Paris Air Show

King Air still in high demand for hot-and-high recon missions

 - June 9, 2009, 5:05 AM

How much more performance can be extracted from the King Air twin turboprop to satisfy surveillance requirements? The latest Model 350ER offers almost double the range and payload of the early King Airs, first flown more than 40 years ago. But in a quest to offer short-field performance from hot-and-high airfields, Hawker Beechcraft Corp. is investigating further aerodynamic improvements, as well as hardpoints for external sensors and higher power versions of the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprops.

Recent sales have all been destined for hot or high environments. The Iraqi air force is now flying the six 350ERs acquired for it by the U.S. Air Force in a deal that was worth $132 million to Hawker Beechcraft. Five of them are equipped for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The manufacturer recently delivered the first of 23 more King Air 350ERs to the USAF for Project Liberty, a program to boost the service’s manned ISR capabilities in Iraq and Afghanistan (see below).

Back when Beechcraft was owned by Raytheon, various countries bought small numbers of King Airs equipped with the parent company’s HISAR or Seaview surveillance radars. Now, though, a wider variety of sensors are finding their way onto the aircraft. HBC provides a radome that can accommodate various different radars, operating in X-band or Ku-band.

For instance, the Iraqi aircraft have the Lynx 2E SAR/GMTI radar built by General Atomics, plus the L-3 Wescam MX-15i EO/IR sensor housed in a retractable turret. The data from both sensors can be sent to small ground stations housing two sensor operators, or to laptop video receivers, using a “mini T-series” Ku-band datalink supplied by L-3. General Atomics also provided the ground stations, the laptops and the integrated sensor software.

“It’s easier to field these aircraft than the Predator UAV. We did it in 18 months,” said Terry Harrell, vice president for special mission programs with Hawker Beechcraft speaking at the Air Surveillance and Reconnaissance 2009 conference, organized by Defence IQ. During the recent elections in Iraq, five of them were operating with Iraqi crews.

Harrell claimed that the aircraft have a very low cost of operation and a small logistics footprint. A basic King Air 350ER costs about $7 million before sensors are added.

Compared to a commercial King Air 350, the 350ER has an increased max takeoff weight (16,500 pounds versus 15,000 pounds). It also boasts a heavyweight landing gear that came from the larger Beech 1900 and 1,200 pounds of extra fuel capacity (700 pounds of it in overwing tanks that extend aft of the engine nacelles, for minimum drag).

The aircraft has an endurance of eight hours and a range of up to 2,800 nm. The pressurized cabin has a volume of 355 cu ft, enough to accommodate one sensor operator’s station and four business-class seats. The flight deck is fitted with the commercial-standard Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics system.

The cockpit floor is armored, but the aircraft can easily operate above 15,000 feet to avoid small-arms fire. The Iraqi aircraft are also fitted with an ATK AAR-47 missile warning system and a chaff/flare countermeasures dispensing system. The service ceiling is 35,000 feet, but 20,000 feet is a more likely operating altitude, in which case the range to the ground station is 150 nm.

The Iraqi aircraft have satellite phones, but not a satcom datalink. “But if we added one, this aircraft could become a true network centric/battlespace awareness tool,” said Harrell.

For more details on the Air Surveillance and Reconnaissance 2009 conference visit–Ed.  

More King Air Conversions for ISR

Hawker Beechcraft was the prime contractor for the Iraqi King Airs, but L-3 Integrated Systems is responsible for 23 aircraft being delivered for Project Liberty. This is an accelerated procurement managed by the U.S. Air Force Big Safari office, intended to provide an alternative to the heavily tasked unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in Iraq and especially Afghanistan.

The sensors include the same Wescam MX-15 video imagery system, coupled with an unspecified SIGINT system, operated from a second onboard console. The integration work is being done at L-3’s Waco, Texas facility. The aircraft are designated MC-12W.

Project Liberty was inspired by a U.S. Army initiative called Task Force ODIN. Fed up with what it perceived as a lack of ISR support in Iraq from U.S. Air Force assets, the Army converted some of its C-12 transport versions of the King Air B200 to carry the Wescam video and Lynx SAR sensors. Together with its own Warrior and Shadow UAVs, these C-12R conversions were linked directly by radio to AH-64 Apache helicopters that quickly attacked targets such as insurgents laying improvised explosive devices.

Meanwhile, another four King Air 350ERs are being converted in the UK for ISR work. Raytheon Systems Ltd. is adding EO/IR, radar and SIGINT sensors under an urgent operation requirement (UOR) for the Royal Air Force. These aircraft, called the Shadow R.1, are expected to be dedicated to the support of UK special forces operating in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They will be operated by No. 5 Squadron, to which Raytheon has already supplied five ASTOR surveillance jets and eight ground stations.