About Helicopter Fuel Consumption

It’s only part of the cost of operations.

Among the stats recorded for this blog are the search phrases people use to find content here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found search phrases related to “helicopter mileage” or “helicopter miles per gallon” or “helicopter fuel burn.” It seems that a lot of people are really interested in learning how much fuel a helicopter burns.

It’s not just the blog, either. I get related questions every time I do a rides gig. I’d say that 1 out of every 10 adult passengers wants to know how many miles per gallon my helicopter gets or gallons per hour my helicopter burns.

Of course, a helicopter’s fuel burn varies based on its make and model — just like an SUV will burn more fuel than a compact car. Bigger engines burn more fuel.

Fuel burn also varies based on conditions, again just like a car. If I cruise alone on a cool day near sea level, the helicopter will be operating efficiently with a light weight to carry and burn less fuel than if I operate near maximum gross weight on a hot day. This is similar to a car’s “highway” and “city” MPG ratings.

Ready for my answer to the question?

My helicopter burns roughly 15 to 17 gallons per hour, depending on conditions.

Helicopters generally take one of two different kinds of fuel. Some helicopters with piston engines, including mine, burn AvGas, which is also known as 100LL, a high-octane, leaded fuel similar to what you might put in a car. (I actually “dispose of” spoiled AvGas in my lawnmower and ATV once in a while. My understanding is that the lead will damage a car’s catalytic converter so I’d never put AvGas in my Jeep or Honda.) Other helicopters with turbine engines, like a JetRanger, burn JetA, which is the same stuff they put in jet airplanes. (It’s also remarkably similar to diesel, although I’ve never put JetA in my truck.)

Aviation fuel prices vary the same way auto fuel prices vary. AvGas and JetA seldom cost the same. These days, my local airport sells AvGas for $5.14/gallon and JetA for $4.04/gallon. The least I’ve ever paid for AvGas was $2.43/gallon way back when I first started flying. The most was around $9/gallon when I needed to refuel at an airport with a fancy FBO that normally caters to business jets. Ouch.

R44 Gauges
I have two tanks that supply the engine with fuel from a single feed (so there’s no need to switch tanks in flight) for a total of 46.5 gallons of usable fuel. (The Master switch is on but the engine is not running in this photo.)

My helicopter can hold about 46 gallons of fuel. I can fly for 2-1/2 to 3 hours on that, depending on conditions. If you figure I average about 100 knots when cruising — that’s 115 miles per hour or 185 kilometers per hour — I can cover about 300 miles on a full tank. Of course, that also depends on wind conditions; I’ll fly fewer miles with a headwind than with a tailwind or no wind.

One more thing. The reason most people seem interested in learning about fuel consumption is because they’re trying to figure out what it costs to fly a helicopter. (At rides gigs, they’re usually trying to figure out my profit.) What they fail to understand is that fuel is only a small part of what it costs to fly. I’ve blogged about this extensively here. Fuel currently accounts for less than a third of my operating costs.

So you can imagine how annoyed I get when people offer to just “pay for fuel” if I fly them somewhere. As if I’m interested in picking up two thirds of the cost of giving them a ride and throwing in my time for free, while forgoing any possibility of a “profit” to help cover the cost of operating my business.

(And what about the $14,000 I need to spend later this year to install a radio altimeter that I’ll never need?)

Anyway, I’m hoping that this post comes up in those searches now. It answers the question succinctly in a way that most people can’t fail to understand.

One thought on “About Helicopter Fuel Consumption

  1. Good points, all. The actual cost of running and maintaining any aircraft is largely a mystery to those outside the business, but the breakdown of the costs associated with running a helicopter is especially opaque. In particular, the cost of maintenance and overhaul are so far outside most peoples experience that they usually can’t fathom it, there’s no parallel with owning a car and little in common even if they own an airplane. Of note though, while fuel cost is always just a small fraction of the overall operating cost for helicopters it can still be a fairly large expense when you get into larger helicopter types, especially multi-engine turbines.

    When I flew Bell 212’s, they burned right around 100 gallons an hour of jet fuel no matter if you were cruising, hovering, or just running on the ramp. The twin-engine tandem-rotor CH-47 Chinook burns between 350-400 gallons an hour in flight. At one Army base I was stationed at (with mostly Cobras and Hueys) our refueling rig didn’t supply fuel fast enough to hot-refuel (fill the tanks with the engines running) a CH-47 in a reasonable amount of time, since their idle burn rate was almost as much as the system could put into the tanks. Of course there’s big, and then there’s REALLY big! The gigantic Mi-26 burns between 800 -1100 gallons an hour in flight, but it’s feeding two 11,000 horsepower turbines. As helicopters go it’s actually pretty fuel efficient for the work it can do, but it does a LOT of work so it burns a lot of fuel doing it. Just the APU (auxiliary power unit) they use to start their main engines can burn twice as much fuel per hour as your R-44 does at max power.

    And surprisingly, when it comes to worst-case scenarios for maintenance expense, helicopter aren’t the top of the list. Check out the stats on how much it takes to maintain the engine on a top-fuel dragster.

    http://www.performancegarage.com.au/blog/what-does-10000hp-cost

    And when it comes to fuel burn rates nothing that flies will ever come close to rockets. Especially the huge F-1 engines that powered the Saturn rockets for the Apollo moon missions

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocketdyne_F-1

What do you think?