Throughout Beechcraft's tumultuous recent history, one thing remained constant—the popularity of its twin-turboprop King Air. The company has risen from the ashes of bankruptcy and returned to its roots as a dedicated manufacturer of propeller-powered aircraft, and King Air is once again its flagship.
The aircraft's importance to the “new” Beechcraft was underlined in August, when it landed the largest-ever order for general-aviation turboprops and inked a 105-aircraft, $788 million deal for King Air 350is with Wheels Up, a new members-only air transportation venture started by the founders of jet-card pioneers Marquis Jet.
The back-to-basics King Air 350i is as Midwestern as corn and soybeans, and just as consistently in demand in the marketplace. It now serves as the real-life phoenix of the new Beechcraft, a leaner and financially stronger company since its February reorganization and relaunch. But the 350i is more down-to-earth than the Hawker jets that previously topped its product range, a mix of old and new that defines the company's more modest ambitions.
“We're not selling the tip of the pyramid in luxury and performance. We're selling very well-executed regional transportation,” says CEO Bill Boisture. While a 300-kt. King Air 350i lacks the panache of a 430-kt. turbofan, it is only 20-30 min. slower than a jet on shorter trips and burns 20% less fuel. The duration of most business aircraft trips is less than 2 hr., and most missions are no longer than 300-600 nm. The 350i provides cost-effective transportation for 8-10 passengers at a significantly lower operating cost than a comparable jet. Estimated direct operating cost is less than $1,200/hr., including engine reserves, scheduled maintenance and $6/gal. fuel.
These economic realities hit home after the 2008 financial crisis, when hundreds of jet owners chocked or chucked their aircraft. The collapse in demand for small and medium jets caused then-to hemorrhage more than $1.6 billion from 2009-12. Faced with more than $2.6 billion in debt, mainly due to its money-losing turbofans, the company negotiated a pre-planned bankruptcy reorganization with debt holders, creditors and suppliers. Its propeller models—especially the King Airs—held their own during the global meltdown and the manufacturer also secured $400 million in debtor-in-possession financing to kick-start operations as it exited bankruptcy in February.
The King Air 350i has more to offer than just attractive operating economics. As a Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 23 commuter-category aircraft, it delivers much the same one-engine-inoperative (OEI) takeoff safety margins as a FAR Part 25 transport-category jet. It is available in cargo/combi/freighter, air ambulance, surveillance and other special-mission configurations. As a result, production rates for the 350i, and earlier 350, have averaged slightly more than 40 a year over the last decade.
All current production Beechcraft products have all-metal airframes. Few parts are manufactured using computer-controlled machines and other automated tools. Production is labor-intensive and, because of high labor costs in the U.S., much of the 350i's airframe, including tail and upper and lower fuselage sections, are now built at the company's facility in Chihuahua, Mexico.
The King Air 350 was certified in 1989, grandfathered as the Model B300 on the 1973 Model 200type certificate. Compared with the King Air 200, the B300 features a 34-in. fuselage stretch, two more cabin windows and double-club seating for eight. The wing is about 3 ft. wider in span than the 200's. The aircraft's maximum takeoff weight exceeds 12,500 lb., which moves it into the commuter category and requires pilots be type-rated.
The 350i made its production debut in 2009, featuring improved interior soundproofing,Pro Line 21 integrated avionics and Venue cabin entertainment system, and Raisbeck Engineering's dual aft-body strakes and wing lockers in the nacelles. Winglets improve the aircraft's lift-to-drag ratio at relatively high lift-coefficients, which increases OEI takeoff performance. The aft-body strakes improve yaw stability and allow the aircraft to be dispatched with an inoperative yaw damper and flown at altitudes up to 19,000 ft., versus 5,000 ft. for an unmodified aircraft. The wing lockers add 16 cu. ft. and 600 lb. of external baggage capacity.
The flight deck has three, large-format, portrait-configuration liquid-crystal displays used for left and right primary flight displays (PFD) and center multi-function display (MFD) with engine indications. The integrated flight information system hosts electronic charts, enhanced map graphics, and optional XM satellite or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (Acars) weather, among other functions. The package includes dual solid-state attitude/heading reference systems, digital air-data computers, data concentrators, audio panels, fail-passive flight guidance computers and communication/navigation radios.
Also included is a single FMS-3000 multi-sensor flight management system (FMS) and a data loader that uses thumb drives. Options include a second FMS; an infrared, enhanced-vision system camera and VHF data radio to support Acars. In the cabin, Aircell Axxess II Iridium satcom and Gogo Biz Wi-Fi also are options, along with XM satellite radio, a moving map display, individual plug-in passenger seat monitors and aft-mounted, swing-out, forward-facing large-format monitors.
