Demand at Beechcraft for special-mission variants of the King Air is growing at a rate the Wichita OEM finds at least gratifying and at most downright exciting.
It’s not a new market for Beech–1,500 King Airs are already in service worldwide in special-mission roles, according to senior v-p of special missions Dan Keady–but the Wichita OEM sold more than 50 more of them last year, double the 2012 total, and to a company fresh out of bankruptcy that is good news indeed. The King Air 350ER is the most recent Beechcraft model being marketed primarily for special-missions such as pilot training, maritime search and surveillance, reconnaissance, mapping, signal intelligence, drug interdiction, aerial survey and medical evacuation, as well as cargo and high-density passenger transport.
Depending on the weight and exterior modifications required for a particular role, the 350ER has a range of approximately 2,500 nm and endurance of seven to 10 hours. In fact, in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) configuration, the 350ER is capable of a California/Hawaii sector.
“As the electronics packages become lighter and more sophisticated, customers are finding more uses,” said Keady, “most recently oil-spill and pollution detection.”
The most recent example of the 350ER in a high-demand role in support of combat operations is a service and maintenance program in Iraq, an operation dubbed Peace Dragon. There is also a new service and maintenance center in Baghdad to support the Iraqi air force King Air fleet. Beechcraft claims the overall special-mission fleet in Iraq flies more than 300 hours a month and that the dispatch rate is running at about 98.9 percent.
Last year Beechcraft was awarded an $18.6 million follow-on contract in support of a fleet of five special-mission King Airs equipped with more rugged landing gear, nacelle-mounted long-range fuel tanks and radar built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in San Diego. Further, Defense News has reported these aircraft can fly above the reach of shoulder-launched missiles and are equipped with countermeasures technology.
Beechcraft’s Global Mission Support division provides service for the aircraft in service in special missions, but many governments and military units provide their own service and support, Keady noted.
The U.S. has traditionally been the largest market for King Air special-mission aircraft, but the market shifts as regional conflicts flare. In recent months there has been more special-missions activity in the Middle East and North Africa, but other regions with growing fleets include Asia-Pacific, Europe and Latin America.
Beechcraft typically does not install electronics and other special-mission equipment, instead providing “slicks” with modifications to allow for equipment installation from such companies as Aerodata, Boeing, L-3, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Sierra Nevada.
Beechcraft says it can deliver a finished and fully equipped 350ER in three to 10 months, and a slick aircraft in as little as three weeks. Special-mission airplanes, said Keady, come down the same production line as civil variants. “Some may be pulled out during the flow to make modifications that would be more difficult, time-consuming and expensive to do later in the process.” He added, “We do produce a number of slicks on speculation.”
A slick King Air 350ER costs in the $3.5 million range. The price goes up, sometimes dramatically, depending on the equipment required by the mission. The cost of radar alone can range from $1 million to $6 million. The special-mission variant of the King Air 350ER was introduced at the Paris Air Show in 2011 and Keady said the company is now exploring some aircraft upgrades.
Smaller Option for Special Missions
Beechcraft has also begun promoting its Baron G58 piston twin for some special-mission roles. The first is already in service with Fuerzas Unidas de Rapida Accion (FIRA), an agency within the police department of Puerto Rico. The department is using it for law enforcement surveillance missions and already has a second aircraft on order.
Lighter and smaller electronics components, pricing and market demand are the primary market drivers for the smaller and lighter airplane, said Keady.
The Baron G58’s capabilities are akin to those of helicopters in a special-mission role, said Keady, “except that the Baron has much higher dash speeds, allowing [operators] to reach a particular area more quickly.” This year Beechcraft expects to employ a Baron G58 ISR demonstrator to address that growing market niche, Keady added.
As the former Hawker Beechcraft, the company produced special-mission versions of most of the Hawker Beechcraft twinjet lines. Approximately 170 special-mission variants of the Beechjet 400 are still in service, mostly in pilot training, maritime search and surveillance, and signal intelligence roles in Japan and the Republic of Korea. Beechcraft sees minimal competition in the special-mission market. While Cessna offers special-mission versions of its Grand Caravan and Pilatus of its PC-12, both are single-engine turboprops primarily engaged in cargo transport and emergency medical support. Most recently, Piaggio has begun developing a special-mission variant of its Avanti II turboprop twin. A manned version was introduced in 2012, and more recently the Italian manufacturer has been developing a UAV variant known as the Hammerhead.
Meanwhile, Beechcraft has teams specifically focused on the intricacies of both sales and support of special-mission aircraft and plans to continue to invest in that infrastructure.
The company sees special missions as a growing segment and expects “ to capture a significant portion of the market,” said Keady.