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Flying Beechcraft’s new-generation King Air 350i

Beechcraft’s King Air series must easily be the manufacturer’s top general aviation success story. Since the King Air 90 project was announced in 1963, this impressive marque has been enhanced progressively over nearly half a century, well over 6,500 aircraft have been delivered, and the King Air 350i now reigns as its latest triumph.

You only have to look around the Australian fleet to explain why King Air’s versatility has secured its prominence in Australian aviation. In aeromedical services, light military transport and nav training, corporate transport, executive charter, flight inspection and owner-flown private flying, King Air 90s, 200s and 350s remain a growing force.

It’s been a pathway paved with good decisions. Beechcraft was the first significant manufacturer to take the adventurous leap of launching a twin turboprop into a market crowded with Beechcraft, Cessna and Piper piston twins. It was the only one of the three big manufacturers to press on with significant post-launch development of its project, and now has three King Air models to choose from. And when everybody got spooked by the USA’s product liability fiasco, Beechcraft made probably the biggest decision of all – to ride that wave, picking up the more modest market shares of Cessna and Piper on the way, and stepping into a growing niche that almost nobody else seemed to recognise.

The 350 series has been one of King Air’s biggest single advances, bringing a major fuselage stretch with an eight seat luxury “double-club” cabin, 200 more shaft horsepower per engine to boost its performance even at the higher new takeoff weight, Collins Proline 21 integrated avionics as standard fit, and its upgrade to FAR 25 certification.

With a new maximum takeoff weight of 15,000 lb (6,804 kg) the King Air 350i offers a full-load range of just over 1,500 nautical miles at 300 knots plus, without sacrificing the turboprop’s ability to handle short strips. That means it will fly direct between most points in Australia, and will handle extreme distances like Cairns-Perth with only one fuel stop.

The 350 innovations cemented the versatile King Air’s unchallenged market position, but Beechcraft kept right on searching for new ways of assuring its supremacy. The Collins integrated avionics had already brought this outstanding aircraft to new heights as an easy-to-fly certified single-pilot aeroplane, so there was little left to improve at the sharp end, and new attention was turned to the already superior cabin. Although cabin cross section is unchanged at 1.45m high and 1.37m wide, lateral space is improved by armrests recessed into the side trim, seats that can be moved fore and aft, laterally, or with limited swivel providing (for example) the ability for four people to converse as if at a round table.

On the ramp the most obvious change is the extra (almost) one metre of cabin length, providing ample space for the eight-seat double club configuration and enough left over for a fully-equipped toilet with a sliding door, and separate pressurised baggage space in the aft cabin with a tie-down net. Twin rear-nacelle lockers offer generous overflow baggage space, especially for items like golf clubs.

The 200’s PT6A-42 power plants are replaced by -60A engines with an extra 200 SHP a side and a metre more wingspan, providing a maximum speed of 312 kt and comfortable cruise at just over 300 KTAS. Useful load is up by 606 kg to 2,469, with slightly (25NM) more max range despite the extra power and takeoff weight. The aircraft has an unusually wide permissible CofG range, which it’s almost impossible to exceed, and is now promoted on the basis of “Fill all the seats, baggage lockers and tanks, and take it away.”

Collins Pro Line 21 – a dual system in the demo aircraft – is the core of the avionics suite, with a full three-screen electronic flight instrumentation system (EFIS) panel providing pilot and copilot primary flight displays (PFD) and a centrally mounted multifunction display (MFD). The flight management system (FMS) only needs to know what you want it to do, and the King Air has now really become an “autopilot aeroplane.”

Besides the dual PFDs, the Pro Line 21’s other features include its electronic standby instrument system (ESIS) which is wholly independent of the main system and provides a backup in the event of a system failure such as the loss of primary displays. These instruments provide all flight information – altutides, speeds, headings, navigation – and the aircraft can be flown on those alone.

Another workload-reducing feature is auto tune: “Enroute, we select the arrival and the expected approach for the aerodrome, load them into the FMS, and when we get into the terminal area the ILS frequency automatically tunes and comes up on the ILS display, so you don’t need to select it,” explains Hawker Pacific demo pilot Richard Tomlin.

A notable advantage of the Collins system is its vertical navigation component, which can take you right through initial and cruise climb, cruise, and all the way to the runway on a three degree or other selected descent profile including glideslope input. It also aids compliance with any altitude restrictions which can be loaded in and displayed on the PFD and which the autopilot will follow. However there’s no autothrottle system, and one of the pilot’s prime roles during climb and descent is to manage thrust in either vertical speed or airspeed capture mode.

The Collins gear takes up a little more space in the centre console area, but squeezing into the pilot seats is a skill that you will soon develop, and the rewards are considerable in terms of pilot comfort. There’s even a small hinged cover you can place over the FMS while entering and leaving the cockpit, to protect its screens and knobs from being stomped.

