Main rotor RPM is like airspeed to an airplane. It creates the airflow over the blades that produce lift. A rotor blade is a rotating airfoil that experiences a much higher airflow over the blade tips than the inboard areas. In order to improve the distribution of lift across the blades, engineers twist the blade so that the inboard part has a higher angle of attack for a given pitch angle. At a constant pitch angle, changing the RPM will vary the lift. However, in helicopter rotor design the main rotor RPM is a fixed value and lift is changed by varying the angle of attack by changing the blade’s pitch angle.
Main rotor RPM limits are established by the helicopter’s manufacturer. Normal operating RPM is shown on the RPM gauge as a green arc (the actual RPM will vary depending on rotor system design). Above the green arc is a yellow or caution arc that terminates at the rotor system’s maximum RPM red line. Rotor RPM that moves into in the yellow arc should be reduced by retarding the engine throttle or raising collective pitch to increase rotor drag. Allowing the rotor RPM to exceed the red line (an over speed) can increase the centrifugal forces to a level that can damage the rotor system. Depending on the severity of an over speed, an inspection or new part might be required.
Below the green arc is another yellow area with a minimum rotor RPM red line. Allowing the rotor RPM to decay into the yellow is recoverable, however going below the red line can become very dangerous. One way this can happen is if a pilot fails to lower the collective pitch (reducing the drag) quickly enough during an engine failure. FAA Part 27 certification requirements for autorotation require the manufacturer to demonstrate acceptable controllability and rotor RPM recovery at 5% below redline RPM. Rotor RPM allowed to drop more than 5% below red line might or might not be recoverable and will cause high coning and flapping angles coupled with significant vibrations. The rotor system can experience extreme stress levels which it was not designed for which will eventually lead to a failure of the hub or blade root. These types of accidents are always fatal.