The 350i features a sound-suppression system with triple-layer skin-panel insulation and dynamically tuned vibration dampers, plus 3-in.-thick thermal insulation and an acoustically isolated interior shell. The system is tuned for 1,500-rpm prop speed and lowers noise by 4 db to about 78 db in cruise.
We strapped into the left seat of a King Air 350i at Atlantic Aviation's ramp at Wilmington, Del., with Beechcraft demo pilot Errol Wuertz, Jr. My first impression is of the blend of old and new technologies. The Pro Line 21 avionics system adds great capabilities and situational awareness, especially because of its glareshield-mounted flight guidance system control panels and large displays, but it is far from being fully integrated with aircraft systems.
Instead of an integrated crew-alerting system on the electronic displays, for example, the original upper and lower annunciator-light panels are retained. To initialize the FMS, the crew must manually input fuel quantity because it is not integrated with the fuel-quantity indication system. The FMS is not linked with the pressurization system, so departure and arrival field elevations must be entered into the pressurization control panel. The 350i does have a Keith Products' climate-control system that automatically adjusts heating, cooling and fan speed to ideal temperatures in the cockpit and cabin.
A performance computer is not part of the avionics package, so the crew must look up V speeds and takeoff field length based on weight, airport elevation, wind and outside air temperature (OAT). Some crews elect to use their own electronic flight bags for takeoff performance calculations. Computed V speeds then are manually entered to generate speed bugs on the PFD airspeed tape.
We initialized the FMS and programmed in the flight plan. Single-pilot basic operating weight was 10,190 lb., with two other occupants aboard, plus galley stores and baggage. With 2,050 lb. of fuel, ramp weight was 12,940 lb. Wuertz rounded up our takeoff weight to 13,000 lb. Based on using no flaps, Wilmington's 80-ft.-field elevation and 23C OAT, the V1 decision speed was 99 kt. indicated airspeed (KIAS), rotation 104 kt. and the V2 takeoff safety speed 111 kt. Computed takeoff field length was 3,203 ft. and runway available was 4,602 ft. Target en route climb speed was 170 kt.
The 350i is easy to taxi because of differential thrust, smooth brakes and effective nosewheel steering via the rudder pedals. Holding short of Runway 32, we commenced the litany of first-day pre-takeoff checks, including electric pitch trim, prop overspeed governor and rudder boost, low-pitch stop and primary governor, autofeather and engine anti-ice systems. Wuertz says the checks can be done quite quickly with some practice, but it would be advisable to run through them before boarding passengers who have paid for a flight. Various fuel system, cabin altitude, landing gear and fire-protection checks must be completed. Brake deice, traffic collision avoidance and terrain awareness system checks are performed before each flight.
Once cleared for takeoff, we advanced the power to about 85% torque as we began the takeoff roll. The pitot cowl inlets are so efficient at converting air velocity into air pressure that torque increased 5% during takeoff roll. We adjusted power to 100% torque. As the engines accelerated to 1,700 prop rpm, aircraft interior noise levels rose accordingly; it was not particularly quiet. I also noticed we spent considerable time cross-checking engine output and making minor adjustments to set takeoff power. Clearly, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-60As are long overdue for a full-authority digital electronic control (Fadec) upgrade to reduce pilot workload.
Rotation force was light, as was roll-control force. The Beechcraft standard for gentle and progressive control force far exceeds any certification requirement. With a positive rate of climb, we retracted the landing gear with virtually no pitch-moment change. There was a small lag in the response to inputs to the pitch-trim switch. The manual pitch-trim wheel provided immediate response, but a comparatively small amount of rotation results in a large change in trim.
Pulling back the throttles to 95% torque and setting the prop levers to 1,500 rpm reduced the interior noise considerably. Clearly, the sound-suppression system is tuned to 100-hz noise, the prop frequency at that speed. The reduction from takeoff to climb power results in a significant change in yawing moment, requiring left rudder input and corresponding rudder trim to maintain balanced flight. A similar change in yawing moment came as we reduced power after level-off at cruise altitude. And the yaw damper does not compensate much for such changes.
