Is it Cheaper to Own an Airplane or a Helicopter?


Many people are under the impression that aircraft ownership is only for the very wealthy and depending on the aircraft this can be true. But small, very popular aircraft can be owned and operated for as little as $40/day, or even cheaper if you look into ultralights and kit-built aircraft.

The question arises which is cheaper, owning a helicopter or owning an airplane?

In general, owning an airplane is cheaper than owning a helicopter. Helicopters contain more precision and moving components compared to an airplane making the initial purchase cost, ongoing maintenance costs, insurance costs, and hourly operating costs to be higher. 

Here are some typical costs of similar-sized aircraft:

Cessna 152Cessna 172Robinson R22Robinson R44
Cost NewCeased in 1985$369,000 –
$438,000
$332,000$525,000
Cost Used$12,000 +$20,000+$50,000+$180,000+
# of Seats2424
Fixed Annual Costs$4,000$9,200$8,700$12,400
Reserve for Overhaul$10-$15/hour$17-$20/hour$70-$80/hour$100-$110hour
Direct Operating Cost$40-$50/hour$60-$70/hour$70-$80/hour$120-$130/hour
Total Operating Cost$80-$150/hour$100-$200/hour$160-$180/hour$240-$260/hour

How Much Does it Cost to Purchase an Aircraft?

A brand new aircraft will always cost a lot more compared to a used aircraft. Most new aircraft owners will also have to pay the initial sales tax and also incur interest on a higher initial purchase price when financed over several years, but they become the only people outside of the factory to have flown that aircraft!

Owning a used aircraft is by far one of the most popular ways to get your own airplane or helicopter. Due to the vast amount of used aircraft on the market, there are great deals to be found and at costs incredibly lower than the price of a new aircraft. Buyers just need to do their due diligence when it comes to researching the component times and maintenance records to ensure the deal they are getting is actually a good deal!

Learn More
Try These Articles:
* Cost To Buy a Private Jet: 15 Most Popular Models
* Cost To Buy a Helicopter: 15 Most Popular Models

Most Popular Airplanes

Arguably one of the most popular light airplanes to own is the Cessna 172, a four-seat, high-wing airplane. It is the world’s most-produced aircraft that was first built in the 1950s, and it has undergone several upgrades over the decades. 

The most popular model is the C172S, The Cessna Skyhawk. This latest model can range from $369,000 to $438,000 depending on your desired configuration, such as avionics, interior, and paint. 

Cessna 172 Skyhawk – Source: Huhu Uet

While the latest model can seem like a hefty price tag, buying an older model can be affordable as they can go as low as $40,000 to as much as $300,000. 

You can visit Cessna’s website here to find out more about the aircraft and contact a sales representative to estimate your desired configuration for a brand new aircraft.

If you are looking for a smaller, more affordable airplane then the Cessna 152 is another popular model. Introduced in 1977, the main difference is being a two-seater aircraft. 

Cessna stopped producing the 152 model in 1985 to focus more on the 172 but it continues to be one of the most used aircraft for training and personal use. While you cannot buy a brand new Cessna 152, there are many C152s on the market and having a wide price range allows for every budget.

Cessna 152 – Source: MilborneOne

While you can buy a C152 for as low as $12,000, they are often in poor condition and have parts that may be soon due for an overhaul. A decent C152 can be found for around $20,000 and up.

Most Popular Helicopters

For helicopters, the Robinson R44 Raven II is one of the most popular 4-seat helicopters on the market. Being still in production it offers the buyer a choice of brand new from the factory or a healthy selection of used models all over the globe.

Robinson R44 Raven II – Source Bidgee

A brand new Raven II starts around USD$500,000 while a used model can range from USD$180,000 to $450,000.

For more information on the Robinson R44 Raven II please visit the Robinson Helicopter website Here, or configure and price your own Here.

Just like Cessna, the Robinson R22 Beta II is the two-seat alternative. A brand new model starts around USD$320,000, and a used model can range from $50,000 – $300,000.

Robinson R22 Beta II

For more information on the Robinson R22 Beta II please visit the Robinson Helicopter website Here, or configure and price your own Here.

What are Other Expenses that Come with Owning an Aircraft?

No matter which aircraft type you decide to purchase there are additional costs that go along with ownership. Some of the additional costs can vary wildly between aircraft types, while other costs can be similar.

