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.

Another No Fly Decision

Smoke in the area forces me to cancel a scenic flight.

I’ll start this one with a story.

Flashback: Grand Canyon 2004

When I flew for Papillon at the Grand Canyon, Mother Nature threw all kinds of weather at us. In the spring, it was wind, sometimes blowing as hard as 50 miles per hour, causing all kinds of mechanical turbulence on our prescribed tour routes over the forest and Canyon. In the early summer, it was heat and high density altitude, which made the departure and arrival in our rather confined landing zone challenging. Then there were the fast-moving monsoon storms that sped across the terrain, sometimes blocking our path across the canyon and forcing us to shut down when lightning near the airport made it unsafe to refuel. (And yes, we did fly within 20 miles of thunderstorms.) That lightning would often start fires in the forest along the Grand Canyon’s rims, filling the air with thick smoke that made it nearly impossible to see.

Special VFR at GCN
Here’s an early morning view on one of those smokey days at the Canyon. The R22 on the left is mine, parked at transient helicopter parking at Grand Canyon Airport. I used to commute to work by helicopter once in a while; I needed a special VFR clearance to get into the Class D airspace that day. The tall building in the haze is Papillon’s base with its tower.

Honestly: flying at the Grand Canyon is the best experience a helicopter pilot can get. There isn’t much that you don’t experience as far as flying conditions go.

On one late afternoon in August, the area was full of storms and smoke from numerous wildfires. I took off in trail behind at least six other helicopters with another four behind me for one of the short tours. The passengers had come off a bus and their tour had likely been booked years in advance. All 11 helicopters were flying with the same group.

When we reached the Dragon Corridor, where we were supposed to cross the Canyon, we found our way blocked by a thunderstorm that made it impossible to see the other side of the canyon. So one by one we made our radio calls, turned around, went back past the airport, and crossed over the Canyon in the Zuni Corridor. There was a short tour on that side that we’d been taught but Papillon didn’t sell. I’d never flown it, so I basically followed the helicopter in front of me, making the same calls he did when I reached vaguely recalled reporting points.

The air was thick with smoke. The visibility was definitely less than five miles, although it had to be more than three miles for flight to be legal. But maybe that’s what it was at the airport. It wasn’t that over the canyon. At one point, I lost sight of the strobe light of the helicopter in front of me and had to find my way back without him. (We did not have GPSs on board.) I only got a little lost and was very glad to finally see Grand Canyon Airport’s tower. I adjusted my course to put me where I was supposed to be, made my radio call, and landed.

They shut down flights for the day after that.

Afterwards, I went up to the Chief Pilot’s office. His name was Chuck and he’d always struck me as someone who was very reasonable. I complained about the visibility and asked him why we were taking people on scenic flights when we could barely see. His response stuck with me: “If they’re willing to pay and it’s safe to fly, we’ll fly them.”

I swore I’d never take that attitude with passengers in my tour business. Indeed, years later I turned down a flight I could have done because I was certain that wind and turbulence would have made my passengers miserable.

And I’ve turned down flight since. Today is one of those days.

Today: Smoke in the Wenatchee Valley

The hour-long tour for one of my client’s vice presidents and his out-of-town guests has been on my calendar for about two months. I have the passengers names and weights and have done my weight and balance calculations. I know where they want to go and what they want to see.

The smoke started blowing in last week, which is kind of weird because (1) there aren’t any fires nearby and (2) there isn’t much wind. Apparently the fires are mostly in British Columbia (Canada), which isn’t very far from here, was well as in northwestern Washington State, on the other side of the Cascades. There was a rumor going around that there’s a fire in Blewett Pass, which is actually quite close, but I can’t find any information anywhere about that, and I have good sources to check.

Smoke from the Airliner
As this photo from my friend shows, the smoke was a thick blanket up to about 14,000-18,000 feet.

So the smoke is drifting down from Canada on a light breeze. It’s settling in the Columbia River Valley at Wenatchee. And elsewhere. A friend who who took a Horizon Airlines flight out on Thursday sent a picture from 20,000 feet and there was a blanket of smoke right beneath the plane. It was so bad I blogged about it.

For the first few days, it was a light haze. But yesterday it settled in so thick that not only could I smell the smoke, but I couldn’t see the river from my house, let alone the airport on the shelf right above it. Sure enough, the airport was reporting 1-1/4 mile visibility. Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), meaning that it wasn’t legal for me to fly without getting a special VFR clearance from Seattle.

