“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice. ”
Hawker Beechcraft's King Air C90GTI
DETROIT FIGURED THIS OUT a long time ago. Take your basic family sedan, stick a hot motor under the hood and badge it with sporty-sounding initials like RT or SS and voilà: You sell more cars at higher prices. Around 2004, a similar thought occurred to some folks at what is now Hawker Beechcraft regarding the venerable six- to seven-passenger 90-series King Air twin-turboprop, an airplane that has been in production in one form or another since 1964. What they came up with was the C90GT, which boasted more powerful engines with lower operating temperatures that improved performance-35 knots more speed and faster climb times.
In 2007, the manufacturer replaced the GT with the current C90GTi-the same airplane, only with jet-like Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 glass-panel avionics and a $3.3 million sticker price.
The King Air can trace its roots back to the 1930s, when Walter Beech introduced the Model 18, arguably the first cabin-class twin-engine business airplane. In 1958, Beech debuted the Queen Air, an aircraft that remarkably resembles today's King Air, save for the square passenger windows and piston engines. By the late 1960s, Beech commanded a 77-percent share of the business twin-turboprop market. The company's efforts gave rise to an entire family of larger, more powerful business and commuter turboprops.
But as the King Air morphed into a multitude of models-including the 100, 200, 300 and 350 and the 99 and 1900 series commuter airliners-the 90 series languished, growing gradually in heft and wingspan as it progressed through the alphabet-until the F model in 1979. The F was sort of like what might happen when the Discovery Channel's Monster Garage meets an airplane. Beech engineers took the fuselage of the C90 and combined it with the wing of the A100 and the T-tail from the B200 King Airs. Then they hung a pair of more powerful, 750-shaft-horsepower PT6A-135 engines on it. Cruising speed jumped to 267 knots and the F90 was an instant hit.
Eventually 236 of them would be made. But the 1981 recession and the growth of Cessna's Citation fanjet line tore the bottom out of the business turboprop market. And it didn't help that Beech had gone overboard with bifurcating its own product line and was then offering six King Air models, including three flavors of 90s. Some King Airs, like the F90 and the more expensive and larger 200, were perceived as competing directly against each other. So when Raytheon took over Beechcraft in 1982, the knives came out. The company reduced the number of available King Air models to three and steered prospective F90 customers up the food chain. By 1985 the F90 was toast, but the slower C90 remained in production.
Yet the idea of hanging hot motors on a C90 never really went away. Earlier this decade, when the prospect of an invading armada of very light jets once again threatened the market viability of the 90 series, Beechcraft reached back into its old playbook. The original GT was billed as a VLJ killer. Flash back four years. While many VLJ makers were selling future promises, what we in the industry charitably call "vaporware," Beech had a new airplane ready to go that cruised at 310 miles per hour.
COMPARED WITH A TYPICAL VLJ, the GT gave you a larger airplane with a cabin big enough for six to seven adults sitting in comfortable, adult-sized seats and pressurized baggage space capacious enough for several of Zsa-Zsa's full-size roll-ons, hat bags and many sets of golf clubs. You got a nice big airstair main cabin door aft of the wing. You got a twin that sat high off the ground on beefy landing gear and was built like an M-1 Abrams tank.
This is an airplane you can land on an insanely short and rough grass strip or a gravel bar without having to file an accident report afterward. (When I flew one last summer, we managed to take off in 2,200 feet and land in about 600 with full flaps, aggressive prop reverse and firm braking.) And in 2006, you could get a GT for $2.9 million, about $500,000 more than you'd pay for a Cessna Citation Mustang jet but a cool million less than the price of a single-engine turboprop Pilatus PC-12 and about the same price as a new-and much smaller-TBM 700.
The strategy worked brilliantly: In 2006, its first year of full production, the GT outsold its slower predecessor, the C90B, by almost two-to-one. The GT's new engines delivered more speed and better high-altitude/hot-temperature performance and cut climb-to-altitude times by 35 to 50 percent. At full power, the big Hartzell four-bladed propellers rotated slower than on the C90B, reducing component wear and tear and, just as importantly, the decibels in the passenger compartment. You can actually conduct a conversation back there now without shouting-even at takeoff power.
King Airs have long been a mainstay for Hawker Beechcraft and they remain so in the current down economy. Last year, the company delivered 172, and of that number 66 were C90GTis, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, making it the company's best-selling model of any of its aircraft-piston, turboprop or jet. And it's no wonder. The more powerful engines teamed with the Pro Line 21 avionics make it an easy and pleasant airplane to fly even single-pilot. Operating economics are good for a twin. The GTi will burn about 77 gallons per hour at 24,000 feet and cruise power. King Air construction is about as bulletproof as an airplane gets.
But the feature that continues to sell this airplane year after year is the big cabin and its large oval windows. You enter up the aft airstair door. The netted baggage hold and belted potty seat (enclosure optional) are conveniently on your right, a single-place side-facing kibitzer faces the door, and to the left is a club-four grouping of facing slide-swivel and reclining executive seats that share two large pull-out sidewall tables big enough for large laptops. The sidewall ledges contain two cup holders for each passenger in this area (they're not deep enough, but it's the thought that counts). The aft left club seat can be reclined to full berthing.
Cabin lighting and air gaspers are functional and within easy reach. The cabin has a variety of small storage nooks, cabinets and drawers and built-in hot and cold jugs for beverages. The four-foot, nine-inch-high cabin isn't exactly stand-up, but it's not munchkinland either. The list of available in-flight entertainment options is rather sparse, but popular items such as XM Radio and sideledge-mounted video monitors are available through Hawker Beechcraft service centers for after-purchase installation.
A GTi with pilot and four passengers can fly from Chicago Midway to Teterboro, N.J., nonstop in two and a half hours, but this isn't really a long-haul airplane. However, Hawker Beechcraft is increasing its range and payload capabilities in 2010 with the debut of the C90GTx, basically a GTi with winglets and better weather radar, for an extra $300,000. Compared with the GTi, the GTx will fly 200 miles farther and carry 350 pounds of additional payload with full fuel. The winglets will be retrofitable to all existing C90 series aircraft. Thanks to these kinds of technology upgrades, even 45 years after it was first delivered, the 90 series King Air remains a top performer.
Mark Huber welcomes comments and suggestions at: firstname.lastname@example.org.