Like most vehicles, helicopters rely upon fossil fuels to meet their energy requirements. Many people tend to assume that helicopters utilize the same fuel as fixed-wing aircraft, but that is not necessarily the case in most circumstances. Additionally, it is important to recognize that fuel demands and compatibility will vary between different helicopters. Choosing the right fuel type can affect the engine's performance, reliability, and operational longevity, which is why it is critical to understand the differences between the various types in routine use. In this blog, we will discuss everything you need to know about helicopter fuel as well as fuel consumption.
The rate at which a helicopter burns fuel is dependent on several factors, including the number of motors, the aircraft's weight, and the maneuvers it is forced to execute. On the lower end, a smaller training helicopter may consume 9-16 gallons of fuel per hour, whereas a larger cargo or transport helicopter may demand upwards of 25-30 gallons per hour. Even the same model of aircraft may have significant variations in fuel consumption. For example, hovering at a higher altitude is far less efficient than low-altitude flight. Likewise, higher speeds burn fuel much faster when in motion.
Piston helicopters rely upon reciprocating engines to produce power. These engines are closer to those used in automobiles than those used in most other aircraft. Although incapable of producing significant amounts of power, piston helicopters retain the benefit of being much more efficient than turbine counterparts. These engines consume AVGAS for fuel, which is an alkylate-based petroleum fuel source. Automotive or MOGAS, which is expected to pass through a catalytic converter to remove impurities, is less regulated than the aviation variant. All AVGAS must meet certain requirements for flight safety, those of which include specific flashpoints and freezing points. However, AVGAS still contains tetra-ethyl lead as an engine lubricant, which has long been phased out of gasoline engines.
Unlike other forms of aviation fuel, AVGAS has a generally stable and inexpensive price point, which usually tracks well with MOGAS. When helicopter pilots are visiting a new airport or fueling station, they may recall the acronym COWS. "C" stands for color, and is a reminder that they should opt for Blue 100LL AVGAS. "O" is odor, which reminds the pilot that the fuel should smell like gasoline instead of a diesel variant. The "W" is included to help in avoiding water in the fuel, while the "S" stands for sediment, which AVGAS should be free of.
Turbine engines produce much more power than their piston counterparts and are used wherever the helicopter must transport more significant cargo or passengers. These engines require jet fuel, which is the same that is used on larger fixed-wing aircraft. This kerosene-based fuel is combined with compressed air in the engine's combustion chamber, creating high-energy exhaust used to drive a power shaft. Unlike AVGAS, which is commonly mixed with dye and smells like automotive gasoline, jet fuel is similar in look and smell to diesel. Any type of fuel mixup could seriously damage either engine type.
Both turbine and piston-based helicopters fill up with a full tank rather quickly, usually between 2-20 minutes, depending on the fueling apparatus. Portable fuel transfer pumps are practical and mobile pieces of equipment that can either be carried onboard the aircraft or borrowed from the fueling site. Most can deliver fuel at rates of 15 gallons per minute, which will fill the majority of aircraft in less than 12 minutes. Alternatively, fuel stations may also have a self-serve fuel bowser which works in a similar fashion to a gas pump for automobiles. Finally, an airport fuel truck may also be employed to deliver higher amounts of fuel rapidly.
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