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Buying a Helicopter? Which is the Best?


The thought of owning your own helicopter is just a dream to many but for those of you that may be looking to have your own rotary limo, there are a few questions on which is the best helicopter to buy. Helicopters are not cheap so getting the right one for you is paramount. The question is there are so many different types of helicopters so which one do you choose?

The best helicopter to buy is the one that is going to suit your usage needs and budget. The Robinson R44 is a popular 4 seat family helicopter, the Leonardo A109 is a popular twin-engine, IFR-capable family or corporate helicopter, and the Sikorsky S76 is a popular luxury VIP all-weather helicopter.

The best helicopter for you may be completely different from the person standing next to you so in this article we are going to look at what it takes to find the best helicopter for you…

What Factors do you Need to Consider for Finding the Best Helicopter?

Just like buying a car, the thought process needs to cover several key areas to help you find the best helicopter to meet and sometimes exceed your requirements. After flying helicopters for decades here are what I would look at if I won the lottery tomorrow and I was about to find the best helicopter for me.

Factors you will need to consider are:

  • Budget
  • Usage Frequency
  • Type of Usage
  • Distance to Travel
  • Weather Capability

Then you will need to consider:

  • Which is the Best Personal Helicopter?
  • Which is the Best Helicopter for a Family?
  • Which is the Best Helicopter for a Small Business?
  • Which is the Best Corporate Helicopter?
  • Which is the Best VIP Helicopter?

Let’s take a look at all these factors to see which is the best helicopter to suit your needs…


Budget

Helicopters require a considerable investment in two areas. The first is the initial purchase cost. You can find excellent helicopters in the used market and that can save you a fortune, or if you wish to buy brand new there are a lot of great options also.

The second cost is the helicopter’s ongoing running costs. Fuel, maintenance, overhaul, insurance, hangarage, landing fees are just a few to name. These will all be calculated into the hourly running cost of the helicopter which will be less the more it’s flown each year.

For an example of the hourly running cost of a Robinson R44 see their guidance sheet below:

Piston-powered helicopters are cheaper to buy and run compared to a turbine helicopter, but a turbine helicopter can carry more people. A single-engine helicopter is cheaper to buy and run compared to a twin-engine helicopter but a twin will be able to fly in poor weather.

For a piston-powered helicopter, expect to pay anywhere from $100,000 used to $500,000 new and budget anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to $1000 per flight hour.

For a turbine-powered helicopter, expect to pay anywhere from $500,000 used to $1,000,000 new and budget anywhere from $500 hundred dollars up to several thousand per flight hour.

Usage Frequency

The more hours that a helicopter is flown each year the cheaper it becomes to operate each hour. Helicopter maintenance and its components are based on hours and a calendar. The cost to have those components inspected and replaced will be divided by the hours flown.

For Example:

Looking at the Robinson R44 cost breakdown above, that is based on 500 hours flown each year. at 500 hours you would need to budget around $257/hour. If the helicopter only flew 200 hours that hourly cost would be around $295/hour.

If you were thinking of buying a helicopter to fly your family to the cottage at back for half the year and that flight was 1 hour then you would be looking at an annual hourly usage of 2hours x 25 weekends = 50 hours per year. For the R44 you would have to budget around $370/hour.

A few years ago I was talking with a helicopter broker and he gave me this rough guide for helicopter usage to best maximize a budget. It will vary buy helicopter but it looked like this:

Annual Usage of 1-200 hours  = Rent or charter the helicopter from a helicopter company
Annual Usage of 200 – 500 hours = Lease the helicopter from a leasing company
Annual Usage over 500 hours = Buy the helicopter

Type of Usage

Depending on what you wish to accomplish with the helicopter will dictate which is the best airframe for you. Do you want a helicopter to fly your family to your properties or take your friends out for dinner or rounds of golf? Do you want to beat the traffic and commute to work and back? Do you need to travel to remote locations to visit customers or clients? Do you want to use it for marketing, PR, or sweetening a business deal?

