James's comments touched on a larger problem. Introduced in 1964, and with some 7,000 units delivered, the King Air has been Hawker Beechcraft's cash cow. However, management's understandable enthusiasm for the turboprop caused it to spurn jet development for too long.
Raytheon, which acquired the company in 1980, attempted to leapfrog competing jets by introducing in 1986 what it hoped would be the ultimate business aircraft, the Starship—a twin pusher turboprop with a canard forward, main wing aft and made of composites. But Starship was star-crossed. Deemed too heavy, too slow, too expensive and too ugly, the market flatly rejected it.
That expensive experience—the company put the program loss at $500 million, but insiders say it cost considerably more—chastened Raytheon. Rather than launch any all-new programs, it acquired rights to the Diamond II, a Mitsubishi business jet of unremarkable performance, which it began building in Wichita in 1988. Then in 1993, it acquired the 30-year-old Hawker program. While the company has made significant improvements to all models, only the King Airs are market leaders.
When once again it set out with clean-sheet designs for the Premier light jet in 1995 and the top-of-the-line Horizon the following year, it stumbled badly to the finish line. Certified in 2001, the Premier was a modest performer. And work on the Horizon, since renamed Hawker 4000, consumed a decade to win full certification, and by then other super-midsize jets had stormed the market.
So, Hawker Beechcraft finds itself with products seen by many as too old or non-competitive.
And while the T-6 has been a stellar product, the original 700+ aircraft order from the U.S. Navy and Air Force is nearly fulfilled, with no other large-scale buyer on the horizon. Meanwhile, a flap over a competition between the AT-6 and Embraer's Super Tucano for an Air Force-led contract (see article below)prompted Hawker Beechcraft to file a lawsuit, embarrassing the service.
Hawker Beechcraft says Superior would be “investing substantial capital in the company.” If so, its backers best have deep pockets, strong stomachs and patience aplenty.
Pelton says upgrading or developing a new aircraft can cost $180-700 million or more and that Hawker Beechcraft will require several such infusions because “long term, they'll still be in a spiral unless they invest.”
The company returns to bankruptcy court July 17 to request permission to pursue the Superior deal. The way forward will become clearer after that, but not the ultimate outcome.