Six Classic Utility Aircraft
BEECHCRAFT KING AIR
The King Air family of business turboprops has dominated the market for almost 50 years, winning over generations of pilots who revere these airplanes for their versatility, great flying qualities, exceptional build quality and unrivaled utility.
The fact that Beechcraft has built more than 7,000 King Airs since the first rolled off the production line in 1964 speaks volumes about the airplane’s standing among a segment of buyers who covet a no-nonsense turboprop twin that can do it all. In the early days, the King Air 90 earned a reputation as a tough-as-nails workhorse that was equally as adept at operating from paved runways as it was landing on dirt strips — it did so most famously as Air Force One, transporting Lyndon Johnson between Bergstrom Air Force Base near Austin, Texas, to his ranch outside Johnson City, Texas.
Beech’s choice of Pratt & Whitney PT6 power for the King Air added greatly to the airplane’s utility and reliability compared to the Queen Air and Beech 18, which preceded it. Pressurization and a roomy cabin gave the Model 90 a big-airplane feel at a bargain price compared to other business airplanes entering the market at the time. These attributes served the model and its maker exceedingly well, and the King Air 90 remains in production to this day as the C90GTx.
The King Air’s legendary ruggedness should come as no surprise. After all, the first airplane to emerge from the Beech factory was delivered to the U.S. Army as the NU-8F. In the years that followed, strong sales prompted Beech to incorporate continual improvements in power and size. The King Air 100 made its debut in 1969 and was later developed into the Super King Air 200. With this model, originally developed with input from the military, Beechcraft transformed the King Air from a much-loved airplane into a legendary one.
The King Air 200 featured the same fuselage of the 100 but had a T-tail, 850 shp PT6A-41 engines and higher max pressurization. Max weight was increased to 12,500 pounds, right at the limit for Part 23 certification. In 1981, Beechcraft introduced the B200 with an array of improvements, including EFIS, hydraulic landing gear, a ceiling of 31,000 feet and more efficient PT6 engines. From an engineering standpoint, the Model 200 was a work of art, incorporating rudder boost, auto feather and pressurization systems that were ahead of their time.
The 200-series King Air proved so popular that Beechcraft soon introduced a larger 300 series with even more powerful engines and a max takeoff weight of 14,000 pounds, requiring a type rating. Max takeoff weight was since increased to 15,000 pounds in the current King Air 350, which features Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics and has a max operating altitude of 35,000 feet. Meanwhile, the B200 King Air matured into the Model 250. All three current-production King Air models continue to sell well, both to civilian and military buyers.
Due to the large numbers of King Airs still flying, aftermarket improvements found large success with specialists, including Raisbeck Engineering and Black Hawk, which offer upgrades that can make a good King Air great. Several Raisbeck mods are even offered as factory options, boosting a stock King Air’s climb performance, speed and range.
Far from nearing the end of the line for this iconic utility turboprop, Beechcraft is pinning the future of the company on the King Air brand by continuing production of the 90, 250 and 350 models as a smaller, stand-alone entity after a painful bankruptcy that forced the Wichita, Kansas, manufacturer to shed its business jet line and focus on prop airplanes. This strategy could see the introduction of additional members of the King Air family, and perhaps a PT6-powered single based on the composite fuselage of the Premier I light business jet.
While many King Air owners no doubt think of the twin-engine version of the King Air as sacrosanct, from what we know about the proposed King Air single, this new airplane would be every bit as respectable in terms of performance as its ancestors and continue a long tradition of airplanes built to shoulder a heavy load without sacrificing comfort.
It’s a recipe that worked for half a century in Wichita, and we’re betting the formula will continue to pay dividends and delight buyers for years to come. — STEPHEN POPE