The number of people you wish to fly at any one time will dictate the size of the helicopter. If you plan on carrying any cargo/baggage will also need consideration. The Robinson R44 can fly the pilot and 3 passengers, but you will not be able to fit in 4 sets of golf clubs!

Just like buying a car – If you have a family of 4 and wish to go on vacation each weekend, buy the SUV. If you wish to beat the traffic by yourself, buy the two-seater sports car. Helicopter selection is the same!

If you need to get to work no matter what the weather then a twin-engine, IFR-capable helicopter like the Agusta/Leonardo A109 or Airbus H135 are great choices. Flying from your home airport to the nearby city airport/heliport is a very popular method for those whose time is precious.

Distance to Travel

Helicopters are nowhere near as fast as an airplane when it comes to going from point A to point B. But if you wish to leave from your home and land anywhere you wish then a helicopter is only the way to go, albeit at a slower speed.

Helicopters are great for journeys under 100nm. Over that, then a plane from airport to airport with a limo ride on each end will generally be faster and cheaper. Helicopters can cover a lot of ground though in a very short space of time, and if the majority of the flights you wish to do are under 100nm then the ease of travel in a helicopter is a no-brainer.

Here is a selection of airspeeds and the time it takes to travel set distances:

AIRSPEEDDISTANCE
15NM
DISTANCE
30NM
DISTANCE
50NM
DISTANCE
100NM
60 kts15 min30 min50 min1h40 min
80 kts13 min23 min36 min1h15 min
100 kts9 min18 min30 min60 min
120 kts8 min 15 min25 min50 min
150 kts6 min12 min20 min40 min
kts = Knots : NM = Nautical Miles : min = Minutes

The speed of the helicopter and the distance you need to travel regularly will help to narrow down the shortlist. Long distances are better suited to the twin, IFR helicopters. Short distances and pleasure flights are best suited to the larger single-engine helicopters like the Robinsons or Bells.

Weather Capability

When a good portion of the flights you wish to take involve flying at night or in poor weather, then the best helicopter and safest helicopter will be a twin-engine, IFR-capable airframe.


IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules and it allows the pilot/s to fly by sole reference to the aircraft instrumentation and under the guidance and oversight of air traffic control. This is how the airlines and corporate jets fly. VFR is when a pilot needs to remain in sight with the ground at all times.

Flying in cloud, fog, or at night in sparsely lit areas causes many aircraft crashes when a pilot is untrained or their aircraft is un-equipped. If the majority of your flying is in a location where fog, cloud, or rain is common and journeys like a commute cannot be affected by weather then this type of helicopter is your best choice.

The unfortunate accident involving Koby Bryant brought this to light. The aircraft was a well-equipped twin-engine, IFR-capable helicopter, but the pilot was not trained to fly IFR. If he had been, the flight would have been uneventful.

If however, you just want to sightsee and fly back and forth for pleasure during the day then any of the helicopters are a great choice.

The more adverse the weather, the more the helicopter is going to cost, along with the training and/or staffing costs

What is the Best Helicopter for Personal Use?

The Robinson R22, Guimbal Cabri G2 & Rotor X A600 Turbo are perfect personal helicopters. Small, economical, fast, and fun to fly are by far the most requirements for most pilots seeking a personal helicopter. These two-seat helicopters are perfect for the commute or, pleasure flying or work.

Most personal helicopters are the smaller, and cheaper helicopters as these tend to be most pilots’ first dabble into helicopter ownership. Because of this, budget is usually the main consideration, and these helicopters tick all the boxes for the cheaper end of the market.

Robinson
R22 Beta II

Source: Pilot Teacher
Price New:$318,000
Price Used:$50,000 – $300,000
# of Seats:2
Engine Type:1x Piston – Carburated
Cruise Speed:70 kts
Typical Endurance:2 – 2.5 Hours

By far the world’s most popular two-seat helicopter. Used for many as a personal helicopter but also as the world’s most popular training aircraft.

Its low purchase cost, running cost, and maneuverability make this a great personal helicopter.

I have 1000 hours in these so I am slightly biased, but this would be my Top Pick!

