This writer was fortunate to be there when Gulfstream rolled out the ultra-long-range, large-cabin G650 from its Savannah, Georgia manufacturing site on Sept. 29, 2009, and then to revisit the jet when the National Aeronautic Association awarded it the prestigious Collier Trophy in June 2015. But until recently, that exposure did not include actually flying on the G650.
So it was a pleasure to accept a Gulfstream invitation to fly with other defense reporters to a special-missions aircraft briefing in Savannah on none other than its flagship business jet. For the July 13 trip, the manufacturer reserved a G650ER it uses as a demonstrator; the newer, extended-range variant has wing tanks that accommodate 4,000 additional pounds of fuel over the G650, pumping up its range to 7,500 nm. Our trip was considerably shorter: we flew back and forth between Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) and Gulfstream’s headquarters at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, which takes about an hour.
For a passenger more accustomed to wedging into a narrowbody chair with 31-inch seat pitch, this was a real treat. The cabin of the G650ER was subdivided into four “living spaces” to include a private state room aft, each with plush chairs or divans offering ready access to the big jet’s signature panoramic windows. The G650ER is certified to carry up to 19 passengers; this one was configured for 16 passengers with “berthing” or sleeping capability for up to nine. There were two options to stay connected with the real world, via Inmarsat’s Ka-band Jet ConneX or GoGo Business Aviation’s Iridium-based Aircell Axxess satcom systems.
Up front, Gulfstream chief pilot for large cabin demonstration Brian Dickerson pointed out some of the features of the G650ER’s Honeywell-based PlaneView II flight deck, which is distinguished by four large-format displays that pilots manipulate with side-mounted cursor-control devices. One of the bells and whistles is an enhanced vision system that projects infrared imagery on the left-seat pilot’s head-up display as well as one of the panel LCDs.
“The airplane is a dream to fly,” said Dickerson, a former U.S. Air Force F-15 pilot who captained the press flight with copilot Ray Slocum. “It’s the only airplane in the world that can do the things that it does as far as the distances and providing comfort for the passengers. I’ve flown the airplane from Columbus to Shanghai, from Dubai to Charlotte—very long legs no other airplane can do.”
Despite congestion that afflicts most major airports, DCA can also be charming. Located across the Potomac River and southwest of downtown Washington, D.C., it affords panoramic views of famed landmarks for aircraft departing to the north or arriving from that direction. The airport of choice for lawmakers commuting to and from the nation’s capital, it is closer-in and more inviting than its sister airport, Washington Dulles International.
After leaving FBO Signature Flight Support and taxiing past a pair of U.S. Coast Guard MH-65 Dolphin helicopters that serve to intercept threat aircraft encroaching the Washington special flight rules area, we fell in behind idling American, Alaska and JetBlue narrowbody airliners. Delayed by ATC due to a reported bird encounter, Dickerson has time to snap a photo with his smartphone of the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol appearing through the windscreen to the northwest. The pilots are given the option of redirecting from Runway 19 to 15, which they accept. They select an RNAV departure—JDUBB—and we take off on a southerly heading.
The national capital region airport is interesting for another reason—it remains subject to the DCA Access Standard Security Program, a vestige of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Promulgated by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2005, the program requires GA aircraft to follow strict security measures to access DCA, and unscheduled operations require a slot reservation from the FAA. Each flight must carry an armed security officer onboard, as did this Gulfstream flight.
Memorably, the press corps as well as employees of Gulfstream and parent company General Dynamics accompanying the trip were subjected to thorough pat-downs and bag searches by TSA officers at Signature’s Savannah airport base, before being allowed back on the G650ER for the return flight to DCA.
“There are security protocols that are in place,” Dickerson explained. “You have to have permission to get in, you have to list by name all the crew and all the passengers. You can’t make any changes within 24 hours of that.”
Asked if DCA is friendly for business aviation, the Gulfstream pilot was diplomatic. “As specific as the rules to get in and out of here are, places like Signature and the TSA make it as easy as possible,” Dickerson said. “We understand why the rules are in place, with the [airport’s] proximity to the Capitol and the national government. Being able to follow those rules provides a level of protection.”