Ground resonance is an aero-mechanical instability in helicopters that use soft in-plane rotors. Traditionally, ground resonance is mitigated by using passive lead–lag dampers that provide sufficient in-plane damping. However, these dampers because of their passive nature cannot adapt to all operating conditions. In this work, a magnetorheological fluid–based semi-active lead–lag damper is proposed to offer controllable damping. Two nonlinear control strategies are reported to operate the voltage to be supplied to the magnetorheological damper. The first strategy is a model-based control using dynamic inversion. The second is a fuzzy logic control integrated with a particle swarm optimization algorithm to optimize the control parameters. Both control strategies are shown to be effective in eliminating ground resonance. Unlike bang–bang control, the prescribed control algorithms can make use of complete voltage level available in the magnetorheological damper with smooth voltage updates. A comparative study of the controller performances is made through appropriate performance indices and system responses. Finally, the most optimum control strategy to mitigate ground resonance is inferred. © The Author(s) 2021.