How Far is Far Enough?

There’s an old saying about fuel: unless you’re on fire, you can never have enough. I wonder, is the same thing true of an aircraft’s range?

With a 7,000 nautical mile reach, Gulfstream’s G650 was already an ultra-long range business jet before the ‘ER’ edition tacked on an additional 500 nm of capability. The G-series flagship recently set two records while flying around the world with a single fuel stop.

To be fair, Steve Wynn’s G650 flew eastbound from New York to Beijing and continued east to Savannah, Georgia for a total distance of 13,511 nautical miles. While that may satisfy the practical definition of the phrase, it doesn’t come close to the actual 21,600 nm equatorial circumference of the planet. Lest you think I’m picking nits, consider that you could fly “around the world” near the north pole with a Cessna 172 and do it on a single tank of gas. Get close enough to the pole and you could walk around the world in a few seconds. Doing so wouldn’t necessarily make you Superman.

Clearly, some kind of definition would be helpful. For the purposes of aeronautical records, a circumnavigation is considered by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale to be a flight which a) covers a distance no less than the length of the Tropic of Cancer, b) crosses all meridians, and c) begins and ends at the same airport. In other words, the FAI’s criteria requires a minimum flight of 19,853 nautical miles, or 6,342 further than Wynn’s G650 traveled.

This is not to denigrate the G650’s achievement. They flew a long way, and did it at a high rate of speed — Mach 0.87. The city pair records it set on this trip will probably stand for a long time. But I can’t help but wonder, how much further could a person want to go? How much range is “far enough”? Since the globe is 21,600 nautical miles in circumference, one might be tempted to assume the answer is 10,800 nm. If airplanes were used to travel between random geographic points, that might make sense, but they’re using to travel between airports. Usually the ones near major cities.

One of the longest city pairs is Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo, about 10,000 nautical miles. Auckland to London is about the same. If that was the typical mission, the G650ER’s 7,500 nm range could still be improved upon by a longer-range airplane. But for the vast majority of pairings on our little blue marble, the ER can already do it on a single tank.

It seems to me that eking out those final miles may come at a steep price. Beyond the monetary cost, it would involve heavier weights, longer wings, the requirement for additional crewmembers, and so on. Even if the only thing needed was greater efficiency via winglets, incremental engine improvements, aerodynamic cleanup, and so on, it would still require vital resources like time and money — limitations every bit as real as the ones we face with smaller aircraft.

So should we expect to see longer range airplanes being developed, or will future emphasis be placed on speed and comfort? As always, the market will dictate the answer. Nobody develops a $60 million conveyance without extensive consultation with their client base. It’s worth noting that the G650 is such an exceptional product because it made significant strides in speed, range, and comfort simultaneously. That’s rare. By contrast, the upcoming G500 and G600 don’t break new ground in terms of speed or range, but do provide improved technology and most of the 650’s hallmark capabilities at a lower price point.

I’ve gone on record as predicting that the next big jump will be an increase in cruise speed — namely, a supersonic business jet. At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate goal: compressing time. Eliminating fuel stops is certainly one way to do it, but that only takes you so far. What comes next when the need to refuel is gone? Once the sound barrier is broken, the race will really be on. You’ll see officially recognized circumnavigations occurring on a much faster and more frequent basis, and business aviation’s value will rise exponentially.

  10 comments for “How Far is Far Enough?

  1. March 24, 2015 at 10:03 am

    Fascinating points you make, Ron. And I’m certainly ready to grab the popcorn and watch the next global speed race!

    • March 24, 2015 at 10:17 am

      I am as well. It’s not hard to envision the speed race capturing the imagination of today’s kids the way the space race did for those who grew up in the 1960s or the planes of the second world war did for kids thirty years earlier.

  2. GDH
    March 24, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I agree. Distance doesn’t capture my interest as much as speed records or achievements do. You are right, how much further and between WHICH two points are critical. For one man’s “non stop needs” between two points, do we have to use countless engineers minds to make the extra leap for distance? Can’t we just stop for fuel “tech stop” and continue on our way?

    Also, maybe I missed the understanding, but if the G650 range is 7K, how was Wynn’s A/C able to fly 13k?

    • March 24, 2015 at 3:35 pm

      The added fuel capacity can be useful for things other than range. The ability to tanker fuel helps an operator avoid the high prices found at some locales. This can more than pay for the added expense of a longer range aircraft — to say nothing of helping discourage single-FBO airports from price gouging just because they’re the only game in town.

      Wynn’s airplane was able to fly so far because they stopped for fuel in China.

  3. Karlene
    March 25, 2015 at 6:19 am

    Ron, Good point about the distance being half the globe could prove enough. However, I’m thinking when you’re a corporate owner, that range could have more to do with the ability to stop and go without needing to refuel. Fuel prices vary worldwide, as does the desire to land in some country you may like to bypass. There are also weather systems that arise that present challenges, that under normal operations demand a stop and refuel to make destination. I had an 18:40 duty day once trying to get to Hong Kong because we had to stop for fuel due to weather and holding. Now… if it were my choice, I would have rather had a few thousand more miles of range to avoid that fuel stop (as would the passengers). So, more than point A to B, there are reasons for longer range. If I’m a corporate owner where time is money and I had to be someplace, and my pilots needed to change directions and go the long way around the world to get me there, due to a line of thunderstorms, or a hurricane, and we have the range to do it… that makes all the sense in the world to me. Excellent post!

    • March 26, 2015 at 10:18 am

      Wow, almost nineteen hours — now that’s a long day. You make some excellent points, undoubtedly borne out of your experience flying exactly those kinds of long-haul international legs. I don’t doubt that there will always be times when added range would prove helpful. Flying to the South Pacific comes to mind. If you launch from the east coast and fly direct to, say, Tahiti (5,400 nm) only to find the airport is shut down, the freedom to fly back to a pleasant place like Hawaii rather than some remote island could be useful. But is that one-in-a-thousand eventuality worth the investment of time and money building a longer-range aircraft? Most pilots wouldn’t carry enough fuel to do that even if the airplane had the range. Then there are duty time issues for 135 and 121 operations, and other such complications.

  4. Michael
    March 25, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    Is there some legal reason there aren’t supersonic business jets or something else that has prevented this from already happening or is it just cost to build such a thing and get buyers?

    • March 25, 2015 at 1:26 pm

      It’s both.

      Existing law prohibits exceeding the speed of sound over the United States. That’s because of the Concorde, which was quite loud. Plenty of research has taken place since then, and the technology is now available to build something a lot quieter. But until the rule is changed, who’s going to invest billions of dollars to design and build it? That’s a big risk!

      Building a supersonic business jet is possible, but it would be quite expensive. Probably $100-120 million each. A decade ago, the cream of the crop in bizjets were selling for ~$40 million, but today they’re closer to $80 million and production of those models is sold out for years to come, so it’s not hard to imagine a market for aircraft that travel twice as fast selling at a 50% premium.

      Building a supersonic business jet is like jumping off one of those fun Hawaiian waterfalls. You know it’s safe… but everyone’s a little nervous about being first to take that leap.

      • Mike
        March 26, 2015 at 11:56 pm

        I will get right on it then and be the industry leader…

        • March 27, 2015 at 12:51 am

          I was hoping you’d take the initiative. Pocket change for someone with your deal-sniffing skills… 🙂

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