The engines start in about 15 seconds each, and their condition levers are advanced to 64% N1 to start some air conditioning flow. Propeller speed was 1,200 rpm, providing 7% torque, fuel flows were 77 kg/h per engine, and inter-turbine temperatures 550˚C. Tomlin points out an electronic engine instrument feature on the MFD where all the numbers are green while readings are normal, but will turn yellow at the transient value, and red to indicate an exceedance.

With startup completed and avionics powered up, the FMS comes alive. We first verify the database currency, then initialise the system by selecting a position so the FMS has a starting point, which can be derived from several options including the GPS or an aerodrome reference point.

We’re flight planned from Essendon to Sydney with a total of five on board, to cruise at F/L 270, and our takeoff weight is 13,000 lb which is a comfortable 2,000 lb below maximum.

While we’re taxying I take in the modifications the upgrade has introduced. The flight guidance panel (autopilot management) has been moved up from its former head-down console position to the glareshield at eye level, so flight director and autopilot can be more easily managed while taxying. That’s another intelligent move for a single pilot aircraft, as is the electronic flight bag’s ability to deliver Jeppesen airfield and instrument approach charts on the MFD, with the aircraft’s position highlighted on the moving map.

Our intended flight isn’t yet stored in the FMS, but entering it takes only a minute or so, and expected standard instrument departures (SIDs) and standard terminal arrival routes (STARs) are also entered from the database as part of the flight plan, along with published instrument approaches.

The FMS has noted the fuel on board and adds the already-stored basic empty weight. We input the variables – people on board, luggage, water and other portable weights, which all adds up to the takeoff weight as the basis for its performance calculations. It then calculates V1, rotate and V2 speeds, and displays them on the PFD’s speed tape, as 95, 102 and l07 kt respectively. Reference speeds for arrival and landing, and flap speeds, are also displayed, as is fuel remaining at the end of the flight. Once again the ease with which all this is done reminds me of the way these capabilities can ease single pilot workload.

The aircraft is held on the brakes while we run up to 35% torque, then brakes are released as torque is advanced to 80%, and rises to the 85% torque datum during the takeoff roll. Initial target rotation attitude is 7˚, and as the nose is raised further to 15˚ for the initial climb-out, climb speed settles at recommended turbulence airspeed of 170 KIAS, which is the preselected speed for the autopilot, with the VSI indicating well over 2,500 fpm. The autopilot is engaged at 400’, it smoothly captures the outbound track, and we run through the after takeoff checklist.

The aircraft has TCAS 1 (traffic collision avoidance system) with TCAS 2 as an option, the difference being that TCAS 2 provides “resolution advisories” which suggest the optimum course of action when a conflict is identified. With either system, proximate traffic is also graphically displayed on the MFD’s nav display, with a traffic alert if it comes within the intrusion zone.

The FMS calculates a top of climb (TOC) position and displays it as a white arc crossing the magenta track line. This capability aids a pilot when asked if he can reach a specific level by a specified distance because it allows power adjustments to be made until the TOC arc corresponds with the required DME distance. Alternatively the pilot can use the “vertical guidance” capability by entering the requirement so that the necessary rate of climb is displayed, and then manage the power to achieve it – which will have the effect of moving the arc to a new point along the track.

A voice prompt from the FMS tells us we’re 1,000’ from TOC, the aircraft levels out at the cleared FL 270 15 minutes after takeoff, and only a power adjustment is needed to transition to cruise. At all stages of flight, the system displays the ETA and fuel remaining at each flight-planned waypoint and at destination, and if we wanted to divert to an alternate we’d only need to select the destination, execute, and the amended flight plan would be displayed along with the ETA and fuel situation data.

To illustrate that Richard Tomlin enters a hypothetical diversion to Brisbane. In a split second the FMS calculates fuel requirement and ETA, which lets us know it’s not a good idea because we’d need another 1100 lb of fuel which we don’t have.

Settled in cruise, it’s time to review the passenger cabin in flight. One of the first things I notice is the relative quiet, which is a product of “passive noise cancelling,” whose workings I don’t understand, but sound levels have been reduced to an average of 78 dBA, which Beechcraft says is equal to or better than competitive business jets.

It works impressively. Next, the afternoon sun isn’t blazing into the cabin as I’d have expected, because one of the passengers has operated the “electrochromic” window dimmers. This concept operates by passing a small electrical charge at four selectable intensities to achieve four degrees of dimness through some of the laminated layers of the panes. This has a similar effect to the polarisation by rotating panes as in the King Air 200s, but is controllable for just your seat, of the whole cabin can be controlled from one seat. The concept has been around for some time, but Beechcraft waited until the system reached an acceptable reliability standard and wanted the windows to go light rather than dark when there was no power. The same principle has now been chosen for Boeing’s B787 Dreamliner, so we’re in good company.

