Gulfstream’s New G500 & G600

G600 aerial view

Well, my educated guesses weren’t too far off the mark.

So what shiny new baubles did the aerodynamic elves at Gulfstream unwrap for all us airplane geeks today? In short, two smaller versions of the G650. They’re being called the “G500″ and “G600″, and they’ve got the wider cabin, higher speed, and fuel efficiency of their big brother, but at a lower price point for those who don’t need 7,500 nautical miles of range. In some ways — the cockpit avionics, for example — they even surpass the 650. Of course, if there’s a place you’d expect a new model to outshine one designed a half-decade earlier, it would be the panel.

My first impression is that Gulfstream is being very smart. For one thing, production of the legacy models will continue. If the market wants them, why not give buyers the option? (In fact, quite a few of the orders announced today were for those “old” airplanes.) Leaving them in production is also the conservative choice, something a commenter on yesterday’s post suggested GAC’s board of directors might have been quite interested in.

Everyone is referring to this as a “clean sheet design”, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. The G650 was a true clean sheet, but these airplanes appear to take significant technology and design elements from that predecessor, including the airfoil design and 36-degree sweep. AIN reported that the new aircraft are expected to have a “high degree of systems commonality with the G650″. As a pilot, I’m hoping that includes the type rating.

This must take quite a bit of wind out of the sails at Bombardier and Dassault. GAC is using the same strategy Douglas employed against Boeing at the start of the jet age: let the competitor introduce their product first, then improve upon their specifications. They’re even using Bombardier’s model nomenclature, where the aircraft’s designation provides an approximation of its range. From the Falcon they’ve taken the side stick and improved upon it.

Gulfstream calls their iteration an Active Control Sidestick, or ACS. I was glad to hear it will provide physical feedback from control inputs made from the other side of the cockpit. Seems to combine the best of what you get with a traditional control column while still providing the legroom and other benefits of a side stick. I’d be curious to know if they had tactile feedback in mind prior to the Air France 447 crash. Airbus has used side sticks for a long time, but a common complaint from detractors is the lack of feedback to the other pilot on what his cohort is doing with the flight controls.

This rendering is the new G500, but the design lineage clearly comes from the 650.

This rendering is the new G500, but the design lineage clearly comes from the 650.

Gulfstream may also to be ahead of the Falcon 5X and other competitors in terms of timeline. What appeared to be a completed G500 taxied up to the ceremony under its own power. Normally, a new aircraft is announced long before a flyable copy is built, and even longer before a painted, finished-looking example shows up with engines running. That’s one of Gulfstream’s strengths: they have a good reputation for not only supporting their products better than anyone else, but also not making promises or commitments without delivering on them. If anything, they under-promise and over-deliver — something as rare in the aerospace world as it is in the software industry.

In a move that bucks recent trends in aircraft manufacturing, GAC is taking production of many major assemblies in-house rather than sub-contracting to companies like Spirit AeroSystems. Companies like Boeing have been doing the exact opposite, creating intricate and extensive subcontractor networks. Of course, the travails they’ve had with the 787 argues against following suit. Moving in-house should also reduce production time, logistical hassles, and allow more direct control over quality. For example, you can see a certain waviness to the fuselage skin of early G-IVs. While it never presented any performance penalty or safety issues, that sort of fit & finish issue wouldn’t be acceptable in today’s more competitive market.

One of most significant changes concerns the powerplant. For half a century, everything they designed in Savannah featured a Rolls-Royce engine, but the G500/G600 will be propelled by the new Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW800 series geared turbofan. Primary features are low operating cost and the elimination of mid-life inspections. While fuel efficiency isn’t much better than the BR725 engines on the G650, lower noise signature and emissions are also important for global acceptance these days. Noise in particular will continue to be a limiting factor at many of the places Gulfstream owners want to take their airplanes.

