Abstract The paper presents design and experimental validation of a stable self-tuning PID controller for three degrees of freedom (3-DOF) helicopter. At first, it is proposed a self-tuned proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller for a class of uncertain second order multiinput multi-output nonlinear dynamic systems to which the 3-DOF helicopter dynamic model belongs. Within this scheme, the PID controller is employed to approximate unknown ideal controller that can achieve control objectives. PID controller gains are the adjustable parameters and they are updated online with a stable adaptation mechanism designed to minimize the error between the unknown ideal controller and the used by PID controller. The stability analysis of the closed-loop system is performed using Lyapunov approach. It is proven that all signals in the closed-loop system are uniformly ultimately bounded. The proposed approach can be regarded as a simple and effective model-free control since the mathematical model of the system is assumed unknown. Experimental results are presented to verify the effectiveness of the proposed controller.