By Robert Goyer / Published: Jan 04, 2013 / Flying Magazine
The iconic Wichita, Kansas, light airplane manufacturer, which catapulted to prominence with what amounted to the Depression-era bizjet, the still-sexy Beechcraft D-17 Staggerwing, rose through the subsequent decades on the fortunes of a hall-of-fame lineup of products, top-notch support, a dealer network without peer and a brand that stayed loyal to its heritage arguably throughout its history.
Today, the company is a shell of its former self. Gone are thousands of workers, let go over the past five years in the wake of the global economic bust. And many product lines, including those for the Premier and Hawker 4000, have stood idle for some time as the markets for those airplanes dried up.
The new plan included a new name, simply Beechcraft Corp., and a pared-down lineup that would jettison the company’s jet portfolio, which included the light Premier 1A and Hawker 400 (formerly the Beechjet and, before that, the -Mitsubishi -Diamond Jet), the super-midsize Hawker 4000 (nee Horizon) and the midsize Hawker 900XP.
At the press conference, HBC announced the shape of its new lineup, and it was a big departure from business as usual.
While the new Beechcraft will keep every propeller airplane in its current lineup, it will add a number of new propeller-driven derivatives, giving it a range of models from about $800,000 through about $8 million that will constitute Beechcraft’s entire new-airplane product line. That segment, says HBC, is worth approximately $3 billion a year. The new company will continue to build every one of the models in that market niche it builds today, modify some with new propulsion technology and create exciting new ones.
Beechcraft plans to expand that lineup of six airplanes into 10, though it is understandably guarding many of the details associated with that plan. A light jet, it stresses, is not in the cards. As tempting as they can be, such programs are inherently risky because of their monumental R&D and certification costs.
New models will likely include turbodiesel versions of the Bonanza and Baron, at least one turboprop single and a new twin turboprop. HBC’s vice president of marketing, Jim -Holcombe, told Flying they would all be very much within the heritage of Beechcraft that came before.
The lineup will very tightly but smartly fill the target niche, Holcombe said, giving buyers the ability to move easily from one platform to the next within the Beechcraft lineup. Holcombe said 70 percent of individual King Air owners, for example, owned a Bonanza and/or a Baron in the past.
Perhaps the most intriguing product floated by HBC at its NBAA press conference was a single-engine turboprop. The company says the airplane has no public name or designation but will “absolutely,” said Holcombe, be “called a King Air.” That name, of course, has never been bestowed upon a single-engine airplane before.
This King Air, however, will be no scaled-back PT-6 single. Like the remarkably roomy and powerful Pilatus PC-12, the Beechcraft single will be big. Its fuselage will be — get this — based on that of the Premier 1A, which, HBC claims, has the best cabin of any bizjet in its class. It will certainly be huge for a single. In addition to the voluminous cabin, the single would feature a large side loading door, room for eight to 11 occupants and industry-leading pressurization. The composite fuselage allows for efficient pressurization. HBC says it will build the fuselage in the same way it builds the Premier 1A today, using state-of-the-art winding technology for extremely light and strong composite structures.
The use of a composite fuselage is an intriguing choice for a couple of reasons. First, the departure from the all-metal King Air design is worthy of note. Beech Aircraft has built more than 7,000 King Airs over the past almost 50 years, so it’s a big step to go composite with the fuselage of that iconic model.
But a composite fuselage makes a lot of sense. For one thing, you can pump up the cabin more effectively — because there’s little leakage — than you can with a sheet metal structure, so passengers can enjoy a lower-altitude cabin. This is increasingly a big selling point with business aircraft.
You can also save weight. The specifications HBC floated for its concept King Air single include impressive payload and full-fuel payload figures. HBC claims the airplane could have a max payload more than 500 pounds better than an unnamed rival airplane and a full-fuel payload more than
800 pounds greater.
At the same time, the King Air single would boast high speeds, projected to be better than 300 knots, which it will achieve via a combination of its slippery fuselage, new-design metal wings and an under-development Pratt & Whitney Canada turboprop that will increase the power of the PT-6, possibly to more than 1,800 shp. The combination of room, power and speed, if it all comes to pass, would indeed seem worthy of the King Air name.
What about price? HBC isn’t floating a price point yet, but it’s a good guess it will be within shouting distance of its turboprop competitors, though if the new Beechcraft is indeed bigger and faster with more payload, the market might bear more.
In the end, the new Beechcraft will come about in one form or another, though the pain for owners, employees, vendors and partners has been great and will continue to be so for some time. It’s possible, indeed probable, that new developments in the story will emerge after we’ve sent this story off to the printer, though it does seem likely we’ve seen the last of Beechcraft as a manufacturer of business jets, at least for many years to come.
What we are almost certain to see is a leaner Beechcraft, one focused on a range of aircraft that, one might argue, was its strength all these years — airplanes with propellers that work hard, carry a good load, are fun to fly and make money for their operators.
If all goes as planned, a Beechcraft like that might just fly.”