It’s curious that they decided to re-use the G500 designation. Until today, G500 was the name given to a G550 variant. Of course, it did about as well as the G300/400, which is to say most buyers stepped up to the newer and more full-featured version of the aircraft.

From what I’ve seen so far, these two aircraft look like winners. They’ll undoubtedly steal everyone’s thunder at the upcoming NBAA convention. If you want to read more on the G500/G600, I recommend AIN’s coverage, this AviationWeek article, and of course Gulfstream’s dedicated site.

P42: The Mystery Ship

Gulfstream G450

Various sources are suggesting that Gulfstream Aerospace will reveal the much anticipated P42 aircraft project in the coming weeks.

If “P42″ doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Most people who fly Gulfstreams for a living probably haven’t heard of it either. But among those who follow the nitty-gritty details of the industry, most believe it’s going to be the successor to the G450 line, an design which (sans avionics upgrades and a few minor changes) has been in production since 1985. Thirty years is a long time for any model to remain viable in the competitive world of new aircraft sales, and it speaks volumes about the quality and capability of the product that it’s been king of the hill for so many decades.

It’s All in the Timing

Assuming P42 is indeed a G450 replacement, one wonders “Why now?”. I think the answer is that Gulfstream faced no serious competition until recently. While there have been higher flying, faster, and larger models for a long time, it’s only now that those elements are becoming available in a single design at a competitive price point and operating cost.

Falcon and Bombardier present the primary challengers, having recently announced the development of airplanes with the cabin size, speed, and range to threaten sales of a model Gulfstream has been building for decades. While GAC could have chucked the 450 design a long time ago, the smart move is to leave an airplane in production as long as it continues to sell. The proof is in the numbers: there are about 850 Gulfstream IV/450-series aircraft in service, and the order book is still quite full.

Of course, you remain successful by staying ahead of the Joneses, and that’s what P42 is all about. AIN hinted at this in their EBACE convention coverage earlier in the year:

General Dynamics chairman and CEO Phebe Novakovic said last month that 60 percent of Gulfstream’s order intake during the first quarter was for the G450 and G550. And in the fourth quarter of 2013, China’s Minsheng Financial Leasing placed a 60-aircraft order with Gulfstream estimated at about $3 billion, the bulk of which is for G450s and G550s.

But there is trouble looming on the horizon for the legacy large-cabin Gulfstreams. The $45 million Dassault Falcon 5X, announced in October at the NBAA Convention, took direct aim at the G450. The 5X, which is expected to enter service in 2017, offers a range of 5,200 nm, 700 nm more than the G450, and a 98.4-inch cabin cross section that largely matches that of the G650, Gulfstream’s widest jet. Striking another blow, Dassault launched a Falcon 7X derivative (8X) here at EBACE that similarly challenges the G550.

“But don’t think for a minute that Gulfstream is idly sitting by,” business aviation analyst Brian Foley told AIN. “Gulfstream has plans to respond to Dassault, but it’s a balancing act as to when you make an announcement. Too soon, and you hurt sales of your existing products; too late, and it appears you’re hastily reacting to the market.”

Whatever P42 turns out to be, it’s going to represent a major shift for Gulfstream. Most of the existing fleet is related to a half-century-old derivative of a turboprop. The changes and updates to that line, while significant, have also been incremental. A bigger wing here, new avionics there, engine upgrades or a longer fuselage from time to time. The big question is this: will P42 be a clean-sheet design, or a derivative of the G650?

I’m guessing it’s the latter. Once the G650’s technology has found success in the marketplace, why not leverage that investment by offering models to suite different mission requirements and price points? It not only amortizes the billion dollar development cost, but also ensures a greater likelihood of success. Gulfstream has done this before, and not just with the G-IV/SP/300/350/400/450/etc line. Their G280 has been successful in large part because they mated a scaled-down G550 airfoil to a stretched G200 airframe.

