Power source

May 20, 2010 by Tim McAdams

What is the best power source for a helicopter? The two choices are a turboshaft or a reciprocating engine. A turboshaft engine has the same basic structure as a turbojet; however, the energy produced by the expanding gases is used to drive a turbine instead of producing thrust. The turbine is connected to a gearbox that drives the helicopter’s main rotor transmission. Likewise, the reciprocating engine’s output drives the main rotor transmission; however, these engines have traditionally been viewed as less reliable.

To understand where that reputation came from we need to look at early helicopter designs. Helicopter manufactures took piston engines used in airplanes and installed them in their helicopters. However, these engines didn’t quite have enough horsepower for hovering. So to increase the power, manufactures ran the engines at a higher rpm, and as a result reliability suffered. So much so that Lycoming reduced the TBO on the O-360 from 2,000 hours to 1,600 hours for engines installed in helicopters. This fueled the unreliable reputation of the piston engine.

In 1979 Frank Robinson introduced the two-seat R22. His idea was to reduce the helicopter’s weight to reduce the power required. For example, the T-bar cyclic system is simple and weighs less than the conventional dual control system. He then took the reliable Lycoming O-320 engine and reduced the rpm from 2,700 to 2,652 and de-rated the maximum horsepower from 160 to 124. Lycoming then approved the same 2,000-hour TBO it had for fixed-wing installations. He did the same thing with the R44’s Lycoming O-540 engine. The engine’s reliability proved so good that Lycoming increased the TBO to 2,200 hours for both airframes, giving these helicopter installations a higher TBO than the same engine installed in a fixed wing. NTSB accident data supports the higher reliability achieved by derating a reciprocating engine.

Even with the vast improvement in reliability, reciprocating engines suffer from a low power to weight ratio. So for helicopters above about 2,500 lbs gross weight, a turbine engine makes sense. It is compact, light weight, and has a simple design that gives it excellent reliability. However, perhaps the most important feature is its high power-to-weight ratio. This makes turboshaft engines the only choice for large single and all twin-engine helicopters. However, the downside to these engines is the high cost to acquire, maintain, and operate them.


  • Alex Kovnat

    The likely phaseout of 100LL, may well lead to more turbine-powered helicopters. Unless of course a not-too-costly 100 octane lead-free avgas proves possible.

  • Sean C

    Don’t forget the possibility of aviation-designed diesel engines appearing in helicopters. At least one diesel (the DeltaHawk) is close to certification which has been designed with helicopter operation in mind. The challenge for aviation diesels will be to keep the power-to-weight ratio competitive with existing gasoline engines, or at least close enough to allow their lower fuel burn rate to help compensate for the increased empty weight.

  • Keith

    I think you need to moderate comments on your BLOG.
    Non-aviation links and general feel-good comments which do not contribute to the understanding of the topic at hand aren’t useful for those who are using your service to stay current with issues inside the aviation community. We can get non-aviation material in plenty of other places.
    Only the first two of 15 comments before mine relate to the topic of turbine vs piston engines for helicopters.
    Very Respectfully, KeB

    • Ian Twombly


      Thanks much for letting us know. We have filters in place that are supposed to catch those, but occasionally they fail. And with older posts it’s harder to moderate when that happens. It should be cleaned up now.

      Thanks again.

      Ian Twombly