Some of the main costs associated with aircraft ownership are:

  • Hangerage & Parking
  • Landing Fees
  • Fuel Consumption
  • Maintenance and Inspection
  • Insurance
  • Training

Hangerage and Parking

Aircraft are best stored in hangers to keep them out of the weather. Intense sunlight, rain, hail, dust, and high winds can really depreciate the aircraft or cause major damage. The best option is to always house your aircraft indoors between flights.

If you are thinking about purchasing a helicopter they have the added bonus of being able to land on your own property (providing it meets all the requirements for the FAA). If you are looking to purchase an airplane then a runway is needed.

Most municipal airports have hangers available for rent or purchase, you can also rent outdoor and sometimes covered aircraft parking, or you could build your own hanger and/or runway on your own property. 

Depending on whether the aircraft will be parked in a hangar or tied down at a small airport, the fees can range from $50 to $300 per month. There is often no landing fee in small airports, but it is something to be mindful of when looking for hanger space.

Hanger costs are based on the size of the aircraft to fit in it. Most small hangers designed to fit light aircraft can usually accommodate both small helicopters and airplanes.

A Cessna Skyhawk is 27ft long and a wingspan of 36ft whereas a Robinson R44 is 38ft long but is only 7ft wide when the main rotor blades are stowed fore and aft.

Fuel

Most small aircraft contain piston engines which use AVGAS or Aviation Gas. Aircraft with gas turbine engines use Jet-A fuel.
The engine type the aircraft has will dictate its fuel burn and therefore it’s running cost. Gas turbines consume fuel up to 4x more per hour compared to a piston engine. This can be a big decision decider.

In the US, the price of AVGAS ranges from $6.20-$7.10 per gallon, while Jet-A ranges from $6.24-$7.21 per gallon. Here is a website that shows an updated average price for aviation fuel depending on your area in the US.

Fuel Burn

The bigger the aircraft, the bigger its engine, and thus the higher the fuel consumption will be.

Aircraft Type# of CylindersAverage Fuel BurnAverage Cost per HourAverage Cost to Fill
C15246 GPH$40/hour$169
C172S48 GPH$52/hour$351
Robinson R2248 GPH $52/hour$172
Robinson R44615 GPH $98/hour$303
AVGAS computation is based on May 2022 average price of $6.50 per gallon

Learn More
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* What are the Minimum & Maximum Ages To Become a Pilot?

Inspection and Maintenance

There are two types of expenses associated with aircraft maintenance: Fixed and Variable

Fixed costs are spent whether the aircraft is used or not, to maintain airworthiness. To remain airworthy the FAA requires all aircraft in the US to undergo an annual inspection, abide by mandatory airworthiness directives, registration, taxes, and other annual fees.

Variable costs include maintenance based on hours flown per year, part replacement, avionics repair, and other miscellaneous costs. Owners are also advised to save for expensive costs like engine, transmission, or rotor blade overhauls or replacement.

The more an aircraft is flown each year, the more hours the costs get spread across therefore reducing the hourly operating costs:

Eg:

Fixed and Variable costs each year = $15,000

  • 50 Hours flown each year = $15,000 / 50 = $300/hour
  • 100 Hours flown each year = $15,000 / 100 = $150/hour
  • 300 Hours flown each year = $15,000 / 300 = $50/hour
  • 500 Hours flown each year = $15,000 / 500 = $30/hour

By their nature, helicopters cost far more to maintain than an airplane due to the number of rotating and moving components on the aircraft. The drive train, main rotor system, tail rotor system, and flight control systems all have many more components that an airplane does not have.

These components take longer to inspect and maintain and add additional costs when needing replacement. Due to these factors, the annual maintenance cost of a helicopter increases which must be dispersed over the hourly operating cost.

Typical Annual Maintenance costs:

Cessna 172 Skyhawk: $22/flight hour + $18/ hour reserve of engine/aircraft overhaul

Robinson R44 Raven II: $35/flight hour + $107/ hour reserve of engine/aircraft overhaul

Maintenance costs are wildly different between aircraft. The age, condition, location flown, the number of hours flown and labor costs will all dictate the total cost for the year. Some years the maintenance costs can be minimal while other years an overhaul or unexpected component failure can increase the annual costs to tens of thousands of dollars, especially with a helicopter. 

Insurance

Insurance can also vary in pricing depending on several factors such as insurance coverage, qualification of a pilot, pilot experience, hours flown, and type of usage the aircraft will be involved in. 

There are two types of insurance: Liability insurance and Hull insurance

  • Liability insurance covers the damage caused such as property and casualties
  • Hull insurance covers damage to the aircraft itself.

