How Much Fuel Does a Helicopter Use? ( With Statistics!)

The helicopter is one of the most versatile types of aircraft. Its ability to hover and take-off and land virtually anywhere makes it the perfect choice for a whole range of operations where fixed-wing airplanes can’t be used. With these abilities, you would naturally expect a helicopter to use quite some fuel.

So, how much fuel does a helicopter use?

A small piston-powered helicopter normally uses between 6-16 gallons of fuel per hour. Larger turbine-powered helicopters can use anywhere between 20 to several hundreds of gallons of fuel per hour. Moreover, helicopters use more fuel when hovering than in cruise.

The helicopter with the highest fuel consumption is the MIL MI-26. Its two 11,000 horsepower strong jet engines burn 1000 gallons of fuel per hour and have enough power to lift a smaller airliner. Just watch the video below!

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the ultralight helicopters that can burn as little as 6 gallons of fuel per hour. The Mosquito Air shown in the image below is a great example of such a helicopter.

As you see, there is quite a difference in fuel burn depending on the helicopter model. Let’s have a look at some examples to give you a better idea of the fuel consumption for various normal helicopter models and sizes.

Helicopter Fuel Consumption By Helicopter Category

Here we will look at the fuel consumption for the most common helicopters in each category. We have chosen to make the distinction between:

  • Piston powered helicopters
  • turbine-powered helicopters
  • Military Helicopters

Piston powered helicopters

A piston engine is the same type of engine you have in your car. In short, the fuel goes into the combustion chamber, where it’s ignited. The explosion makes the piston move, which in turn makes the rotor blades rotate.

Piston powered helicopters have the advantage of being cheap and low weight, while providing high maneuverability. Therefore they are used a lot for sightseeing, flight training law enforcement, and similar operations.

Most piston-powered helicopters flying today are quite small, which is reflected in their low fuel consumption.

Here is the fuel consumption for three of the most common piston helicopters:

Helicopter ModelGallons per hour
Bell 4715
Robinson R-228
Robinson R-4415

Turbine powered helicopters

Turbine engines, also called jet engines, are the engine of choice for medium-sized to large helicopters. Not only are they much more powerful than piston engines, but when engine power increases, they become a lot lighter as well relative to their output. In addition, they are more reliable and work much better at high altitudes.

On the negative side, they consume quite a lot of fuel and cost quite a lot more than a piston engine.

Here is how much fuel four common turbine helicopters consume per hour:

Helicopter ModelFuel Consumption (Gallons per Hour)
Bell 206 JetRanger30
Airbus EC135P275
Hughes OH-6 Cayuse22
Eurocopter AS35045

Military Helicopters

Military helicopters need to be fast, agile, and come with the ability to carry a lot of equipment. This often makes them pretty large, and together with their powerful engines, they are bound to burn quite some fuel!

Here are two common military helicopters and their fuel consumption:

Helicopter ModelGallons Per Hour
Boeing CH-47 Chinook390
Sikorsky UH-60 “Black Hawk”120

Does a Helicopter Use More Fuel When Hovering?

A helicopter uses more fuel when hovering than in forward flight.

When a helicopter hovers, all the lift must be generated by its main rotor, which in turn means that it must accelerate a lot of air. However, if the helicopter moves forward, more air is flowing through the rotors, resulting in that the air needs to be accelerated less to create the necessary lift.

What Kind of Fuel Does A Helicopters Use?

The type of fuel a helicopter uses depends on the engine type.

A piston helicopter uses “avgas”, which is very similar to regular gasoline. Turbine helicopters run on jet fuel, which is the same fuel type used by large airliners.

The difference between “avgas” and the type of gasoline you would have in your car mainly come down to the following points:

  • Avgas can’t contain ethanol, which often is mixed into normal gasoline. The reason is that ethanol is easily vaporized inside the tank, and attracts water. Both become problematic for an aircraft that experiences large changes in both altitude and temperature.
  • Avgas DOES contain lead, which isn’t the case in normal gasoline.

Why Hasn’t Lead Been Phased Out Yet?

As you perhaps know, lead started to get phased out of gasoline already in 1970, when the congress passed the Clean Air Act. So how come that aviation fuel still has lead in it 50 years later.

Well, Lead is added to the fuel to improve its knock properties, which basically makes the engine operate more reliably. 

It is important to note that Avgas is the only aviation fuel that contains lead. Jet fuel is lead-free.

However, the avgas used today still uses less than half the lead it used to back in the old days. That’s always a plus!

How Much Does It Cost To Fill Up A Helicopter?

Well, to answer this question we just have to consider the price of the fuel and the size of the tank.

Here are some examples of what it would cost to fill up some of the civilian helicopters already mentioned in this article. We’re assuming that fuel costs $5 per gallon. 

Helicopter ModelFuel Tank SizeCost to Fill Up Helicopter
Robinson R-22 (Piston)26$130
Robinson R-44(Piston)47$250
Robinson R-66(Piston)74$370
Bell 206 JetRanger(Turbine)70$350
Bell 47 (Piston)29$145
Mil Mi-2 (Turbine)212$1000
Hughes OH-6 Cayuse (Turbine)85$425
Eurocopter AS350 Écureuil(Turbine)143$715

Where is the Fuel Tank Located?

The fuel tank on a helicopter is generally located somewhere under the main rotor, as most helicopters are really sensitive to changes in the center of gravity. Depending on the helicopter model, the exact location could be both above or below the cabin, or both.

Do Helicopters Use More Fuel Than Planes?

Helicopters use much more fuel than fixed-wing airplanes because their rotors are responsible for creating all the lift. A fixed-wing aircraft, on the other hand, uses the engine to propel the plane forward, with the wings generating most of the lift. 

In addition, the rotating rotor blades of a helicopter will cause a lot of drag when the helicopter cruises at hight speed. The tail rotor also uses some fuel, as it is needed to ensure that the helicopter flies in a stable manner.

Combined with the fact that helicopters fly relatively slow compared to fixed-wing aircraft, their fuel economy as measured in miles per gallon also remains quite high.

For instance, let’s compare the Cessna 150 to the Robinson R-22. Both have room for two pilots, and have a cruise speed around 100 knots, although the Robinson is slightly slower.

A Cessna 150 will burn around 5.5 gallons in one hour, which is going to take you about 120 miles.

On the other hand, a Robinson D-22 is going to burn around 10 gallons and take you 110 miles.

From the above, we get the following figures:

  • Cessna 150: 22 miles/gallon
  • Robinson R-22: 11 miles/gallon

Even though the figures might not be 100% accurate, they get the message across. Helicopters use much more fuel than airplanes!

Ending Words

Helicopters use a lot of fuel. The exact amount depends on the size, weight, and type of helicopter, as well as the engine type. In addition, helicopters use much more fuel when hovering than in mid-flight, since the main rotor has to create all the lift to keep the helicopter in the air.

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