Guimbal
Cabri G2

Source: James
Price New:$385,000
Price Used:$250,000 – $360,000
# of Seats:2
Engine Type:1x Piston – Carburated
Cruise Speed:80 kts
Typical Endurance:3.5 – 4 Hours

Rapidly becoming a common site in flight schools across the world the Cabri G2 is a great 2 seat helicopter.

Its 3-bladed rotor and Fenestron tail alleviate some of the dangers associated with its competitors, making it a more forgiving helicopter.

With digital avionics and a large capacity fuel tank this is a perfect personal helicopter.

Rotor X
Phoenix A600 Turbo

Source: Aeroprints
Price New:$98,500
Price Used:$40,000 – $150,000
# of Seats:2
Engine Type:1x Piston – Turbo
Cruise Speed:80 kts
Typical Endurance:3 – 3.5 Hours

Aimed as a kit helicopter but with a factory-built option, this is the latest generation of personal DIY helicopters.

A long history of upgrades and improvements see this 2 seat helicopter as a popular choice at an affordable price.

With many kits sold, there is a great community behind this helicopter.

  • For those that want the tried and tested workhorse, the Robinson R22 is the hands-down winner.
  • For those that like a little more forgiving helicopter with a modern cockpit then the Cabri is the best choice.
  • For those who like to build and tinker or those on a limited purchase budget, the Phoenix A600 is the class leader.

What is the Best Helicopter for a Family?

Family helicopters are usually a minimum of 4 seats with an impressive safety record. Helicopters for this category can be both piston and gas turbine-powered with basic or advanced avionics. Budget is really the main factor in selecting a helicopter perfect for a family.

Here are my 4 top picks for a helicopter that would be perfect for a family, and having flown in all of them they are all great helicopters with impressive histories to back them!

Robinson
R44 Raven II

Source: Bidgee
Price New:$500,000
Price Used:$180,000 – $450,000
# of Seats:4
Engine Type:1x Piston – Carburated
Cruise Speed:110 kts
Typical Endurance:3 Hours

Building on the design pedigree of it older brother, the R22, the R44 is the worlds best-selling helicopter for a reason!

Their impressive low purchase and running costs make them the most affordable 4 seat helicopter in the world. With thousands of R44’s flying all over the world the ease of finding one to purchase and/or train in is very simple.

With a vast selection of optional extras to pick from the R44 can be easily tailored to suit each family’s particular needs.

Bell Helicopter
JetRanger III

Source: Pilot Teacher
Price New:Production
Ended 2010
Price Used:$280,000 – $1M
# of Seats:5
Engine Type:1x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:100 kts
Typical Endurance:2.5 – 3 Hours

The JetRanger has been not only a workhorse but a personal and corporate helicopter for decades. With millions of hours flown over its lifetime, the safety pedigree is unmatched.

Although it is an older technology helicopter they can be flying in every country with many great deals to be found on in the used helicopter market.

With a super-reliable gas turbine engine, it has good power and a large cargo compartment allowing this helicopter to fulfill the needs of most families for under $1M

Eurocopter
EC120 Colibri

Price New:Production
Ended 2018
Price Used:$600,000 – $1M
# of Seats:5
Engine Type:1x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:110 kts
Typical Endurance:3 – 3.5 Hours

For those owners wanting an open-cabin design with great views from all seats, low running costs, and a super quiet helicopter to keep their neighbors at peace, the EC120 is a great choice.

With 5 seats, or fitted with 4 luxury VIP seats, these make a very comfortable, smooth, and fast ride.

There are many to be found on the used market, but not being as popular as other helicopters, a little more searching will be required to find a great deal under the $1M mark.

Leonardo/Agusta
AW109

Source: James
Price New:$6M
Price Used:$500,000 – $5M
# of Seats:8
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:155 kts
Typical Endurance:2.5 – 3 Hours

If weather is a big concern and the safety requirement of two engines is high on the ‘Must-Have’ list then the 109 is the perfect helicopter for those with a larger budget.

These fast, night, and IFR-capable helicopters make them a great choice for families and businesses allowing them to fly in almost any weather condition.