Agent 86 Would Be Proud

Whatever P42 is, one of the program’s most impressive aspects thus far is the cone of silence that surrounds it. With more than 13,000 employees situated at facilities around the world, Gulfstream Aerospace is not exactly a small enterprise. In addition, they work closely with Honeywell, Rolls-Royce, Parker Aerospace, and countless other suppliers and subcontractors. Collectively, tens of thousands of individuals probably have exposure to and knowledge of P42, yet even in our ultra-connected world, a place where everyone totes around a 24/7 internet connection and high-resolution camera in the palm of their hand, the vault door has remained firmly closed. That’s impressive.

Compare this to the sieve-like atmosphere at Apple, where the whole world seems to know about products while they’re still on the drawing board. Is it just the fact that jets are “big money”? I don’t think so. The unit cost might be high, but the volume is incredibly low when compared to the millions of products a firm like Apple will sell in a single week.

Your Father’s Oldsmobile

Speaking of older technology, I was re-living the 1969 landing of Apollo 11 via firstmenonthemoon.com, and as always where Apollo is concerned, I was fascinated by the computing power — or more accurately, the lack thereof — in that project. The outdated iPhone any schmoe can grab for nearly free these days has infinitely more muscle than the IBM/360 mainframe which guided humans to a smooth lunar landing.

(By the way, if you’d like to get an in-depth look at what all those blinking lights on the mission control consoles really did, I highly recommend this Ars Technica article.)

Apollo mission control console. The displays were just that: displays. All they did was broadcast a picture of textual data which could not be processed or changed. Note the lack of a keyboard to interact with the computer!

Apollo mission control console. The displays were just that: displays. All they did was broadcast a picture of textual data which could not be processed or changed. Note the lack of a keyboard to interact with the computer!

But what really got me was the realization that from a chronological and computational power standpoint, the Gulfstreams that I fly are more closely related to that Apollo-era hardware than they are to today’s computers. The first moon landing was in 1969, just sixteen years before the G-IV went into production. Yet that airplane has been flying for nearly thirty years.

While the airframe itself belies the aircraft’s age, the avionics don’t. When asking to extend a centerline or compute a VNAV flight path, there’s enough time to grab a sip of coffee before the system displays a solution. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. The Honeywell SPZ-8400 is capable of doing everything a more “modern” avionics suite does, from VNAV approaches and WAAS to TAWS, GPWS, TCAS, and all the other bells & whistles. But it’s like using any other computer more than a few years old: the lack of power can be clearly felt.

The presence of older technology in avionics is not limited to business jets. I recall that the space shuttle had some pretty ancient stuff in it as well. When the orbiters received their glass cockpit avionics upgrades in the early 2000s, the five General Purpose Computers which form the heart of the shuttle’s computer system were mild upgrades of the existing AP-101 units. Even the “new” boxes weighed in at sixty-four pounds a piece and drew 600 watts each.

It’s worth noting that the AP-101S shares the same system architecture as the IBM/360 mainframe from the lunar program. If the shuttle was flying today, it would undoubtedly be using those exact computers, partly because of the difficulty and expense involved in certifying space-worthy hardware. But also because if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Perhaps that will be the legacy of not only the long-lived Gulfstream II/II/IV/V/x50 airplanes, but the upcoming P42 mystery bird as well.

Drones? Meh.

drones

They go by many names: UAVs, drones, remotely piloted vehicles. Whatever you call ‘em, more and more of the aviation news these days seems to focus on this segment of the industry. Blogs and podcasts exclusively dedicated to UAVs have been popping up left and right, and there’s certainly no shortage of enthusiasts and businesses waiting to put these advanced flying machines to work. Or play.

It’s easy to understand the excitement. These drones are small, relatively inexpensive, easy to fly, and — thus far, at least — free from certification hassles and other regulatory burdens. They require no conventional fuel, maintenance, or infrastructure, yet can carry high-definition cameras and other payloads while exploring areas at low-altitude that even a helicopter would be hard-pressed to get to. They can loiter with less noise and disturbance than a rotorcraft, too. In short, they represent a fresh canvas for the operator’s creativity.