Helicopter insurance is more expensive than airplane insurance because helicopters are more expensive to repair due to their complex moving parts; airplanes have a simpler and sturdier design.

Non-qualified pilots, such as student pilots, have a higher insurance rate compared to qualified and experienced pilots because of their lack of experience and higher risk of accidents. A Non-Qualified pilot is a pilot undertaking flight instruction in their aircraft with a qualified flight instructor onboard.

AircraftPilot StatusLiability CoverageLiability and Hull Coverage
C172Non-Qualified Pilot$250-$350$848-$1,400
Qualified Pilot$150-$250$450-$1,100
R44Non-Qualified Pilot$2,516-$3,148$10,138-$14,526
Qualified Pilot$2,187-$2,421$9,690-$11,340
*Insurance Cost Breakdown from BWI Aviation Insurance

Flight Training

To fly any aircraft the owner will need to become a trained and licensed pilot or employ a pilot to fly them to their destinations. Most aircraft owners enjoy flying and will learn to fly as part of the aircraft ownership journey.

There are two ways in which an aircraft owner can become a licensed pilot:

  1. Rent a school aircraft with an instructor
  2. Hire an instructor to teach them in their own aircraft

Learning to fly in your own aircraft works out cheaper but does incur higher insurance premiums while training and the increased risk of aircraft damage during training may deter some owners.

My personal opinion would be to pay a little bit extra and train at the flight school. All the risk is then on their aircraft allowing you to come home to your own aircraft once you have the pilot certificate and some experience.

For most aircraft owners there is one type of pilot certificate that is most applicable – The Private Pilot Certificate.

If you want to fly solely for personal and private use, a Private Pilot License suffices. However, if you want to be paid for your services, you have to upgrade your license to a Commercial Pilot License. If you want to be able to fly at night in remote areas or in poor weather, you will need to have an Instrument Rating added to your pilot certificate

Students often fly the C152 for most of the airplane training and the R22 for helicopter training because it is more affordable than C172 and R44. The additional seats of the C172 and R44 are not required during training and just increase the cost per hour.

Once students have their pilot certificate they can do a few hours in the bigger aircraft with an instructor as a ‘Transition’ style of upgrade.

Due to the higher hourly operating costs of a helicopter, learning to fly a helicopter also costs more than an airplane.

Here are some typical costs of gaining a Private Pilot Certificate:

Total Private Pilot – FW Costs:

FAA Minimum:
40 Hours Total:

  • 30 hours Dual x ($110+$45) = $4,650
  • 10 hours Solo x $110 = $1,100
  • Home-Study Theory Training = $250
  • Medical Examination = $60
  • Written Examination = $150
  • Flight Examination = $500
  • Extras = $500

Total = $7,210

Student Average:
60 hours Total:

  • 50 hours Dual x ($110+$45) = $7,750
  • 10 hours Solo x $110 = $1,100
  • 15 hours One-On-One Ground Training x $45 = $675
  • Home-Study Theory Training = $250
  • Medical Examination = $60
  • Written Examination = $150
  • Flight Examination = $500
  • Extras = $500

Total = $10,985

Total Private Pilot – RW Costs:

FAA Minimum:
40 Hours Total:

  • 30 hours Dual x ($300+$45) = $10,350
  • 10 hours Solo x $300 = $3,000
  • Home-Study Theory Training = $250
  • Medical Examination = $60
  • Written Examination = $150
  • Flight Examination = $950
  • Extras = $500

Total = $15,260

Student Average:
60 hours Total:

  • 50 hours Dual x ($300+$45) = $17,250
  • 10 hours Solo x $300 = $3,000
  • 20 hours One-On-One Ground Training x $45 = $900
  • Home-Study Theory Training = $250
  • Medical Examination = $60
  • Written Examination = $150
  • Flight Examination = $950
  • Extras = $500

Total = $22,560


There are more certificates available to get, especially for airplanes and you can find out more details about those in my dedicated article here:

How Much Does it Cost to Become a Pilot? Every Pilot Certificate


To Finish

Airplanes are far cheaper to purchase, maintain and operate compared to a helicopter of a similar seating capacity. Airplanes require the use of a runway whereas a helicopter can land in confined areas without too much difficulty.

Aircraft ownership is an incredible pleasure and no matter which type of aircraft you chose to own being up in the air is an experience that I wish everyone could have on a regular basis!

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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