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THE KING AIR STORY (Part 1)

May 2004

Category: Review of Jets for sale

Author: Mike Potts

The King Air celebrates 40 years of success in 2004 - and for very good reason.

Sometime later this year, Raytheon Aircraft business jets for sale will make history by delivering the 6,000th King Air – an incredible achievement for a business airplane for sale and one that clearly qualifies the King Air as a candidate for the title of ‘best business airplane ever built.’ The purpose of this article is not to debate that point, but instead to outline the history of the King Air-series airplane for sale and to let the record, forged over the past 40 years since the first King Air was delivered in 1964, speak for itself.

Beech Aircraft Corporation announced the King Air concept to the world on August 14, 1963, as a model that would be available for sale sometime in mid-1964.

Just three months earlier, on May 15, 1963, the company had begun flying a version of its Queen Air airframe with Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engines in connection with a military contract for a program called NU-8F. The results of this testing were proceeding so well that Beech was inspired to announce development of the King Air. The NU-8F continued test flying until March of 1964, when it was delivered to the U.S. Army at Fort Rucker in Alabama.

In the meantime, the first true King Air – equipped with a pressurized fuselage and turboprop engines – made its first flight on January 20, 1964, and on May 27, 1964 – just four months and one week later – Beech received a type certificate for the new airplane from the Federal Aviation Administration, a feat that today seems simply amazing. In the current regulatory environment, development of an airplane with a new powerplant and a new pressurization system would be expected to take at least two to three years, or perhaps more. Clearly, the development and certification of new airplanes has become a much more complex and time-consuming process over the past 40 years.

Delivery of the first King Air took place on July 7, 1964. The first few airplanes delivered were essentially prototypes. The first regular production model was serial number 6, which came off the assembly line on September 9, 1964. Production spooled up quickly, and by January 1966 Beech had delivered 100 King Airs.

Branching Out in Growth…

It was at the start of 1966 that the first major modification to the King Air series came, with the introduction of the King Air A90 business turboprop for sale. The PT6A engines were upgraded from the –6 version to the –20, which gave better performance at altitude. The pressurization system was also improved with the differential being upped from 3.5 psi to 4.6 – creating a distinct improvement in cabin comfort and ability to cruise at higher altitudes. Outwardly, the A90 King Air was virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor.

Another major milestone that occurred in 1966 was the sale of the first military versions of the King Air airplanes for sale to the U.S. government. Beech won a contract with the U.S. Army that year for 48 U-21 aircraft worth $9.8 million. The U-21 was an un-pressurized version of the King Air - in many ways very similar to the NU-8F airplanes used to develop the King Air powerplant installation. Historically the U-21 delivery was important as it marked the first of more than 1,000 King Air models delivered to the U.S. military and other governments around the world.

The King Air build-rate continued steadily for the next few years, with the 400-unit milestone being passed in September 1968. Indeed, the King Air was proving to be a very popular upgrade for pilots of piston engine twins. Its turbine engines were easier to manage and proving to be much more reliable than the air-cooled piston engines they replaced. Moreover, they put out significantly more power at low altitude, so an engine failure still left the King Air with plenty of climb capability, unlike many piston twins that struggled just to maintain level flight on one engine.

In May of 1969, Beech introduced a stretched King Air – the Model 100. Adding approximately three feet to the length of the cabin, the Model 100 featured five round cabin windows on each side, compared with the three round windows in the 90-series fuselage. The wing and tail of the Model 100 were borrowed from the Beech 99 Airliner, which had made its debut the year before and was essentially an ultra-stretched version of the Queen Air, designed for the regional jets for sale market that had begun to develop at that time.

With larger and more powerful versions of the Pratt & Whitney PT6A engine, the Model 100 was somewhat faster than the 90-series King Airs of the time, and represented a significant upgrade in capability.

With both the 90- and 100-series airplanes for sale now in production, Beech was offering a family of King Airs to the market and was enjoying considerable sales success. At this stage in its history, the King Air was the best selling turbine business aircraft in the market.

In the first five years of its production life, the King Air series had accomplished a major design goal for Beech Aircraft; to provide an adequate replacement for the aging Model 18 Beech that was about to be discontinued after almost 35 years of manufacture.

