"EASY"-TO-PILOT TURBINE AIRPLANES: FLY-IT-YOURSELF
In the world there is a "crème" of fortunate for whom the words "time" and "distance" have different meanings that these have for ordinary mortals. With the technological advances of the last decades a category of airplanes that unite business with pleasure has been growing: turbine airplanes that can be flown by their owners.
Considering the type of operations, Aviation is usually divided in civil aviation (where regulations and laws rule) and military aviation (where anything goes). Civil aviation in turn is usually divided into commercial aviation and the rest is the so-called "general" aviation. Commercial aviation is mainly composed of airlines for passenger and cargo transportation.
For some individuals, the services offered by airlines are insufficient. More so in recent years since the madness of September 11 made the queues outside security checks at airports endless. The problem is magnified if you have to make connections or if definitely there are no flights to the region to which you wish to travel.
The need (or luxury) to go wherever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want has made general aviation in turn be divided into two: the sport aviation and business aviation.
The sport aviation is primarily intended for flight enthusiasts, the so-called "weekend pilots". We're talking about the vast majority of single-engine (usually piston) propeller planes, which are relatively simple and easy to fly, besides being the most economical type of aircraft. It is true that in many cases these aircraft are also used for business, but their slow speed, and even more, their mechanical reliability lower than that of turbine engine aircraft and their limited ability to fly in bad weather, make them compete more against cars rather than against airliners, when we need them to take us from point A to point B.
The other type of general aviation, business aviation, is dominated by turbine airplanes, much more expensive and complex, but also safer and faster. They are, in fact, able to shorten distances in the same manner as the airlines do, adding the much greater convenience.
Much alike as in order to drive land vehicles there are different types of driver's licenses (private category, professional registration, registration for trucks, public transport, etc.), something similar exists in Aeronautics. The first license is usually the private pilot license (roughly corresponding to the private category license for cars) that is usually obtained with an experience of at least 40 flight hours (after the appropriate theory classes, of course). There are also the commercial pilot category (for example, for air taxi), air transport pilot (air carrier aircraft), etc. There are two categories that have no parallel to licenses for land vehicles: these are the licenses to fly in bad weather (by instruments) and to fly airplanes with more than one engine. For large airplanes (more than 12 500 pounds, or 5700 kg) usually a specific course for each model of airplane that the pilot intends to fly is required.
Everyone knows that airplanes are the most expensive means of transportation in the world. A private-pilot course costs a hundred times more than a course to drive cars. With this information it is easy to imagine how much airplanes cost.
In life good things cost big money, and on the other hand trying to economize in Aviation is playing with safety. We must remember that there are no roadside shoulders up there.
The basic requirement is, thus, money. Private aviation is usually for the "crème" of society.
Leaving aside licenses for novices, very light airplanes and weekend trips, let's go to what matters: linking business with pleasure.
Here it is where business-airplane manufacturers enter. While firms Boeing and Airbus have divisions that cater specifically to the market of the wealthy individual buyer (such as Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, who ordered an A380, the largest passenger plane in the world), most people do not need to carry an entire royal court every time she or he goes to the Caribbean.
The demarcation of 12 500 pounds between large and small airplanes is very interesting: usually a large airplanes requires a crew of at least two pilots, preferably professional, while smaller airplanes can be flown by their owners without being accompanied by a "chauffeur", much the way that ordinary people use their private cars on any late afternoon.
Thus, the type of airplane we're talking about at least has to be turbine-powered and at most has to have a maximum take-off weight of 5,7 ton.
The first airplane to be designed with this goal in mind was the Learjet 23, created in 1963 by entrepreneur Bill Lear. It had two jet engines and wings derived from a Swiss fighter, allowing it to fly at over 40 000 feet altitude (12 km) and 900 km/h. But it was so fast and complicated that aviation authorities did not dare to certify it to fly single pilot: a crew of two experienced pilots was the most prudent.
The pretension was archived, and another concept of turbine-powered airplane was allowed to follow its own course: the turboprop. In this type of aircraft, gas turbines are not used to launch a strong jet backward, but rather their energy is delivered to a normal propeller. This has its advantages: on the one hand the higher reliability (and therefore higher safety) and low weight of the turbine engine, and on the other hand the fuel economy and good performance at low speeds (near airports) of the propeller.
The first turboprop that was successful in the market of business aviation was the Beechcraft King Air, released at the same time as the Learjet 23. The wisdom of the technical decision is reflected in the fact that it is produced to this day, having become the most popular business aircraft in the world, with over 6000 units delivered. It is currently produced in three versions: the C90GTx, seating 6, minimum fortune required US$ 3,595,000 (prices are, except when noted, from the "2017 Purchase Planning Handbook" published by "Business & Commercial Aviation", part of the magazine "Aviation Week & Space Technology", The McGraw-Hill Companies, New York, May 2017), the model 250 seating 8 people (U.S. $ 5,995,000) and the long 350i (10 people to nearly 600 km/h, for US$ 6,995,000). A special version of the King Air 350i has an extended range ("ER", US$ 8,445,625) to 2300 nautical miles (4250 kilometers), enough to reach very remote airports.
In 1990, the French company Socata, as an evolution of the piston-powered Mooney 301 prototype, began delivering its new model TBM 700 (later improved to TBM 850, then TBM 900 and now TBM 930), a turboprop but single engine. With a price (US$ 3,979,750) almost comparable to the King Air C90GTx, the advantage would be the better economy of operation. The safety of this idea is still debated, but other companies followed suit, like Piper (M600, US$ 2,899,000) and the Swiss manufacturer Pilatus (PC-12 NG, US$ 4,923,000).
One of the most expensive "personal" turboprops is the Piaggio Avanti Evo, which for US$ 7,695,000 provides "space age" aerodynamics, with three wings and two propellers pointing backward, allowing you to reach fantastic 740 km/h.
THE JET SET
Many do not like propellers because they seem "outdated", and in such cases there is no technical argument worth. To satisfy them, Cessna reviewed the Achilles heel of the Learjet and in 1977 created a competitor with a redesigned cockpit, simplified and highly automated: the Citation I-SP. Their successors are the Citation CJ family and the little Citation Mustang, one of the cheapest jet aircraft until 2017 (US$ 3,350,000). Of course at this price it is just as fast (or slow) as a King Air, but without the propellers it looks much sexier.
Beechcraft preferred to ignore the until then competitor and instead offered until 2012 a model of a more normal performance (and price): the 835 km/h Premier IA, for 8 people, last quoted at US$ 7,105,800. A comparable model and the largest in this category is currently the Cessna Citation CJ4, with a 3 500-km range and at US$ 8,995,000.
The Brazilian Embraer also smelled profit in the growing market and prepared models for 6 and 8 occupants. Other companies with lesser résumés also dream high but their less solid footholds are difficulting them from taking off.
The heavy investments, however, remain targeted to production lines sized for just hundreds of units per year.
Once upon a time a "socialite" was asked what was an useful function of the rich and famous. Her answer was very original: to confirm to ordinary people that the fantasies of a dream-like life can really exist.
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Originally published in ABC Color on 19 October 2008. Photograph: Beechcraft B300 Super King Air 350 (M-FIVE, registration of the Isle of Man) in The Great Vintage Flying Weekend, Kemble Airport, Gloucestershire, England, in May 2009. Credit: Adrian Pingstone, with permission.