The G650 is Gulfstream Aerospace's first completely clean-sheet large-cabin aircraft since the Gulfstream II debuted in 1967, and consequently the business aviation community has high expectations for it. The Savannah, Ga., firm was compelled to set higher goals for its new flagship — and its possible derivatives — than for previous generations of large-cabin Gulfstream jets. After all, the competition from Bombardier's and Dassault's upcoming super jets is considerably stronger than that which existed back in the bell-bottom and Oldsmobile era.

To raise the bar ever higher, the G650 is designed to fly nearly 30 kt. faster at long-range cruise than the current production G550 and to beat the latter's class-leading range by 250 mi. The newest Gulfstream also has been upgraded with digital flight controls, similar to those of the Falcon 7X, and, most importantly, it has a new, non-circular cabin cross-section that's wider and taller than that of the Bombardier Global 6000, formerly the heavy iron leader in cabin comfort. The G650's cabin cross-section also will be larger than that of Bombardier's uber-jets now in development, the Global 7000 and 8000.

General Dynamics, Gulfstream's parent company, strongly believes long-range, large-cabin business jets will sell well in coming years, so starting with the G650, Gulfstream is investing substantially in product development. The G650 presumably will be morphed into shorter- and longer-range derivative aircraft, some perhaps with shorter and longer cabins. All are likely to share the G650's four-radii, flattened oval fuselage cross-section and signature wide-oval windows. The new Gulfstreams should help the Savannah firm to counter the potential threats posed by Dassault's upcoming 5,000+ nm range, large-cabin SMS twin, as well as the Global 7000 and 8000, along with other competitive models that might emerge.

Clean-sheet product development is only one of the sea changes occurring at Gulfstream. The firm also is investing heavily to upgrade its manufacturing processes with the goal of slashing the G650's parts count by one-half with a concomitant reduction in assembly hours. Labor-intensive manufacturing long has been eating into Gulfstream's profits because legacy Gulfstream large-cabin aircraft are hand built much the same as older top-tier British and Italian luxury cars. The final result of these auto and airplane hand-manufacturing processes was near perfection, but at a staggering cost in labor hours.

That's all changing with the G650. The new 200,000-sq.-ft., two-line G650 production plant is eerily quiet, not unlike a modern automobile assembly plant. There are very few workers on the shop floor and a paucity of hand labor tasks, such as fitting, trimming, drilling and riveting. For instance, rather than mechanical fasteners, metal bonding is used to attach longerons to most fuselage skin sections. Single piece parts, formed from solid billets by computer-controlled high-speed mills, are replacing parts assemblies that used to be handcrafted out of dozens of little plates, fillets and brackets. On the shop floor, clecos are almost as rare as cigarettes.

Most of the heavy machining, milling and manufacturing is done outside the Savannah plant. Large subassemblies built by third-party manufacturers and Gulfstream's own outside facilities arrive at the Savannah plant where giant overhead gantry cranes and precision alignment trolleys move them into position with a 0.015-in. tolerance for joining on the parallel assembly lines. Computer-controlled, multi-axis machine tools install many of the fasteners to complete the green airframes, thereby eliminating thousands of hand-labor tasks.

Elsewhere at Savannah, the changes in process are no less impressive. Gulfstream's R & D campus at the northwest corner of the airport has doubled in size. General Dynamics is making available technical resources from other divisions to Gulfstream, including Electric Boat, builder of some of the quietest submarines ever to submerge. If you know how to make silent a “Boomer” at 100 fathoms, it's no sweat to quash noise emitters in a business aircraft. Using their submarine acoustical tool kits, Electric Boat's hush-hush mavens cut the G650's interior noise by 5 to 6 dB compared to the G550, which is one of the quietest business aircraft in production.

The technology wrapped up into the G650 is head and shoulders above anything Gulfstream ever embraced in developing its previous jets. The deeper one delves, the more one appreciates the design details.