New models and capabilities spawn almost continuously from the designers of these micro-aircraft. It’s something those of us in the traditional aviation sectors wish we could lay claim to. I imagine the early days of the 20th century must have felt quite similar to aviation’s pioneers. The future looked limitless. “Just Do It” could have been aviation’s slogan; if you could dream it, you could build and fly it. Today? Not so much. The regulations and paperwork weigh as much as the pilot flying the darn airplane. If they aren’t, you’re probably not “airworthy”.

Drones, on the other hand? From delivering cold beer or your Amazon order to keeping humans out of harms way while fighting fires, collecting intelligence, capturing exciting video footage, and engaging in national defense, they hold the promise of improved safety and convenience for all. It’s hard not to be impressed by displays like this:

But (you knew there had to be a “but”, didn’t you?) at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Every time I see a video, article, or link about drones, my response is “Eh. Who cares?”. I’ll probably offend some folks by saying this, but there’s something about these autonomous devices that turns my blood cold. It’s not that I hate them. I just don’t care about them.

When I think about flying, drones never enter the picture. In fact, I don’t consider operating a drone to be “flying” at all. In my mind, it’s on par with falconry, paper airplanes, kites, and sailboarding. That’s not to say it’s bad; on the contrary, some drone operators look like they’re having the time of their lives and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hold no animosity toward those who view drones and UAVs as the most exciting thing since the integrated circuit. But while there are aviation elements present, it’s not flying in the way I know and love it.

For one thing, the operator/pilot has a much different experience and perspective on flying. There’s no skin in the game when the worst that can happen is the loss of the drone. Operators are solidly anchored to terra firma, looking up at their craft the same way men have looked skyward at the birds since the dawn of time. That awe-inspiring ability to literally transport yourself and others across time and space? Gone.

There’s no physical connection to the flight controls or the invisible fluid through which the craft sails, no seat-of-the-pants experience. And how much satisfaction can you get from a smooth landing when the craft does all the heavy lifting through gyro-stabilization and computer technology? I guess I feel about drones the way some sailboat owners feel about engine-driven boats.

Perhaps the thing I see most lacking in the proliferation of drones is the sense of pride that comes from operating within any community of highly-trained professionals. Pilots definitely fall into that category. On the other hand, it’s difficult to see random individuals who happen to purchase a remote-controlled flying device as belonging to that same cadre. Especially when a typical story reads like this:

After saying “the FAA has got to be responsive to the entire industry,” [FAA UAS office chief] Jim Williams referred to a pair of incidents in which drones caused injuries to people on the ground. One came at an event at Virginia Motor Speedway in which an “unauthorized, unmanned aircraft” crashed into the stands, and in the other a female triathlete in Australia had to get stitches after being struck by a small drone.

Then, Williams segued to a pilot’s recent report of “a near midair collision” with a drone near the airport in Tallahassee, Florida. The pilot said that it appeared to be small, camouflaged, “remotely piloted” and about 2,300 feet up in the air at the time of the incident.

“The pilot said that the UAS was so close to his jet that he was sure he had collided with it,” Williams said.

Or this one:

UAV Causes Medical Helicopter Landing Delay

The landing of a CareFlight helicopter approaching Miami Valley hospital in Dayton, OH was delayed by a small UAV flying in the area, according to the company.

Television station WDTN reports that a CareFlight nurse aboard the helo was the first to spot the small aircraft flying in the vicinity of the hospital. The helicopter reportedly had a “significantly hurt” patient on board at the time.

The company notified both local police and hospital authorities in an effort to find the person operating the UAV before allowing the helicopter to proceed with its approach. The operator was taking aerial photos of a park in the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, which is near the hospital.