Being a wheeled helicopter, they also make for easy towing in and out of the hanger by just a single person making them perfect for families flying to and from their favorite destinations.

  • For those that want want a budget-friendly 4 seat family helicopter, the R44 is a great choice.
  • For those that wish to have the power and reliability of a gast turbine engine, the JetRanger and EC120 are perfect.
  • For those with a bigger budget and want to fly, no matter the weather, the A109 is the catagory leader!

What is the Best Helicopter for a Small Business?

For a business, a helicopter needs to save employees time and be cost-effective. A fast, comfortable and reliable helicopter is usually sought after. The Robinson R44, Bell 407, Airbus H125, and Leonardo A109 all fulfill these requirements with operating costs to meet every budget.

No matter the size of the small business, this selection of great helicopters has an impressive safety record and are all still in production today, making not only the used market very attractive, but if the budget allows, a perfectly tailored and personalized helicopter to match your business brand.

Robinson
R44 Raven II

Source: Bidgee
Price New:$500,000
Price Used:$180,000 – $450,000
# of Seats:4
Engine Type:1x Piston – Carburated
Cruise Speed:110 kts
Typical Endurance:3 Hours

For small businesses that need fast, cost-effective transportation the R44 is hard to beat. Being able to seat the pilot and 3 passengers this helicopter can be used for a plethora of roles.

Whether it is used for moving staff between facilities, flying out to remote locations, or for PR when big contracts are needing to be signed, the R44 is a great choice when a business owner is looking to add an aerial asset to its fleet.

With many used helicopters available it will not be hard to find one to suit the limited budget of a small business.

Bell Helicopters
407

Source: Stuart.Mike
Price New:$3.2M
Price Used:$1.2M – $3M
# of Seats:7
Engine Type:1x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:130 kts
Typical Endurance:3 – 4 Hours

When the step up to a powerful gas-turbine engine is required the 407 is a popular choice. With seating for the pilot and 6 passengers, this helicopter will fulfill the requirements for any small business.

With many helicopters on the used market and the very latest technology rolling off the Bell production line every day this helicopter has options to suit any business.

With a large cargo compartment and lots of power, this helicopter can easily be used for passenger transportation or as a utility workhorse.

Airbus H125/
Eurocopter AS350 Astar

Source: Pilot Teacher
Price New:$3M
Price Used:$500,000 – $2.5M
# of Seats:6
Engine Type:1x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:125 kts
Typical Endurance:3 – 3.5 Hours

There is a reason why the Astar is one of the most common helicopters seen working commercial operations the world over – It’s fantastic at everything it does!

With a large, open cabin, the passengers get a great view and its powerful engine allows it to lift an incredible payload giving for long endurance or more cargo.

With a pedigree proven over 50 years, this helicopter is a pilot and passenger favorite.

There are many used Astars available and the brand new H125 can be tailored to suit any business’s brand and budget.

Leonardo/Agusta
AW109

Source: James
Price New:$6M
Price Used:$500,000 – $5M
# of Seats:8
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:155 kts
Typical Endurance:2.5 – 3 Hours

When time is of the essence and a fast and reliable helicopter is required, the A109 is the leader.

With two engines and an IFR cockpit and avionics, this helicopter can transport employees at high speed and in pretty much all weather.

If business meetings, commuting, or guest transportation is required then the A109 provides the reliability, comfort, and safety then many executives demand from their vehicles.

Another helicopter with 50 years of pedigree behind it sees the newest generations packed with the latest technology all the way through to older, but great airframes in the used market.

  • For those that want want a budget-friendly, small but fast helicopter, the R44 is a great choice.
  • For those that wish to lots of power and versitility the Bell 407 or Airbus H125 are the best pick.
  • For those that need a super fast, all-weather capabale helicopter the A109 is again the top choice.

What is the Best Corporate Helicopter?

The best corporate helicopter is taken up by the Leonardo A109, Airbus H135, or the Leonardo A169. These helicopters require a healthy budget to buy and run but their capabilities, speed, and seating capacities make them the most popular corporate helicopters in the world.