The updated interior includes an all-new headliner, LED lighting, increased legroom and optional seat warmers. Down the back there’s an optional vanity unit in the aft lavatory area that incorporates a variety of toiletry storage areas, running water, automatic LED lighting and dual mirrors, and is located next to the King Air’s in-flight accessible baggage area for total passenger privacy and convenience.

The comfort level of the leather seats and the cabin fittings – including some elegant polished wood trim – represent a degree of luxury you’d expect to find in a jet costing several million dollars more, with head and shoulder room superior to most competing eight-passenger jets. On-board oxygen is standard fit, with drop-down masks stored in flush ceiling panels, there is more than ample storage for enroute refreshments, drinks and glasses, and each pair of facing seats has a generous folding table big enough for any normal requirement including a laptop each.

Only the most blasé traveller could become bored in the 350i, which is the first business aircraft to come on the market equipped with Rockwell Collins’ new Venue cabin management system (CMS). This system supports multiple personal entertainment devices including CD, DVD, Blu-ray Disc and MP3 players, Apple iPods, Sony PlayStation, and Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming consoles, laptop computers, digital and video cameras, USB data-storage devices and future high definition multimedia interface (HDMI) devices. And you don’t need to carry all that hardware anyway, if you choose to download your favourite videos and music onto the system’s copious hard drive for this and future flights.

The new CMS also features a 15.3-inch swing-out monitor in the forward entertainment cabinet with wide-screen display showing digital high-definition video and entertainment. High-definition screens at each seat can be added. Nine programmable switch panels control the device players, the audio and video jukebox, 3-D Airshow moving map and flight information. Cabinets are also equipped with standard USB charging ports and docking stations for personal wireless devices.

What all that adds up to is a level of flexibility in the cabin where a group can hold a business conference while others sleep, watch a movie with dimmed adjacent windows, listen to music or just read a book. Nobody’s bothering anybody else, drinks and refreshments are within easy reach, and noise levels are as low as a comparable jet.

As well as all those enhancements, the King Air’s trademark flexibility has been maintained and stretched even further through its new Beechcraft FlexCabin capability, which enables owners to reconfigure or remove aft club components to meet the specific needs of each mission.

Back on the flight deck we’re approaching top of descent and expecting a straight in ILS for runway 07. But as that’s being set up on the FMS ATC changes the game to an overfly for radar vectors to an ILS on 16L. I find myself considering how much I’d welcome that sudden scenario on a dark, rainy night without a copilot, and reflect that it would be easier with Proline 21 on my side. And watching Tomlin flicking the few necessary messages to the autopilot via the FMS, I can see we’re in good hands.

He tells me that pilots transitioning to Proline 21 are offered a two day course in operating the system, which in most cases is enough to get them well on their way; but Hawker Pacific recommends that pilots develop their skills by using the system in a non-dependent way until they’re fully comfortable with it. That’s easy because even without the advanced FMS the 350i has all the systems of the aircraft they’ll be transitioning from, and more.

Time interval from Essendon to overhead Sydney was 81 minutes, and total engine time including the ILS approach and landing was 101 minutes for a fuel burn of 1190 lb (540 kg/692 lit).

You’d have trouble finding a pilot who had anything negative to say about King Airs, and the 350i surpasses them all by simply making the job even easier, safer, and more comfortable.

For pilots and corporate ops planners, this aircraft adds literally hundreds of airfields to what is available in a typical comparable jet, while also challenging those jets on payload, range and elapsed journey time, and advanced capabilities to manage and merge with mainline traffic as well as it handles a dirt strip in the bush. Its flexibility also promises higher utilisation which in turn slashes seat-mile costs, so that higher usage makes even better business sense.

The corporate owner will appreciate the huge flexibility this aircraft offers. It’s as much at home ferrying staff and executives around the corporate territory’s bush strips as it is flying them to New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. Or flying corporate guests to the snowfields or the Whitsundays. Or urgently needed spare parts to Port Hedland.

And for the passenger, you’ll enjoy all those horizon-widening choices plus a first class jet’s level of cabin comfort and services, and many, many years of solid, sound, built-in reliability.

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About The Author

Paul Phelan flew for over 50 years in private, charter, corporate and regional aviation, worked in senior management roles with a major regional airline, and retains his license. In parallel he has been writing for Australian and international aviation journals for well over 20 years on all aspects of aviation including aircraft evaluation, flying, industry affairs, infrastructure, manufacture, regulatory affairs, safety, technologies and training.

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