By all accounts, heavier-than-air flight had a definite Wild West quality about it in the early days, too. I’ll freely admit that it’s easy to paint with a wide brush where UAV antics are concerned, so maybe I’m simply being closed-minded about drones. Or more accurately, drone operators. But I feel the way I feel about it. I suppose that’s one thing drones and traditional aircraft pilots have in common: they both develop a reputation — deserved or not — based on the media’s incessant bleat of any sensational or negative news.

I’m curious to know if others have a similar reaction to the burgeoning unmanned aircraft industry. What’re your thoughts?

Time is Money

time_is_money2

One of the first things people discover about flying is that it requires an abundance of two resources: time and money. The money part is pretty obvious. Anyone who inquires about flight instruction at a local school will figure that one out before they even take their first lesson. The importance of time is a bit more nebulous.

When I began working as an instructor, I noticed that even in affluent coastal Orange County, at least one of those two assets always seemed to be in short supply. Those who had plenty of money rarely had much free time; they were financially successful because they worked such long hours. Younger pilots typically had fewer demands on their schedule, but funds were limited at best. It reminds me of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc2. But instead of matter and energy being interchangeable, it’s time and money. Benjamin Franklin took it a step further in a 1748 letter, concluding that “time is money”.

I learned to fly during a period when both of those elements were readily available. It was a luxury I didn’t appreciate — or even recognize — at the time. It’s probably for the best, since I would have been sorely tempted to spend even more on my addiction.

After flying Part 135 for the past three years, it’s interesting to note how those same limits apply to charter customers despite being much higher up on the proverbial food chain. These restrictions are the very reason Part 91/135 business aviation exists at all.

Case in point: I recently flew a dozen employees of a large retailer around the U.S. to finalize locations for new stores. They were able to visit ten cities in four days, spending several hours working at each destination. Out of curiosity, I ran our itinerary through booking sites like Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity to see how a group of twelve might fare on the airlines. Would you be surprised to learn that the answer is “not well”?

Our first leg, three hours in length, would have taken twelve hours and two extra stops on the airlines and actually cost more, assuming business class seats. Some of the subsequent legs wouldn’t have been possible at all on the airlines because they simply don’t serve those destinations. Overall, chartering the Gulfstream IV-SP cost less than trying to do the same trip on an airline. As far as time saved, on an airline, each of those ten legs would have required passengers to be at the airport 90 minutes in advance of their scheduled departure time. That alone would have wasted fifteen hours — the equivalent of two business days.

A chartered aircraft waits for passengers if they’re running late. If they need to change a destination, we can accommodate them. Travelers spend more time working and less time idle, literally turning back the clock and making everything they do more productive. And once we’re airborne, they can continue to do business, preparing for their next meeting and using the cabin as a mobile office. They can conference, spread out papers, and speak freely without worrying about strangers overhearing sensitive information.

This time/money exchange is present on every trip. Since I’m based in Los Angeles, our passengers are often in the entertainment industry. Imagine an artist or band who had a concert in Chicago on Monday, Miami on Tuesday, Denver on Wednesday, and Seattle on Thursday. They need to be in town early for rehearsals, interviews, and appearances. These tours sometimes last weeks or even months. Keeping a schedule like that would be nearly impossible without chartering. Imagine the cast of big budget film needing to be at film festivals, premieres, media interviews, awards shows, and such. Or the leaders of a private company about to go public or meeting with investors around the country prior to a product launch. Franklin was right: time is money.

When I fly on an scheduled airline, the inefficiency and discomfort remind me of why charter, fractional, and corporate aviation will only continue to grow. The price point of private flying doesn’t make sense for everyone, but for those who need it, it’s more than a convenience. It’s what makes doing business possible at all.


This post first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

No Apologies

A simple Cub and a grass runway.  This is flying!

Did you know there are more PhDs in the United States than there are pilots? It’s true. Few individuals with a doctorate are apologetic or shy about their achievement. On the contrary, many of them go so far as to attach this educational status to their very identity, adding it to their name, email signature, business cards, and more. It’s a big deal and they’re all too happy to let people know about it.