Most corporate helicopters need to fulfill fast and efficient executive transport without compromise. Having two engines, modern glass cockpits and all-weather capabilities allow these helicopters to easily transport staff between airports, helipads, and company facilities day or night.

Leonardo/Agusta AW109

Source: James
Price New:$6M
Price Used:$500,000 – $5M
# of Seats:8
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:155 kts
Typical Endurance:2.5 – 3 Hours

With the first A109 rolling off the production line this is a helicopter with a pedigree for luxury transport. The latest model, the A109 GrandNew comes packed with the latest helicopter technology like Single-Pilot IFR and Category A capabilities.

A modern glass cockpit featuring a 4-axis digital autopilot allows the pilot/s to easily fly this aircraft in all weather. for the passengers, a luxurious 5 or 6 seat VIP cabin, wide doors, and retractable steps allow the most graceful of entry and exits from the aircraft.

When speed and reliability for the lower end of the Twin-Engine, IFR-capable machines are required, the Leonardo A109 is a perfect choice. For those wishing to spend a little less, the abundance of used 109’s available makes this helicopter available to all corporations.

Airbus H135/Eurocopter EC135

Source: James
Price New:$6M
Price Used:$1M – $5M
# of Seats:6-7
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:135 kts
Typical Endurance:2.5 – 3 Hours

The H135 entered service under Eurocopter as the EC135 in 1996 and has seen many upgrades culminating in the ACH135 – The corporate version. Offering 4-5 seats in a spacious cabin with the much quieter running Fenestron tail rotor system gives this helicopter an advantage when neighbor noise complaints could be an issue.

Having no conventional tail rotor, this helicopter has become very popular among corporations and private owners who do a lot of yacht-based operations. A spacious baggage hold provides ample room for those golf clubs or suitcases when PR requires, and coupled with two immensely powerful Turbomeca engines gives this helicopter the speed to move passengers efficiently.

This helicopter comes fully equipped with all-weather flight capabilities, autopilot, digital engine control, terrain awareness, and a glass cockpit allowing the pilots a nice office in which to work. New ACH135 helicopters can be crafted to the highest standards with some aircraft designed in collaboration with brands like Mercedes AMG and Hermes, or the high availability of used or leased options make this helicopter a great choice.

Leonardo/Agusta Westland AW169

Source: Adrian
Price New:$9M
Price Used:$6M – $8M
# of Seats:7-10
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:145 kts
Typical Endurance:3.5 – 4 Hours

The AW169 is the newcomer to the corporate helicopter market. First launched in 2015 this is a Light-Intermediate, Twin-Engine, IFR capable powerhouse. The large cabin offers passenger seating from 5-8 with 1 or 2 pilots upfront.

The powerful Pratt & Whitney engines allow this helicopter to carry substantially more than its slightly smaller competitors allowing for increased soundproofing and the addition of an APU (Auxillary Power Unit) to allow the pilots to have the avionics on and configured and the cabin HVAC set so the passengers are in complete comfort from the second they board.

Being such a new helicopter to the market the number of used models available is very small. Deals can be found but will take some searching, but if your company is looking for a new purchase or leasing option and you are needing to move passengers in luxury then this helicopter is for you.

What is the Best VIP Helicopter?

The best VIP helicopter is split between the Airbus H155, Leonardo AW139, and Sikorsky S92. When convenience and ultimate luxury are the highest priority these machines fulfill every need. These helicopters begin at around $10M and go up, but if money is of no concern, then these fit the bill.

To the wealthy, the addition of a helicopter to their list of assets is the ultimate show of wealth, however, these helicopters need to save the owners time and provide convenience at the highest levels. Moving from the private jet to a helicopter to fly you off to a property, yacht, or country club is the only way to travel.

Sikorsky S76

Source: Airwolfhound
Price New:$10M
Price Used:$600,000 – $8M
# of Seats:14
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:150 kts
Typical Endurance:3 – 3.5 Hours

The original ultimate VIP helicopter. Since its first flight in 1977, the S76 has gone through seven upgrades over the years to increase its power, safety, and avionics culminating in the D Model taking flight in 2012. The original designer wanted the helicopters’ lines to flow and make it look sexy which created huge challenges for the mechanical engineers!

