““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
I've heard private jets described in many ways over the years, but this was a first.
"It works really good as a canoe," joked Dale Printy, director of technical services for Worthington Aviation, the company charged with product support for the Westwind series of business aircraft.
Printy was referring to the intentional ditching of a medevac Westwind late last year en route from Western Samoa to Melbourne, Australia. The aircraft was attempting to land at Norfolk Island to refuel in bad weather. The pilots executed several missed approaches. Then, out of options and with fuel running low, they made the decision to ditch offshore. Miraculously, the patient, her husband, the two-man medical crew and the pilots all survived the water landing without injury. Printy said the aircraft's design-high-mounted engines that are positioned well aft, the mid-fuselage wing and the wing's tiptanks, which acted like sponsons-contributed to the happy ending.
The Westwind has found a niche in the aeromedical market because of its low door, which facilitates easy patient loading, and spacious cabin, but more importantly because of its price and range: You can buy a mid-1980s model for less than $1 million and many of these are fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks that can boost range to 2,900 nautical miles. That makes the Westwind the only light jet that can cross the Atlantic or the continental U.S. without refueling.
Despite recent negative publicity concerning Westwinds operated in the public sector-most notably Sarah Palin's attempt to sell the state of Alaska's aircraft on eBay during her gubernatorial term-the model retains a loyal following because of the unique abilities it has for an aircraft in this size category. "You are going to spend a whole lot more to find another airplane with its range and speed," Printy said.
The Westwind even costs much less than comparable vintage aircraft such as the Learjet 55 and Cessna Citation III-both of which fly a few knots faster but can cost nearly $1 million more and have nowhere near the Westwind's range. And its cabin is more spacious because of its ovoid, as opposed to oval, fuselage shape. "There's more head-and-shoulder room than in a Citation or a Learjet," said Paul Thomas, one of the country's leading Westwind brokers.
Thomas added that the Westwind has other advantages, including a baggage compartment that can hold nearly 1,000 pounds, good short-field landing capability, sprightly time-to-climb and a maintenance schedule that is based on how many hours you actually fly the airplane rather than on calendar intervals. Those who fly less than 400 hours a year find this last attribute particularly attractive, Thomas said.
He also praised the Westwind's design for enhancing passenger comfort. The engines are 13 feet behind the rear cabin bulkhead, making for a quiet interior. The mid-fuselage-mounted wing mitigates the impact of turbulence and delivers a smooth ride.
Thomas became acquainted with Westwinds in 1973 when he worked as a corporate pilot. One of his customers wanted to buy one and he tried to talk the man out of it, but could not. Thomas's bias back then related purely to aesthetics. The airplane "looks like a bulldozer," he said.
He's right. There's no escaping it or any way to put it kindly: the Westwind is ugly. "People don't like the way they look," admitted Westwind pilot Greg Smith.
The airplane eventually won Thomas over, but many others remain uninterested. On the used market, the Westwind has lost half its value in the last year and a half, Thomas said. Its history reflects this (see box below). It reads like that of a troubled child who has been booted down the road through a series of foster homes.
Worthington's Dale Printy advised Westwind buyers to be on the lookout for a few potential maintenance "gotchas," including corrosion between the deicing boots and the leading edge of the wing and along the aircraft's belly. He also said to avoid airplanes that have been stored outside or flown intermittently. It works wonderfully if it is flown regularly, he emphasized.
Pilot Greg Smith cautioned that the aircraft can develop fuel leaks if it is consistently landed at heavy weights or by ham-handed pilots. Westwind fuel cells are not cheap. There are four of them and they cost $50,000 each.
Because of the airplane's current price point, many owners are disinclined toward extensive avionics upgrades or cabin refurbishment beyond re-covering the seats and replacing the carpet. Most Westwind cabins can be comfortably configured for seven to eight passengers and layouts include something you can't get on the Lear 55 or Citation III: a three-place divan big enough to stretch out on and snooze. The aft lavatory has solid privacy doors. While the cabin is comfortable for an airplane of this size, at 4.9 feet tall it doesn't fit in the stand-up category.
Printy said the Westwind is "a good aircraft and there are no surprises with costs."
Paul Thomas, meanwhile, suggested that prospective buyers get past the airplane's aesthetics and "give it a chance."