Into The 70s…

It was perhaps significant that the 500th King Air was delivered in 1970, the same year that production of the Model 18 ceased.

A major improvement to the 90-series King Air was announced at the end of 1970, with the introduction of the C90. Wingspan was increased from 45 feet, ten inches to 50 feet, three inches to improve high altitude performance, giving the 90-series King Air essentially the appearance that it continues to feature today. The first C90 was delivered in 1971.

Also in 1971 came an incremental improvement to the King Air 100, with the introduction of the A100. Gross weight of the A100 was increased by 900-pounds over its predecessor, and the addition of 96 gallons in fuel capacity gave it a range of 1,542 statute miles. The King Air was becoming a much more capable airplane as it evolved.

In 1972, Beech introduced a new version of the 90-series airplane, the E90. Essentially a C90 with bigger engines, the E90 was equipped with PT6A-28 turboprops – the same engines that powered the A100. With almost 25 percent more power than a C90, the E90 was 35 knots faster and could reach higher altitudes. More importantly, the King Air line was further expanding, with three models now offered for sale: the C90, the King Air E90 bussiness turboprops for sale and the A100. However, an even more capable model was waiting in the wings.

Enter the Super King Air…

For nearly four years, Beech engineers had been working on a T-tail design for the 100-series fuselage. After more than 375 hours of wind tunnel work, it was ready for to make its debut.

Not content to merely graft the T-tail onto the A100, Beech engineers redesigned the wing, adding two feet to the center section and bringing the span to 54 feet, six inches - almost 9-feet longer than the original King Air wing. The purpose of the wing re-design was two-fold: To improve the airplane’s high altitude characteristics so it could cruise in the low 30s; and to expand its fuel capacity to give it greater range and the ability to feed bigger and more powerful engines.

Bigger engines would mean more speed and more lift capability. The objective was to improve on the 100-series airplane in virtually every parameter. The result was the Beechcraft King Air 200. Beech called it the Super King Air.

For most products, appending the term ‘super’ is faintly ridiculous, but in the case of this airplane sales, the name fit. The Super King Air was powered by Pratt & Whitney PT6A-41 engines that produced 850 horsepower – 25 percent more than the A100’s engines. It could cruise easily at 275 knots, fully 40 knots faster than the A100.

Certified for takeoff at 12,500 pounds - 1,000 more than an A100 - pressurization was increased to 6.0 psi, to accommodate the airplane’s higher altitude performance. Moreover, it’s stately T-tail, standing almost 15 feet in the air, gave the Model 200 Super King Air a ramp presence that contributed significantly to its market success. The combination of all the elements Beech brought together in the King Air 200 made it, quite simply, super.

In the 30-year span since its introduction, Beech has delivered more than 1,850 Model 200 Super King Airs. At current production rates, it will pass the 1,900 mark sometime next year and the 2000-unit milestone in 2007. It’s entirely likely that no single model of business aircraft for sale will ever surpass this production record.

The Model 200 made its first flight on October 27, 1972, and a little more than a year later it was ready for market, with initial deliveries beginning in February 1974.

That same year the Model 200 was selected by the U.S. military and designated C-12. Both the Army and the Air Force took delivery of C-12s in 1974, with the Navy and Marine Corps placing follow-on orders soon after. The Model 200 King Air became one of the few aircraft in service history to be operated by all four branches of the U.S. military service.

The Arab Oil Crisis…

Even as the first Model 200 King Airs were being prepared for market, a series of events was taking place in the world that would have a huge impact on the business aviation industry in general and the King Air in particular. That series of events has come to be known as the Arab oil crisis of 1973-74.

Initially it produced a major, but temporary, disruption in the availability of fuel and other petroleum products. This was followed by a semi-permanent change in the relative value of fuel compared with other natural resources, and a perception on the part of virtually everyone involved that fuel would continue to be expensive and in short supply for the foreseeable future. This thinking was further reinforced by a recurrence of the oil crisis phenomenon in 1979.

These changes in perception about fuel played a major role in driving a huge boom in turboprop business airplanes that occurred in the last half of the 1970s and continued into the first years of the 1980s. It was an era that could legitimately be called the Golden Age of the Turboprops.

