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Are Helicopters Faster Than Cars? Well, It Depends…


We have all seen the footage of criminals trying to outrun the police helicopter and it is very, very rare that they get away, but yet cars travel so much faster than helicopters or do they?

The fastest helicopter recorded is the Westland Lynx at 295mph in 1986 and the fastest street car recorded is the Bugatti Cheron SuperSport at 306mph, but traffic and speed limits severely limit the speed of a car, thus helicopters will always beat cars from Point A to B when using the roads.

I love to see a good race between two very different vehicles and cars vs. helicopters are always great to watch but when it comes to real-world applications which are really faster? Going by air or going by road?

Let’s take a look…

Helicopter Vs Car Top Speeds

At the time of writing this in 2020 each category of vehicle has its king sitting atop of the throne:

Worlds Fastest Helicopter

The world record for the fastest helicopter is held by the Westland Lynx at 295mph/413kph/223kts set in 1986 and it still stands to this day. There are Hybrid helicopters in development like the AW609 Tilt-Rotor and Airbus & Sikorsky Pusher-Prop helicopters but for this article, they are not classed as a true helicopter and ignored.

Worlds Fastest Road Car

This current crown of the world’s fastest road car belongs to the Bugatti Chiron SuperSport with a top speed of 304mh/489kph/264kts. This world record was set on August 2nd, 2019 at Volkswagen’s test facility in Ehra-Lessien.

This is an insane speed and as you can see it beats the world’s fastest helicopter hands down, but when we begin to get back to the real world of traveling from point A to point B this changes.

Helicopter Vs Car In The Real World

Helicopters work best for traveling over specific distances or to reach specific locations. When those distances are small the car is a better choice, between 10-100 miles the helicopter is the best choice, but then over 100 miles a plane is a better option.

This is the principle behind many Med-Evac helicopter operations. Each Med-Evac base will have a donut similar to this and it can vary greatly based on local topography and population.

But generally, within the tight confines of the inner city core, the land ambulance will be the fastest vehicle. Between 10-100nm then the helicopter is faster and outside the red, a plane is fastest (proving the patient is brought to and from the airport).

Short Distances

Over short distances, the car will be the fastest and most convenient method of transport. It is easy to get in a car drive the short distance and be at the destination providing the commuter is in the city.

Where the helicopter will be faster, is if the short distance is in rural areas with little to no roads. Where I live, there is a remote community only 12nm miles from the city but the road is gravel and not straight. It can take 45 minutes to get there by car but only 8 minutes in the helicopter.

Straight Line Sprint

These are always great fun to watch on YouTube! Awesome technologies side by side down race track! We all know cars can accelerate fast off the line but what about a helicopter?? Watch and find out…

As The Crow Flies

This is a typical scenario where a helicopter would most likely be used. Four Hedge Fund Managers from a Wall Street Investment Company want to go and play golf for the afternoon at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton.

Lets look at the two modes of transport side by side and compare:

Journey By Car

Office To Maidstone Club:

The limo has to take the longer southern route because of the current road closures on the northern route resulting in the total distance increasing from 106 miles to 118 miles.

This journey according to Google (I wish I had the finances to even play a round of golf at the Maidstone Club!) should take around 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Total Time Taken = Approximately 2.5 hours

Journey By Helicopter

This journey has 3 parts:

Office To Wall Street Heliport:

The limo ride from Wall Street to the Wall Street Heliport is 1 mile and should take around 6-10 minutes with regular traffic.

Wall Street Heliport To East Hampton Airport:

With most VIP clients the helicopter will be either running at the guests’ arrival or be ready to start the second they are onboard. The distance from the heliport to the airport is 82nm.

With an average speed of 135 kts (taking into account acceleration, climb, descent, and landing) the journey should take about 40 minutes.

East Hampton Airport To Maidstone Club:

Another limo will then drive the fund managers 5 miles from the East Hampton Airport to the Maidstone club taking approximately 12 minutes.

Swapping modes of transport and getting going each time:

Total Time Taken = Approximately 1 h 15 minutes

However, I know from talking to the corporate helicopter pilots while at annual simulator training in New Jersey, that there is great pressure from the local community to prevent helicopters landing at East Hampton airport because of noise.

If the fund managers have to fly into West Hampton airport then the helicopter journey is shortened to 63nm and the limo ride to the golf club is extended to 30 miles.

Total Time Taken = Approximately 2 hours

Even with this additional ride in the car the helicopter easily out beats the car for a trip like this. It becomes even faster if the helicopter is able to land and park right at the chosen destination.

Traffic & Speed Limits

We all know traffic can be horrendous! A 10 mile drive taking 1-2 hours makes anyone want to scream. If the pure volume of traffic is not enough to slow down the speed of a car, hen the speed limits will (unless you live in Germany and have the Autobahn’s to play on!)

Even with Freeway speeds the cars still have to follow the route of the road which is very rarely a straight line, unless you get out into the rural plains.

Helicopters are never limited by speed. Below 10,00ft all aircraft speed is limited of 250kts and no conventional helicopter can cruise anywhere near that speed. The new hybrid helicopters are a different story, however!

Eurocopter/Airbus X3 Hybrid Helicopter – Source: Bernd Brincken

As most flights are able to fly in a straight line between departure (unless restricted airspace, weather, terrain or ATC dictate otherwise) and destination with no speed limit, the helicopter can rapidly cover the distance.

Flying at 2-3 miles per minute compared to 1-1.2 miles per minute for a car on the freeway you can easily see the helicopter is faster.

To Finish

For those people who can afford the luxury of taking a helicopter then they will generally beat you to the same destination if you both leave at the same time.

One of the only times that helicopters will lose is when the helicopter is not ready and its owner then has to push it out of the hanger, fuel it up, do the daily inspection, file the flight plan and then take off. Then a car can really punish the speed of the helicopter.

A Home With A Hanger & Helipad Is Really Convenient!

Like most things in life, if the modes of transport are all ready to go with no delays, cars, planes, helicopters, boats, motorcycles, you name it, can all beat each other in their own rights. Selecting the right mode of transport for that journey will always be the most efficient for those that can afford it.

For the rest of us, the car will always be our trusty steed!

Further Reading

If you found this interesting you might like to read these articles:

Rick James

I am an aviation nut! I'm an ATP-rated helicopter pilot & former flight instructor with over 3500 hours spanning 3 countries and many different flying jobs. I love aviation and everything about it. I use these articles to pass on cool facts and information to you whether you are a pilot or just love aviation too! If you want to know more about me, just click on my picture!

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