by John Salt - Updated September 2017
A Turbine RC helicopter is certainly a very realistic goal.
Other than the complexities of the turbine engine (which really is not that complicated), if you are mechanically inclined and are comfortable flying & maintaining a large nitro, gas, or electric powered RC helicopter, a turbine RC heli can certainly be the next logical and doable step.
Turbine RC helicopters are big & heavy! The power to weight ratio's are not nearly as good as they are with electric power or nitro power. In other words, they don't perform high energy, hard core 3D type flying. If that is what you are after, don't even consider a turbine RC helicopter.
Most people who get into turbine powered RC helicopters do so because of their fascination with turbine engines and full size helicopters - it's that simple. Flying and maintaining a turbine powered RC helicopter is for me an immensely rewarding experience that I just don't get with my other birds.
Prices can get up there ($7,000 – $15,000 for
helicopter and engine); but considering some large, high end electric helicopters are getting close to the bottom end of that range as well (Velos 880 for example), prices are not atmospheric.
With Bergen RC and Wren combining forces and introducing the new Intrepid 44 Magnum for just over $5K; pricing is quite attractive and not at all in the realm of "unobtainium" for the dedicated RC helicopter enthusiast.
What I am getting at here is everything is relative. If you are passionate about RC helicopters, and have a strong interest in turbine power; RC turbine helicopters will take you in a new and rewarding direction, that may not cost all that much more than other large fuel and electric power RC helicopters.
Also consider the used market. Bergen RC for example often has (or knows of) well maintained used turbine RC helicopters that customers' of theirs are selling.
Good used deals also show up from time to time in the turbine classified buy & sell sections of the good RC forms such as Heli Freak or RC Groups.
Speaking of cost, what about upkeep?
Good quality model turbine engines if properly cared for should run at least 50-70 hours between services. That is 300-420 ten minute flights – a lot of flying.
Centrifugal flow model turbine engines spin at very high speeds – upwards of 160,000 RPM. They have two special bearings, one at the compressor (front end), and one at the turbine (back end).
They look like regular radial ball bearings but are a ceramic hybrid angular contact type.
The balls are ceramic (Si3N4) to handle the very fast rotational speeds coupled with the high amounts of heat they are subjected to.
The angular contact stainless steel races accommodate both radial and axial loads.
These two bearings will be your main service items on the engine throughout the years; costing around $100.00 USD each, plus the cost of labor to install them and dynamically rebalance the turbine/compressor assembly (assuming you don't/can't do the bearing service yourself).
I've actually documented my first Wren turbine engine service/overhaul that I performed myself. Here is the link to that full article if you want a really good idea of what's involved in a model turbine engine service and potential costs.
So much has to do with how you treat your turbine engine, but RC helis are generally not running these little beasties at full power and this saves both bearings and fuel. For example, during a normal flight, my Wren MW-54 two stage heli engine is usually spinning not much more than 100,000 RPM, and I have my maximum RPM limit set to 130,000.
That said, even at lower power levels, turbines are thirsty, generally consuming at least 100 ml of fuel per minute.
They use regular kerosene or jet A1 fuel mixed with turbine jet oil, or quality 2 cycle engine oil.
Even at that high consumption rate, fuel costs will be less than nitro fuel, a little more than gas however.
You also have to use small quantities of propane, butane, or a propane/isobutane mix (high performance camp fuel such as Coleman Powermax fuel for example) when starting the turbine (unless you have a "kerostart" system), but these costs are minimal.
As you can see, refueling a turbine RC helicopter is very much the same procedure as a two stroke gas powered one and operating costs are similar. The Bergen Intrepid here takes about 1.2 liters of fuel per fill and that gives a good 10 minute flight with a couple minutes of reserve. Jet A fuel where I live is about a $1.70 a liter so that is certainly less costly per flight than a big thirsty 90 size nitro engine, but is more than gas (both in cost per L and consumption rates).
Also notice the CO2 fire extinguisher which is a MANDATORY safety item you need at all times with any turbine powered RC model in case of fire.
Dry chemical extinguishers like those found at the local hardware store are not recommended since the dry chem WILL damage the turbine engine. The picture to the right shows what happens when a dry chem extinguisher is used. The dry powder is sucked into the engine, melts inside the combustion chamber, and will usually at a minimum wreck the turbine and combustion chamber sections of the engine.
So - operating costs are in the same ball park as large nitro or gas models – assuming you don’t crash regularly and have to replace turbine engines on a monthly basis (the engine is the single most expensive component on the bird usually making up for about 75% of the cost).
If that is you, better hone your flying skills first. The last thing this hobby needs is for turbine powered model aircraft to get a bad image because of bad pilots.
There is one last point to consider when you are wondering if a turbine RC helicopter is for you. Perhaps you stumbled upon this site looking for RC turbine jet information or are thinking a turbine RC jet is a better choice.
I fly planes too and admit the thought of a 1/6 scale turbine powered F-16 screaming through the air at 200+ kph is a powerful image, but I would be too scared to fly it. With a turbine RC helicopter, I can keep it as close to the ground as I want or fly nice and slow scale type helicopter flying while getting a full dose of turbine noise, smell, and exhaust nozzle heat wave ripple.
This goes right back to the point I made above about bad pilots. I know my flying skills are not good enough to fly a turbine jet, but I do know they are good enough to fly a turbine heli. You must also evaluate your own skill level (flying skills & technical skills) before deciding if you are ready for this next fun step.
The only way I could personally justify having this much money tied up in an RC aircraft is in knowing that there's minimal chance it will crash, or crash hard enough to be a complete write-off. Seeing that I don't do any fancy aerobatics with my Intrepid turbine heli and have had many enjoyable flights with it now over the years; that has turned out to be a very realistic outlook in my opinion.
Just remember however, crashing is part of this hobby , and you have to do a little sole searching within yourself knowing full well it's likely not a question of if it will crash, but rather when it will crash. Perhaps that fear is what will keep you from "overflying" your skill level, and keep your turbine RC helicopter safe for many years to come.
is not to say you can’t perform lighter 3D aerobatics with certain turbine RC
helicopters, but crashing is part of 3D, you can’t
get away from it... sooner or later gravity wins.
On the other hand, if your skill and bank account allow it, you will impress beyond measure as Chris demonstrates below flight testing his new Magnum 44 Turbine RC Helicopter.
Below - My own feeble attempt at some light aerobatics with my Bergen Intrepid turbine.