The King Air rode the crest of this boom, to sales success far beyond what had ever been imagined by its creators. There would come a year – 1981 – when Beech Aircraft would deliver 435 King Airs in a single 12-month period – an incredible feat from both a sales and a production standpoint.

However, we are getting ahead of our story. In 1974, as the Golden Age of Turboprops was getting underway, the market for business airplanes for sale was entering a nine-year growth period. Beech Aircraft’s success with the King Air had spawned a number of competitors. Piper, Cessna, Mitsubishi, Rockwell and Fairchild all had business turboprops for sale on the market or in development by the mid-1970s.

In an effort to maintain leadership in a market it had essentially created, Beech Aircraft adopted a strategy to increase the King Air’s appeal in the market by expanding the number of available models.

The introduction of the Super King Air brought the King Air family to four members: The C90, the E90, the A100 and the 200.

Further Development

A fifth King Air model was announced a year later – the B100. This would be the first, and ultimately the only production King Air to be powered by an engine other than the Pratt & Whitney PT6A. The B100 featured a Garrett AiResearch TPE-331 turboprop.

Beech’s intentions with the B100 were again two-fold: They wanted to expand the King Air family’s range in the market; and they wanted to reduce their dependence on a single supplier for their best-selling product.

The B100 made its first flight on March 20, 1975.

Eight days earlier, on March 12, Beech Aircraft began flight tests on still another new model of the King Air. This one had Pratt & Whitney engines, but they weren’t PT6 turboprops; they were JT-15D fanjets.

Between March 1975 and September 1977, Beech conducted 103 test flights of the jet powered King Air it called PD 290. The PD stood for Preliminary Design. The airframe was essentially a Model 200, with jet engines mounted where the turboprops would have been.

The NACA 23000-series airfoil used on the King Air was designed for optimal performance in the low- to mid-airspeed ranges, and with jet power it produced a lot of drag. As a result, the jet-powered King Air proved disappointingly slow.

With turboprops outselling jets in the market by a rate of 7 to 3 at that time, Beech management elected to leave the jet market to other manufacturers and instead concentrate their efforts on the turboprop airplane for sale market.

The Origins of the King Air

Searching for the roots of the King Air family is an interesting exercise, and something of a lesson in aviation evolution. The design team that created the King Air did not start with a clean sheet of paper.

Instead they looked to an existing production model – the Model 65/80 Queen Air – and planned a series of upgrades that included pressurization and the replacement of a pair of six-cylinder Lycoming piston-powered engines with Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprops. Thus was born the King Air – a pressurized Queen Air with turbine power.

But the Queen Air was not a clean-sheet design either. It was developed from a military model Beech Aircraft had built for the United State Army called the L-23F, which was used for transport missions and electronic surveillance.

The L-23F was the result of increasing the cabin size of earlier L-23 models, both in length, width and height, although the cockpit dimensions remained essentially unchanged. Another upgrade of the L-23F was an airstair door, located at the trailing edge of the wing. It replaced the over-the-wing cabin entry door used on previous L-23s.

Those earlier L-23 airplanes were basically militarized versions of the Model 50 Twin Bonanza, which was developed in the 1949 -1950 time frame as a very ambitious redesign of the original Model 35 V-tail Beech Bonanza.

To create the Twin Bonanza, Beech widened the Bonanza fuselage by 11 inches in the cockpit area and extended the center section to support twin wing-mounted engines. Outboard of the engines, the wing panels of the Twin Bonanza and the single-engine model were identical.

Many of the parts used to build the Twin Bonanza were carried forward from the original Bonanza. Looking at a side view of an early Model 50 it is easy to see the similarity to the Model 35 in the door and the cabin windows.

Similarly, if you compare a Twin Bonanza with today’s C90B King Air, you’ll see obvious similarities in the design of the landing gear and in the design of the wing root area. Like human beings, the traits of the parents can be found in their children.

The NACA 23000-series airfoil used on the Model 35 Bonanza is one common element that continues unchanged throughout the evolution and is still found on every King Air model today. Many believe it is the trait that contributes to the King Air’s nice flying qualities and causes many pilots to observe that a King Air "flies like a big Bonanza." If so, it’s because that’s where the roots of the King Air design started.

Find out more about the King Air; Website: www.raytheonaircraft.com

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