The visual language of helicopters

As David and I walked through the Louvre’s courtyard, we discovered a display sponsored by the Museum of Flight at Le Bourget. Two real helicopters were parked there: one from 90 years ago and a modern helicopter operated by the French Marines.

That reminded me that in films and TV shows that feature helicopters, we never see the landing gear retract or deploy. Up to very recently, nearly all sequences of aeroplanes taking off featured footage of the undercarriage retracting. Sometimes we see the wheels deploying before a landing. It shows that the plane has taken off and has now committed to flying off. It won’t land any time soon. For some reason I’m always looking at helicopter skis and wheels in movies. One moment they are deployed. In the next, we see a smooth bottomed vehicle flying through the air. Unless our hero needs to hang from or go out on the skis to shoot the baddies.

The fact that this is never shown, means that we don’t need to see it. I suppose it’s that we know that helicopters take off and land wherever they want. Wheels and skis can be redeployed as needed. It follows that we are likely to favour shots as punctuation in the stories that we tell that seem to show a simple piece of information (‘the wheels are up’) that conveys a more advanced idea (‘they are committed to their journey – there’s no going back’). In this case, helicopters use a different language.


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