Is glow fuel too expensive?

When I started building RC planes in the 1980s the nearly universal power source was the glow engine.  Over the past 20 years electric motors have taken over a large part of the market.  At the same time, a lot of engine enthusiasts have given up glow fuel in favor of gasoline.  Glow powered airplanes are still around, but they account for a much smaller percentage of the total nowadays.


The usual reason given for this trend is that glow fuel has become terribly expensive.  People usually report prices of $20 to $40 for a gallon of glow fuel from the hobby store shelf nowadays, depending on how much nitro they want.  Thinking back to my heyday in the early 90s as a bachelor who flew RC planes whenever I wasn’t at work, it seems that fuel was a lot cheaper back then.  But wasn’t everything?  What if you adjust the price for inflation?

If I remember correctly, I used to pay around 13 dollars for a gallon of fuel with 10 percent nitro in 1992.  Let’s consult the online inflation calculator to see how much that is in 2020 dollars.  13 dollars in 1992 is equal to 24 dollars in 2020.  A quick look at Sig’s website shows that their standard fuel is $21 for 5% and $27 for 10% in 2020.  Gee, that doesn’t seem so bad when you consider that it’s about the same amount I was paying in 1992.


Back in those days when I was young, carefree, and mostly broke, I remember thinking that the speed freaks were crazy for paying $17.99 or even 20 dollars for their high nitro blends.  The handy inflation calculator tells me that these high nitro fuels today would cost 33 to 37 dollars.  Well, that sounds about right.  Sig’s 25% blend is listed on the website at $41.  Maybe a little bit high, but not out of line.  The helicopter pilots were paying more like 20 to 25 per gallon for the fuel with high nitro and tons of oil.  $25 in 1992 money is the same as $46 in 2020.

I’m a frugal guy.  Some would say cheap.  I like to shop for bargains.  In 2019 I bought a case of Omega 5% for $17.50 a gallon.  Holy cow, that’s $70 for a whole case of fuel.  Did I really spend that much?  That’s a ton of money.  If you go back to that online calculator you can put the later date in the top window and the earlier date in the bottom window to figure out how much something today would have cost in the past.  According to the inflation calculator, my $17.50 fuel in 2019 would be $9.60 per gallon in 1992.  But I was actually paying $13 in 1992 and it seemed normal.  I would have loved to find fuel for $9.60.  If I take it all the way back to 1985 when I bought my first gallon of glow fuel, my 2019 bargain fuel would be $7.37.  1985 was a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I paid ten dollars for that jug of fuel, and it seemed like a lot of money at the time for a 17 year old with no job.  $7.37 would have been a real bargain.  I got a really good deal on that fuel in 2019.  Adjusted for inflation, it’s the cheapest fuel I’ve ever bought from a hobby store.

I think what I’ve determined is that fuel really doesn’t cost too much.  It costs about the same as it always has.  The real problem with glow fuel today is that it’s hard to find, because internet sales have destroyed the local stores.  Back in the good old days just about every town had a hobby store that could sell you a jug of glow fuel for the going rate, but now that most of the stores are gone there isn’t anywhere for a lot of us to buy fuel.  Even worse is the hazmat situation.  We used to be able to order cases of fuel from Tower Hobbies, but nowadays the hazmat fees on gallons makes the price truly outrageous.

Glow fuel had its heyday from the late 70s to the early 2000s, when it was widely available in hobby shops.  Before then it was common to send a guy to the factory to bring a car load of fuel back to the rest of the folks in the flying club.  The club in my home town used to order a barrel and split it into gallon containers in somebody’s garage.  The only reason we’re crying about the situation today is because we were accustomed to fuel being available at the local store for 30 years, and now we have to use a little bit of brain power the way they did back in the old days.

If you read the online chatter about glow fuel, gasoline engines, and electric power you will always hear complaints about the price of fuel.  But the real issue is availability, not price.  So if you are fortunate enough to have a hobby store in your area that sells fuel, go and buy it before they decide to quit selling it.  Some would say that it’s silly to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on toy airplanes and accessories.  Why is $20 for a gallon of fuel the deal breaker?  Fuel cost has always been a significant consideration, but it never was a deal breaker for most of us in the past, and the real cost hasn’t changed.

It just wouldn't be the same without those puffs of smoke.

It just wouldn’t be the same without those puffs of smoke.