Throughout Beechcraft's tumultuous recent history, one thing remained constant—the popularity of its twin-turboprop King Air. The company has risen from the ashes of bankruptcy and returned to its roots as a dedicated manufacturer of propeller-powered aircraft, and King Air is once again its flagship.
The aircraft's importance to the “new” Beechcraft was underlined in August, when it landed the largest-ever order for general-aviation turboprops and inked a 105-aircraft, $788 million deal for King Air 350is with Wheels Up, a new members-only air transportation venture started by the founders of jet-card pioneers Marquis Jet.
The back-to-basics King Air 350i is as Midwestern as corn and soybeans, and just as consistently in demand in the marketplace. It now serves as the real-life phoenix of the new Beechcraft, a leaner and financially stronger company since its February reorganization and relaunch. But the 350i is more down-to-earth than the Hawker jets that previously topped its product range, a mix of old and new that defines the company's more modest ambitions.
“We're not selling the tip of the pyramid in luxury and performance. We're selling very well-executed regional transportation,” says CEO Bill Boisture. While a 300-kt. King Air 350i lacks the panache of a 430-kt. turbofan, it is only 20-30 min. slower than a jet on shorter trips and burns 20% less fuel. The duration of most business aircraft trips is less than 2 hr., and most missions are no longer than 300-600 nm. The 350i provides cost-effective transportation for 8-10 passengers at a significantly lower operating cost than a comparable jet. Estimated direct operating cost is less than $1,200/hr., including engine reserves, scheduled maintenance and $6/gal. fuel.
These economic realities hit home after the 2008 financial crisis, when hundreds of jet owners chocked or chucked their aircraft. The collapse in demand for small and medium jets caused then-Hawker Beechcraft to hemorrhage more than $1.6 billion from 2009-12. Faced with more than $2.6 billion in debt, mainly due to its money-losing turbofans, the company negotiated a pre-planned bankruptcy reorganization with debt holders, creditors and suppliers. Its propeller models—especially the King Airs—held their own during the global meltdown and the manufacturer also secured $400 million in debtor-in-possession financing to kick-start operations as it exited bankruptcy in February.
The King Air 350i has more to offer than just attractive operating economics. As a Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 23 commuter-category aircraft, it delivers much the same one-engine-inoperative (OEI) takeoff safety margins as a FAR Part 25 transport-category jet. It is available in cargo/combi/freighter, air ambulance, surveillance and other special-mission configurations. As a result, production rates for the 350i, and earlier 350, have averaged slightly more than 40 a year over the last decade.
All current production Beechcraft products have all-metal airframes. Few parts are manufactured using computer-controlled machines and other automated tools. Production is labor-intensive and, because of high labor costs in the U.S., much of the 350i's airframe, including tail and upper and lower fuselage sections, are now built at the company's facility in Chihuahua, Mexico.