What’s the Most Popular Helicopter in Africa?

Offering versatility suiting various applications, helicopters play a key role in enabling African owners and operators to access remote locations that fixed-wing aircraft can’t. But what are the top models and missions today? Felipe Reisch explores...

Felipe Reisch  |  26th May 2022
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Felipe Reisch
Felipe Reisch

Felipe Reisch holds a Master’s Degree in Corporate Communications and Reputation Management from...

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A pilot flies his turbine helicopter over Cape Town in South Africa


Helicopters worldwide are workhorses. Whether they’re used for VIP/corporate transportation, medevac, offshore operations, or any number of other missions, specific models fill diverse needs, and Africa is no exception to the rule.

Rotorcraft connect the continent’s unique, and sometimes remote geography, and also make industries viable. As an example, safe, efficient transportation to oil rigs is only possible with these advanced pieces of machinery, while unique, high-end tourism experiences are enabled with helicopters.

So, which are the main manufacturers and models in operation within Africa? Data from JETNET shows the twin-engine mid-sized Leonardo AW139 is the turbine model with the most units in operation across the continent, closely followed by the single-engine light class Bell 206.

The data also shows the piston helicopter fleet in Africa is approximately half the size of the turbine helicopter fleet, and is split among fewer models (though, admittedly, fewer piston models exist than turbine models).

Robinson unsurprisingly dominates the piston scene. The Robinson R44 Raven II leads the way as Africa’s most popular piston helicopter, with more than 300 units in operation, beating the second-placed R22 Beta II by a significant margin.

Regional Variation in Africa?

The missions that require helicopters vary by region, according to Gary Phillips, Executive Director of Rotorwing for National Airways Corporation (NAC) in South Africa.

“For instance, Southern Africa has a significant number of private owner-pilots, while East Africa has a lot of tourist operators, and West Africa has many machines supporting oil and gas missions,” he explains.

According to Phillips, Bell, Airbus, Leonardo, and Robinson models represent the largest number of civilian helicopters in Africa, and are largely concentrated in three regions – namely Southern Africa (with South Africa having the most), East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, etc.), and West Africa (Nigeria, etc.)

“Some things are the same, continent-wide,” he adds. “For example, all regions have law enforcement helicopters. There’s also a growing number of HEMS [Helicopter Emergency Medical Service] machines in South Africa.”

Phillips notes there are also several helicopters used as VIP/Presidential transport, and that these are typically larger twin-engine turbine models.

“These missions used to be conducted by military helicopters, but recently there has been a move towards commercial helicopters.”

NAC represents Bell Helicopter in Southern Africa, where Bell hold a 50% share of the market, according to Phillips. That’s largely thanks to extensive product support. (NAC is the only Authorized Maintenance Center on the African continent for Roll-Royce M250 and RR300 turboshaft engine.)

“As a passenger transport and VIP machine, the new [single-engine light utility] Airbus H130, fitted with the Safran 2D is very capable, and there have been some new acquisitions entering South Africa,” says Conrad Maree, Owner of Savannah Helicopters, an operator of mainly Airbus AS350 helicopters.

In the Airbus realm, the African utility sector is dominated by the Airbus/Eurocopter AS350B3 (single-engine light utility model), while EMS/HEMS operators on the continent favor the Airbus H145 (twin-engine light utility) model.

Nevertheless, Maree acknowledges that because of the economics of the region, “operators often settle for the older MBB/Kawasaki BK117” (twin-engine mid-size utility model), some of which have been upgraded with Airwork 850hp engines. Other EMS operators make use of the single-engine Leonardo AW119, he adds.

Main Industries

Though the piston helicopter fleet may be half the size of the turbine fleet in Africa, it actually leads the turbine fleet in terms of hours flown. 

For example, the Robinson R44 is widely used for crop spraying, training, or light pipeline works, as well as for leisure travel.

Other industries are served by single-engine turbine units, with an aging fleet of Bell 205’s working the fire seasons, for example. 

Light utility and charter are being done by the trustworthy Bell 206 models, and lately by some Robinson R66 single-engine light turbine aircraft, although, according to Maree, the latter is less popular with operators due to its low cycle limit.

And humanitarian missions are prevalent in Africa, with a large number of Russian helicopters operating on the continent. 

“The Russian/Ukrainian conflict will no doubt impact this,” Phillips suggests, “because Russian operators are no longer permitted to operate for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) like the United Nations.”

Meanwhile, with many General Aviation aircraft being sold out of Africa, the same trend is as true for helicopters as for fixed-wing aircraft, Maree notes.

“Kenya used to be a hub for helicopter operators, but unfavorable tax regulations for new imports had caused Airbus to leave the country,” he illustrates. “Today, hardly any helicopters now find their way into the hands of Kenyan owners.”

In Summary…

As with other developing economies, there remains a lack of incentive for the aviation industry in Africa. Stifling bureaucratic procedures to register a new aircraft or company, external volatilities such as fuel prices, and a lack of certified service centers are prime examples of the challenges would-be helicopter owners/operators must overcome.

Ultimately, despite the fact that the most popular turbine helicopter model – the Leonardo AW139 – is a large, expensive machine, costing between $4.2m (pre-owned) up to $12m (new), relatively few brand-new turbine rotorcraft find their way into the African fleet, currently, as compared to some other parts of the world.

As evidenced by JETNET’s data, Africa’s turbine helicopter fleet is disparate, with the top five models accounting for a relatively small portion of the overall fleet on the continent.

With multiple models capable of fulfilling multiple missions, it’s really a matter for many operators to find an appropriate helicopter to fit the budget. And for many operators, that budget favors the pre-owned market.

In contrast, although a much smaller market in terms of manufacturers and models produced, factory-new piston helicopters cost less to acquire than brand-new turbine helicopters. Therefore, it’s perhaps less surprising that JETNET’s piston helicopter data reveals a greater appetite for newer Robinson models within Africa.

Find Helicopters for sale at AvBuyer Africa

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