We Fly: Gulfstream G650
In the driving rain, I taxied the big Gulfstream G650 across the ramp, being careful to keep it at a crawl on the slightly downhill grade. The line guy in optic-green rain gear directed me to nose up to the slab-sided metal hangar, its proud Gulfstream logo just visible through the fast-moving streaks of water on the big windscreen obscuring my view. After we ran the short post-flight list and shut down, I sat there in silence, taking in the most remarkable flight of my life in what just might be the most capable and advanced civil airplane ever produced.
It had been a good morning, something for which I was ready but which nothing could have sufficiently prepared me. It had all started with what sounded like a softball question.
A few hours earlier I had been sitting in a briefing room with some friends from Gulfstream, having coffee, chatting and getting ready to discuss the airplane I’d soon be flying, the Gulfstream G650, the fastest production airplane in the world. Between sips of java, Gulfstream flight engineering pilot Tom Horne asked me, seemingly just off the cuff, to name the best-flying airplane I’d ever flown.
In my line of work, I have a few hours in a lot of different airplanes and a lot of time in a few, and to be honest my mental list of great fliers includes more than a couple of oddballs. I threw out an airplane I figured Tom would know well, the Extra 300. He did know it. Then he asked what I liked about it, to which I replied that it gave you exactly what you asked for every time, and if you got something different, it was only because you didn’t know how to ask correctly. He smiled. “Remember that answer,” he said.
An All-New Airplane
As proud as they are of their current jets and as much as they love to discuss them in great detail, employees at Gulfstream Aerospace get used to not talking about other projects that are in development. Because big jet programs take up to a decade to progress from first concept to first delivery, for a company like Gulfstream there always has to be something in the pipeline that isn’t ready for public release. For many years, that unspoken project was the Gulfstream G650.
Gulfstream began discussing the new jet publicly in 2008. By then the company had been working on it for five years. It wasn’t entirely secret, I should add. Gulfstream had not only discussed the 650 with its customers ahead of time, it had relied in large part on its customers to define the new airplane. After all, why should a company build an airplane its customers might or might not want when it could simply ask them exactly what they want and then build that product? The group they assembled, called the Advanced Technical Customer Advisory Team (ATCAT), would come to be intimately involved in the design process.
Of course, the problem with that approach is customers for products as expensive as the Gulfstream G650 are seldom shy about asking for what they want. And they weren’t shy. What they asked for was, to put it very simply, an airplane that was bigger than the very successful ultralong-range G550, that had even longer range, that was even faster, that was under 100,000 pounds (the cutoff weight for some important business aviation airports, including Teterboro), and that could operate out of all the same fields that Gulfstream’s other airplanes do.
To everyone’s amazement, Gulfstream granted every one of its customers’ wishes. The airplane they developed, the G650, is the biggest, fastest, most luxurious, longest-range and most technologically advanced jet — by far — that Gulfstream has ever built. And they did it all on schedule while developing the brand-new super-midsize G280 at the same time. To say that Gulfstream is on a roll is an understatement.
For Gulfstream the G650 represented not only a new airplane design but a new way of building airplanes. In addition to the impressive new plant at the Gulfstream campus in Savannah, Georgia, which is home to the G650, Gulfstream created a new and more efficient way of building airplanes — something that it was already great at doing.
The chief manufacturing innovation is the use of bonded skins to create a fuselage that’s better in a variety of ways. With bonding, it can be more optimally shaped (with an oval) for more comfortable seating areas — the G650 has the best Gulfstream cabin by far. Bonding also makes for a stronger structure that is able to easily withstand higher pressurization values, giving the G650 a remarkably low cabin altitude; at 45,000 feet on our test flight, the cabin altitude was a strikingly low 4,100 feet, or approximately half that of older-generation bizjets. The fuselage is also more cost effective to produce, so Gulfstream can actually build that better product more efficiently.