Bad View
I shot this photo from my deck yesterday when the visibility was at its worse.

Foreflight Weather
Turning on ForeFlight’s visibility layer displays visibility in miles at each airport that provides this data. Clicking the number displays details.

I emailed my client yesterday, asking him to check in with me an hour before the flight. But I wound up calling him this morning, two hours before the flight. I’d used ForeFlight, the basis of my electronic flight bag, to check conditions at Pangborn Memorial Airport, which I could barely see across the river. It was reporting visibility at 2-1/2 miles: IMC.

Could I fly in these conditions? Technically, yes. I could get a Special VFR clearance to leave my home (which is within Pangborn’s Class E airspace) and fly up to Baker Flats where my client would be waiting. That’s in Class G airspace where only 1/2 mile visibility is required for helicopters during the day. I could then do the whole tour, making sure I stayed out of class E airspace or get another clearance if I wanted to enter Class E. So yes, it’s legal.

But is it safe? Well, since I would always remain within sight of the ground and whatever’s at least a half mile in from of me and I can fly at virtually any speed to keep it safe, then yes, it’s safe.

So by Papillon’s standards — at least those back in 2004 when I flew there — I shouldn’t hesitate to do the flight. After all, it’s money in the bank, right?

I don’t think that way. It’s all about passenger experience. Other than me getting paid for a hour of flight time, what’s the benefit? The tour would be terrible — my passengers wouldn’t be able to see more than a mile or two during the entire flight. What’s “scenic” about that?

My client understood perfectly. He was happy to cancel. We agreed that we’d keep an eye on conditions and that if, by some miracle, a wind kicked up and blew some of the smoke out, we could try in the afternoon. Or maybe tomorrow. I’ve got nothing on my schedule. But it’s more likely that we won’t do it at all since his guests are leaving town on the 6 AM flight tomorrow morning. (Provided Horizon can get the last flight in tonight.)

In the meantime, I don’t mind staying home today. It’s better indoors with the windows shut than outside breathing that crap we’re importing from Canada.

A Profile Trifecta

Another 45 minutes of fame?

In 1968, Andy Warhol shared the immortal words, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” If that’s true, I got another 45 minutes worth this past week when interviews with me were published in various formats in three publications.

The Saturday Evening Post

The first was, of all things, the Saturday Evening Post. Yeah — the same publication famous for Normal Rockwell Americana paintings on its cover. I honestly admit that I didn’t know it was still being published. But it is and one of my former editors at Peachpit (I think) and InformIT now works there. She passed my name along to a writer, Nick Gilmore, who does their “Second Chapters” column about career changes. I think he was surprised to hear that I had not one but two career changes. He focused on the second change in his piece about me. You can read it for yourself here: “Second Chances: Write or Flight.” I think he did an amazing job, cramming a ton of information into fewer than 1200 words.

Saturday Evening Post Article

The Mac Observer

A little after my interview with the Saturday Evening Post, I was approached about doing a podcast episode for The Mac Observer‘s “Background Mode” podcast. Podcaster John Martellaro, who is also a pilot, flattered me a bit by calling me a “legendary” Mac author. Our talk was remarkably similar to the Post interview, touching on many of the same topics. Oddly, it was released the same day as the Post piece. You can listen to it here: “TMO Background Mode Interview with Author, Photographer and Pilot Maria Langer.”

Background Mode

The Good Life

Good Life Cover
If I’d known that a photo of me would appear on the front cover of the magazine, I probably would have put on some makeup and brushed my hair.

For a short while last year, I belonged to a writer’s group here in the Wenatchee area. That’s where I met Jaana Hatton, a world traveler (literally) who had settled in the Wenatchee area and was building a career as a writer. She asked if she could interview me about my beekeeping activities for The Good Life, a local monthly magazine. I said yes, mostly to help her out. She came out for a chat one day and a magazine photographer came a few weeks later for photos and a video. Never in my wildest dreams did I think a photo of me, looking typically disheveled, would appear on the front cover of the magazine’s August issue! If you’re interested, you can read the article here: “BEE RANCHER: Keeping the buzz alive.”

People Find Me

What amazes me most about all three of these profile pieces is that in each case it was the author/podcaster who tracked me down for an interview. I wasn’t looking for publicity — the days of me wanting or needing that are long gone. But apparently people think I’m interesting, which is rather amusing to me. I’m just moving forward with my life. There’s nothing special about me — anyone who is driven to make the most of their life can be interview-worthy, too.