and treat others right.

    Y’all take care and fly safe. Thanks for the platform and your varied opinions. Doug Templin

    • Doug: Actually, at the Grand Canyon, Papillon’s call signs all start with “Copter” (as in “Copter 30”). But I don’t know any pilots these days who refer to a helicopter as a copter or chopper. I think I may have heard helo (pronounced “hee-low”). I agree about the abbreviation not looking like good spelling.

      As for JH’s forums, I really can’t believe that people with better things to do with their time waste any time there. The only reason I showed up was because someone here had linked back to it. It’s a sad thing. The trolls in the forum threads are so obnoxious and overbearing that they likely chase the real (serious) pilots away. Their behavior prompted my post, “Why Forums Suck” (https://www.aneclecticmind.com/2008/04/11/why-forums-suck/).

      I agree with your comments about the critics on forums being insecure and possibly demented. I don’t tolerate that crap here. And I think most forums would be a lot better if they were properly moderated to remove the bitterness and hate.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope you’ll stop by again!

  8. Personally, I use ‘heli’, it’s easy and just seems right. Like you said, choppers are something out of “Easy Rider” or like the other reply said, something to used for eating.

    Keep up the good work, love your stuff.

  9. Ex UH-60A crew chief (83-89). I never heard anybody associated with Army aviation call a helicopter a chopper.
    For years I’ve been mildly irritated watching tv shows where the military related characters refer to them as choppers, as in “the choppers are inbound”, or “we just lost the chopper”. It’s almost as annoying as seeing those same characters run around with unbloused bootlaces.
    Glad it’s not just me.

  10. I have cringed at the term chopper for 40 years. I think the ones that abuse the term the most are TV and radio newscasters trying to sound cool when in fact, in my opinion, it makes them sound so ignorant.

    There was a TV Series in the 1950s called Whirlybirds.
    I was in elementary school at the time and remember the show but can’t recall any of the episodes.

  11. I’m an Apache pilot and NEVER called it a “chopper,” “whirlybird,” or even “bird.” I would say “aircraft,” even “airplane” or just “the 64, a 64, the 64” whatever. I HATE when people use the term “chopper.” They sound ridiculous.

    • How about “ship”? Do you ever refer to it as a ship? I used to do that a lot until non-pilot friends started commenting on it. To them, a ship is a boat.

      “Chopper” makes it seem as if they learned everything they know about helicopters on MASH reruns.

    • Look, I understand that technically speaking, operating a helicopter is more difficult than a plane or ship. But still, I have airplane pilot friends that would be offended by you calling your helicopter an airplane, and know one ship captain that would be offended by you calling a helicopter a ship.

      They’re not going to call their vehicles “helicopters” and thereby claim to be “helicopter pilots”, so as long as they also know to not call helicopters “choppers” (and the airplane pilots, at least, know that much), maybe it would be optimally unhypocritical to not call your helicopter something it is not.

      (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship, your helicopter is objectively not a “ship”. And I shouldn’t even need to link something to prove that it is not an airplane. Helicopters do not follow the aerodynamic physics required for one to be an airplane, they just forcibly generate their own lift.)

  12. I too cringe every time I hear “chopper”. And that’s how I know TV journalism is more or less dead… they all use the term chopper. But what the heck do I know, I’m just a retired US Naval Aviator (yeah, a chopper pilot)

  13. Maria, and all helicopter pilots in this thread, why not try a serious attempt at a crusade of sorts, maybe create a Facebook page or something even better, to attempt to stamp out, or at least make it aware to the masses and news folks that using the term “chopper” is showing outright ignorance and disrespectful.
    Getting it through to the News Guys that it’s really really unkewel and really ignernt will be best first step.

    It’s almost daily that I cringe over the term, being fully retired and a news junkie and usually have cable news on daily all day long everyday at my house.
    Shep Smith, afternoon anchor, a native son of my home state is one of the worst offenders at Fox News.

    It will take real helicopter industry folks to step up and make an attempt at stopping it.

    I’m just an old fixed wing, single engine land, geezer since 1968. Of course our cringe word, humorous to me, is we e all fly “Piper Cubs” . But even the Piper Cub term isn’t as offensive as the Chopper word in my opinion.

    Anyone in this thread have any clever ideas as to how to put an end to the chopper crap, count me in, let me know where and how. What a feat that will be if successful.