We had planned to reach a cruise altitude of 7,000 ft. in 10 min. for our brief flight to Morristown, N.J., but air traffic control kept us at 4,000 ft. for the 93-nm jaunt. We settled into a 200-kt. cruise below the floor of Philadelphia Class B airspace. Operating at low altitude, at this speed, the King Air 350i shows off its big advantage in fuel efficiency over similarly sized turbofans. “In this area, this airplane operates so much cheaper than a jet and you're doing the same thing that the jets do. They can't get high, either,” Wuertz said. At a weight of 12,700 lb., cruising at 200 kt. at 4,000 ft. in 17C conditions, the aircraft burned 730 lb./hr.
Once clear of the shadow of Philadelphia's Class B airspace, we accelerated to 250 kt.“Easy on the power,” cautioned Wuertz, as we fine-tuned the throttles to avoid exceeding 100% torque. PT6A engines tend to be sensitive to throttle movements at higher power settings, and the response is anything but linear. At 12,500 lb., the aircraft settled into cruise at 250 KIAS (266 kt. true airspeed) while burning 1,020 lb./hr.
Approaching the floor of New York's Class B airspace, we slowed back to 200 KIAS. Wuertz entered Morristown's Runway 23 instrument landing system (ILS) approach into the FMS for reference purposes. The FMS automatically tuned to 110.3 mhz for the ILS approach, and the PFD displayed the 229-deg. inbound localizer course in the preview mode.
Changes in power, and therefore fuel flow, result in simple time/distance/fuel-remaining computations by the FMS. Unlike most jets, the FMS in this aircraft is not sophisticated enough to consider expected climb, cruise, and descent fuel burns and speeds when computing fuel remaining at the destination. “It's just like a calculator. You punch it in and that's what it's telling you,” Wuertz explained.
On downwind, Wuertz switched on the aircraft's optional nose-mounted, infrared enhanced-vision-system camera. This is a microbolometer design that is good for thermal imaging at night or in partial obscuration. The technology much improves situational awareness when flying “black hole” approaches, particularly where obstacles in the final approach path pose potential hazards.
New York directed us to descend to 3,000 ft. on downwind to Runway 23 and slow to 160 kt. Those 105-in. props function effectively as speedbrakes, and the aircraft easily goes down and slows down simultaneously. We extended flaps, noting a slight ballooning tendency. Turning base to final, we descended to 2,000 ft. and were cleared for the ILS approach. We elected to fly the initial part of the procedure at 140 kt. with approach flaps so as not to impede arriving jet traffic. We extended full flaps over the final approach fix, slowing to 130 kt.
“It slows pretty easily,” Wuertz commented. But the inflight idle-pitch stops prevented the blades from going almost flat when the throttles were retarded. Nearing 500 ft. above ground level (AGL), we slowed to the 101-kt. final approach speed. We disengaged the yaw damper at 100 ft. AGL. Over threshold at 50 ft. AGL, we gradually reduced power. We could have chopped the power to idle sooner to slow the aircraft and there would have been less float prior to touchdown.
The King Air 350i is a more fuel-efficient and practical alternative to a jet for the short-range trips most business aircraft operators fly daily. If you really needed to fill the tanks and almost every seat, the 350i offers load-and-go operating flexibility. Typically equipped, it can carry seven passengers with full fuel and baggage in both the aft bay and wing lockers.
While few groups of seven people want to spend 5-6 hr. together flying 1,500 nm. in this class of aircraft, the 350i would enable them to hopscotch from White Plains, N.Y., to Montreal to Pittsburgh to Washington and back to White Plains without refueling. The lackluster OEI takeoff performance of most twin turboprops disqualifies them as serious corporate transports, but the King Air 350i provides essentially the same single-engine performance margins as an transport-category jet.
The Pro Line 21 avionics increase situational awareness, but its state of development leaves room for improvement, including synthetic vision, a fully integrated engine-indication and crew-alerting system and an FMS with an airport performance computer and climb/cruise/descent performance projections. The Venue system puts the 350i's cabin environment on par with the best light jets. But it needs an Apple-compatible Wi-Fi distribution system so that iPads, iPhones and MacBooks can double as personal video monitors.
The aircraft is not as easy to fly as a business jet, particularly because its avionics are not fully integrated with aircraft systems, the engines lack Fadecs and the cockpit has dozens of legacy switches and manually operated systems, some of which date back to the original 1964 King Air.
Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to fly along with Fred George as he evaluates the King Air 350i, or go to AviationWeek.com/video
|Engine||2 x 1,050-shp P&WC PT6A-60A|
|Payload with Max Fuel||1,299|
|Fuel with Max Payload||2,600|
|Max Cruise||313 kt.|
|Range (4 pax)||1,714 nm|
|Max Altitude||35,000 ft.|