How Much it Actually Costs to Fly U.S. Military Aircraft


And you thought car expenses were bad.

  • A new report by the Government Accountability Office details how much it costs to fly certain U.S. military aircraft.
  • The report covers everything from strategic bombers to attack helicopters.
  • The report lays bare the reality that it costs far more to fly the planes than it does to buy them.

LockieCurrie//Getty Images

The U.S. military is the largest and most powerful in the world, but that power doesn’t come without a heavy financial cost. A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) details how much it costs to fly 47 different types of aircraft flown by the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. In general, the more sophisticated the plane the more expensive it is to fly, with age being another factor.

The GAO, a nonpartisan government agency that provides information to Congress, just published Weapon System Sustainment, a report on U.S. military aircraft operating cost and availability. Operating cost, which the GAO defines as “repair parts, depot and field maintenance, contract services, engineering support, and personnel” plus “other things,” is at times difficult to nail down. Different government agencies, analysts, and defense contractors offer varying figures based on different criteria. The GAO’s numbers use consistent criteria, making them useful for comparing various types of aircraft in service at the same time.

Here’s how much U.S. military aircraft cost to fly, by the hour.

Fighter Jets

Three A-10 Thunderbolt “Warthogs” fly in formation at the Chicago Air and Water Show, August 20, 2022. Xinhua News Agency//Getty Images

  • A-10 Thunderbolt: $22,531/hour
  • F-16 Fighting Falcon: $26,927/hour
  • F/A-18E/F Super Hornet: $30,404/hour
  • F-22 Raptor: $85,325/hour
  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: $41,986/hour

First on deck are fighter planes, and we’ll start with the good news. The A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack is the cheapest armed fixed-wing plane to fly in the entire Pentagon fleet, costing just $22,531 an hour. The A-10 is an older jet, and most models flying today were built in the 1980s. While older planes are more expensive to fix, the A-10 is relatively uncomplicated by today’s standards, and there are a large number of retired A-10s parked at the “Boneyard” in dry, sunny Arizona, to cannibalize for free parts.

The two main types of multi-role fighters in Air Force and Navy service are relatively affordable. The Air Force’s fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role fighters cost $26,927 an hour, largely for the same reasons as the A-10. The Navy’s newer force of F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters are also relatively affordable, at $30,404 an hour.

Now the not-so-great news. The F-22 Raptor, the world’s first fifth-generation fighter and arguably the best fighter jet in the world, costs an eye-watering $85,325 an hour to fly. That’s the entire federal income tax obligation of 14 American households making the average household income of $70,784 a year… just to keep a single F-22 flying for one hour. The high cost is the price of maintaining the airplane’s leading-edge capabilities, including its anti-radar stealth and F119 high-performance engines.

U.S. Air Force Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II of the 495th Fighter Squadron (Valkyries), 48th Fighter Wing heads through the Mach Loop, January 2022. NurPhoto//Getty Images

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs $41,986 an hour across all models, including the F-35A for the Air Force, the F-35B for the Marine Corps, and the F-35C for the Marine Corps and Navy. The Air Force in particular is stuck with the headache of replacing the F-16, which costs $26,927 an hour, with a plane that costs 25 percent more to operate, permanently raising costs. This is especially a problem as the F-35 was originally promised to cost the same to operate as the F-16. The Air Force must now either buy fewer F-35s or figure out how to foot a bigger annual bill.

Bombers

A B-2 stealth bomber.


  • B-52H Stratofortress: $88,354/hour
  • B-2 Spirit: $150,741/hour
  • B-1B Lancer: $173,014/hour

One might think the B-52H Stratofortress, sixty years old and counting, would be the most expensive bomber to fly, but the GAO states it only costs $88,354 an hour. That’s a relative bargain for an airplane with eight elderly engines, a crew of five, and the ability to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons—including up to 12 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles. The newer, but still 1980s-era B-2 Spirit stealth bomber costs $150,741 an hour to fly. The older and notoriously hard to maintain B-1B Lancer swing-wing bomber costs the most of all at $173,014 an hour.

Helicopters

U.S. army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters fire rockets during the second annual “African Lion” military exercise in the Tan-Tan region in southwestern Morocco, on June 30, 2022. FADEL SENNA//Getty Images
  • AH-64 Apache: $5,171/hour
  • UH-60 Blackhawk: $3,116/hour
  • MH-60R Seahawk: $14,555/hour
  • AH-1Z Viper: $20,642/hour

The military’s fleet of thousands of helicopters is a mixed bag. The tank-killing AH-64 Apache attack helicopter costs just $5,171 an hour to operate. The UH-60 Blackhawk, which can carry up to a dozen troops into combat, costs $3,116 an hour, while the Navy’s version, the MH-60R Seahawk, costs $14,555 an hour. Why the Navy version costs five times more to fly is unclear, but the Seahawk does carry equipment that allows it to perform more complex tasks, including submarine hunting, anti-surface (ship) warfare, and electromagnetic warfare.

That comparison only goes so far though, as the Marine Corps’s AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter costs $20,642 an hour, or nearly four times more than the more heavily armed Apache. For whatever reasons, a helicopter that flies over water is four to five times more expensive to operate than a helicopter that primarily flies over land.

Other Aircraft

U.S. Air Force USAF Boeing E-4B in Munich, Germany, 2019. SOPA Images//Getty Images


  • E-3 Sentry: $66,126/hour
  • RC-135: $95,339/hour
  • E-4B: $372,496/hour

Specialized military aircraft tend to be very expensive. The E-3 Sentry, which acts as a flying radar system and airborne battle command post, costs $66,126 an hour to fly. The small fleet of RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, based on the Boeing 707 jetliner and used to collect intelligence data, costs $95,339 to operate. The tiny fleet of four E-4B National Airborne Operations Center aircraft, Boeing 747-200 airliners converted into airborne nuclear command posts, cost a staggering $372,496 an hour to fly, or $103 a second.

The sticker cost for a fighter, bomber, or helicopter is just the beginning, and in reality it’s typically just thirty percent of the overall cost of the aircraft. Some pilots have flown tens of millions of dollars’ worth of flights in their careers: a single F-35 pilot with 800 hours in the cockpit will cost taxpayers more than $32 million.

Is this extreme cost what the American people have to pay for having the largest and most technologically-advanced military in the world—or can we do better?

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