  14. I just saw on Fox news that the Remote Powered Aircraft folks in the military does not like the term Drone” used for their aircraft. The interviewee flat out suggested to Steve Doocy, the interviwer, that they do not like the term.
    They, the military guys, much prefers the term “RPA” to be used.

    I will never ever use the term “Drone” again as long as I live and request all here that might also use it to refrain,, pass this on, share, to your friends.


  15. Here in the UK the word ‘chopper’ is rarely used as a substitute for helicopter as ‘chopper’ is street-euphemism for penis. So anyone seen with his chopper out in a public place would more likely be arrested than given ATC clearance. It was also a name for a type of short-frame child’s pedal bike, this caused minor giggles among kids who got new ‘choppers’ for Christmas.
    The Germans don’t suffer from this problem as their word for helicopter has excellent Germanic precision: ‘Hefschroefvliegtuig’.

    Only problem being that by the time you have uttered it, it’s time to refuel.

    (Jerry, I thought the military prefer ‘UAV’ rather than RPA. ?)

    • Robert I’m really not sure, never even thought about the term Drone and it’s proper word,,, or acronym in this case.

      As well as I remember the military boys in the news interview,, and their special segment on their air craft that morning, are the ones that suggested the term RPA rather than Drone.
      Maybe it was their particular type of air craft I’m not sure after so long since seeing the segment.

      I actually thought that “drone” was the proper term until then.
      Even if Drone was used now I still don’t see as big of a problem with it than I do “chopper”.
      But I can stand corrected with that from the RPA or UAV guys.

      I never knew that about the Brits term for chopper either, interesting.

      Uhhh, is the slang “Brit” a slur? Never thought about that till now.
      Yank isn’t a slur to us but that is a whole nuther thing maybe.

    • Jerry,
      In the recent film “Good Kill”, about UAV pilots based in air-conditioned trailers in Vegas, but flying their aircraft over Pakistan and Afghanistan, they use the term ‘drone’ often.
      Interesting that RPA sounds a bit like ‘Reaper’, one of the more numerous types of UAV’s.

      We Brits like the term ‘Brit’. It has a measure of friendly familiarity. ‘Limey’ is less popular over here.
      I thought ‘Yank’ was slightly perjorative but I suppose it is a simple abbreviation.

  16. I’m surprised that no one got technical and referred to the manuals “ROTORCRAFT FLYING HANDBOOK” i.e. rotary-wing aircraft, Cyclogyro/Cyclocopter, Autogyro, Gyrodyne to be all inclusive.

    • They’re not all inclusive. A helicopter and a gyroplane, for example, are two different things. Don’t confuse “rotary wing” — which is the all-inclusive category for anything with a spinning rotor blade (rotary) that provides lift (wing) — with each of the individual types of aircraft that falls into that broad category. Also, the FAA’s Rotorcraft Flying Handbook was replaced by the Helicopter Flying Handbook not long ago. There’s a separate manual for gyros now.

  17. Rotorcraft Flying Handbook, FAA-H-8083-21 – Federal …Still a student so this was the first thing that came to mind, I really dislike “helo”. I love V-22 Osprey “tilt rotor”.

  18. My husband flew helicopters in Vietnam–loved flying, hated the war. He said all the pilots and maintenance personnel used “helicopter” and “chopper” interchangeably. As a retired English teacher, I did a little research into the etymology of “chopper” and found it was coined during the Korean War by the American military.
    “Chopper” as a nickname for a motorcycle didn’t arise until the 1960s. Obviously, chopper meaning motorcycle is a copycat of what pilots were calling their rotor aircraft in Korea.
    Among English teachers, being guilty of using hypergrammar is often considered more egregious than making common grammatical mistakes and is often the sign of an undereducated English snob. Example of hypergrammar: Pat gave a present to Milly and I. (correct: and me)
    Using “chopper” in place of “helicopter” is disrespectful only to helicopter snobs, I suspect. Seems to me this entire controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

    • There is only ONE person who can call a Helo a ‘Chopper’…and that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.

  19. Having worked the trails of the Grand Canyon for years, I know we referred to helicopters as “copters.” “Chopper” to the tourists reminds them of the noise they hear as they hike the trails.

    • At Papillon, our call signs were “Copter 30,” etc. Never chopper. You can only hear the tour helicopters in the two areas of the 200+ mile canyon where they cross: west of Hermits Rest and east about file miles west of Desert View. The park does use some helicopters inside the canyon, but that’s on an as-needed basis.

What do you think?