Since earning a pilot certificate places one in even more rarefied heights, it always surprises me to hear an aviator speak in apologetic terms about their flying. Typically it happens when they’re with others whom they perceive to be of higher achievement — an airline or military pilot, for example. They’ll say “oh, my plane’s just an old 152″. Or “I only have a sport pilot certificate”. I hate to see that. Whether the subject is their aircraft, training, or experience, there’s no cause for apologies. Quite the opposite. Don’t be fooled by the number of ratings on a pilot’s certificate, or assume they’re a better aviator because their logbook has more hours than yours. The worst physician in the world still managed to earn a Doctor of Medicine degree.

Brent Owens (aka Fixed Wing Buddha) recently wrote about this:

Let me go on record. If you are flying, no matter what kind of airplane, you should hold your head high. You are among a tiny population of people and you have nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it is ludicrous to think otherwise. In a sea of grounded mortals, we have a very special skill that lets us command the air. It doesn’t get much cooler than that, and it doesn’t matter what kind of aerial conveyance you choose.

In fact, I’d take it a step further. The “higher” a pilot goes in the food chain, the less actual flying they’re likely to do. I bet a low-time rag-wing tailwheel pilot could land my Gulfstream a lot better than the average jet pilot could land that taildragger. But for some reason we create this pecking order which is dictated by the size, cost, and speed of the aircraft we fly.

It’s human nature to equate bigger with better — the advertising industry is based on it — but it’s completely illogical. In fact, as the years go by I find my affinity for smaller, simpler, less expensive planes only grows. The Cub, the Citabria, the RV-3. These airplanes provide a more visceral connection between man, machine, and nature. They’re simpler and less expensive to buy, own, and maintain. And they’re not used for practical purposes so much as just enjoying the art of flying. A stick and a throttle. That’s it.

There was a story — I can’t seem to find it now — about an instructor bumping around the pattern with a student in the summer heat in a modest Cessna. He looks up, sees a turboprop flying thousands of feet above, and muses about how lucky those guys have it to be in smooth, fast, air conditioned comfort. The guys in the turboprop notice a 747 flying overhead, up in the stratosphere, and can’t think about much beyond moving up to a “real airplane” that flies a lot faster than 250 knots. Oh, to have lavatories, flight attendants, and travel the world! The bored 747 pilot, on the other hand, looks waaaay down at an airport below, sees a little Cessna flying around the pattern and says to his co-pilot, “Boy that guy’s lucky — I can’t wait to retire and get back to some REAL flying!”

Larger airplanes are just that: larger. Sitting in pressurized comfort at FL450 might seem like the end all/be all to those who fly more “modest” equipment, but I assure you it’s more system management than actual hands-on-the-controls flying. It can take on an antiseptic quality.

And doing the same thing day after day after day? I’ve met more than a few burned-out jet pilots for whom flying is no longer a passion or joy. It has been reduced to a job, nothing more. It’s sad, because they started out with that fire in their belly, that urge to hang out at the airport all day every day. And now? There’s nothing they’d rather do than get away from it all. That’s why I was extremely careful when I started flying professionally. It’s easy to allow the enthusiasm for a shiny jet to lead a person down that unfortunate path.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’m going to give it to you anyway. I see a lot of pilots who are always looking to the “next thing” rather than enjoying where they are right now. When they’re in a single, they’re totally focused to jumping into a retractable. Once they fly one, it’s all about moving into a twin. If they’re flying a recip, life seems like it will be “perfect” once they start flying the turboprop. Once they’re flying that, they’re already obsessed with a jet. It makes me sad, because their career will be over before they know it, and they’re well on the path to missing the whole thing.

So no matter what you fly, and whether you do it recreationally or professionally, be proud of your steed, and most of all enjoy every minute in the air. The clock is ticking; every day brings us closer to our final flight. We may not know when that door will close, but rest assured it eventually will. What a shame it would be to reach the end of the road and realize we never savored the journey.