In the original A model, the flight controls all converged into a mechanical mixing unit which is mounted above the cabin roof and it is pure wizardry and an engineering masterpiece. Apparently, the mechanical engineer who solved this design problem went clinically insane by the time he accomplished it, and if I can ever find a video ill be sure to post it!

When configured for VIP the cabin can seat any number from 4 – 8 seats in the utmost luxury. Coupled with a fast cruise and all-weather capabilities this was the VIP ‘Top Dog’ for decades. Now it has some stiff competition, but the S76 will always remain as the all-time VIP TrailBlazer.

Leonardo/Agusta Westland AW139

Source: Pilot Teacher
Price New:$15M
Price Used:$5M – $13M
# of Seats:14
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:155 kts
Typical Endurance:3 – 3.5 Hours

Primarily designed to take on the offshore oil and gas market the AW139 soon found its way to the top of the VIP helicopter list. This helicopter was a leap of faith for the Agusta Helicopter company who originally teamed up with Bell, but then moved over to partner with Westland to finish the design you see today.

This gamble paid off as the 139 is one of the most used transport and VIP helicopters all over the world. It’s the fastest in its class and I can tell you that at 155knots its as smooth as silk and has incredible power. Its VIP interior allows its passengers any bells and whistles they like as the power this helicopter produces is insane.

Its large cargo hold goes from one side of the helicopter to the other just behind the main cabin and when configured for VVIP it can seat between 4 – 8 passengers in some of the most stunning interiors I have ever seen.

One major selling factor is its Anti-Icing technology making this a true all-weather capable helicopter and the Honeywell Primus Epic avionics make this helicopter a breeze to pilot – To this day it’s my favorite helicopter I have ever flown!

Sikorsky S92

Source: James
Price New:$27M
Price Used:$5M – $25M
# of Seats:21
Engine Type:2x Gas Turbine
Cruise Speed:150 kts
Typical Endurance:3 – 3.5 Hours

When the world’s 1% want the ultimate VVIP helicopter the Sikorsky S92 is the only machine to fit the bill. Mainly designed for carrying 19 passengers out to offshore oil rigs and back, this helicopter provides the biggest cabin of any VIP helicopter.

It can be fitted with sofas, reclining chairs, pull-out beds, galley, and even a toilet! The budget and imagination is the only thing that can get in the way of providing the customer with their dream helicopter. Due to its high price and heavyweight, there are not that many S92’s flying in the VIP configuration but those that are are some of the most stunning examples of what money can buy.

The S92 also comes with an APU (Auxilliary Power Unit) to allow the helicopter to be ready to go and have the cabin’s climate set perfectly to the clients’ request. This allows the rotors to be stationary while boarding but gives a quick startup to be underway in minutes.

The rear of the helicopter has a drop-down door that reveals a cargo bay capable of carrying over 1000lbs of baggage or can be kitted out as a gun rack with a whiskey/champagne bar as I saw on my last visit to an S92VIP.

To Finish

When selecting the perfect helicopter it all comes down to what the aircraft is going to be used for and what the budget is. Owning any helicopter is not cheap and when you get up into the larger twin-engine helicopters they really need serious planning to ensure they become an asset and not a liability!

Having flown most of the helicopters on this list I can tell you that they are all incredible helicopters and once you have selected the right helicopter to match your needs you will be forever want to be flying and not sitting in traffic.

Whether selecting a helicopter to fly during the day, night, in clouds, or in ice & freezing rain there is a model to meet these requirements and more. With today’s modern glass cockpits crammed full with sophisticated avionics it makes flying a breeze allowing the pilots more mental capacity to ensure every flight is inducted safely and efficiently.

If you are planning to purchase a helicopter to fly yourself or your family then it is a decision I can guarantee you will not regret!

Further Reading

If you found this article helpful here are a few more you may like to read:

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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