Though it was sometimes hard to tell while reading the article, Wednesday's New York Times piece by Christopher Drew addressed an interesting topic: the Air Force's King Air program that uses GA airplanes as a launching point and then installs sophisticated electronic gadgets to create a spy platform that gets the job done when other options aren't available. It's a surprisingly entrepreneurial approach to battlefield needs.
The Air Force started doing it with used King Airs but quickly realized the advantages of starting from scratch with a new airframe. Hawker Beechcraft supplies a King Air 350ER (for extended range) and L3 installs communications and surveillance hardware, some of which is classified. The electronics in the airplane, which the Air Force designates the MC-12W, are worth twice the cost of the airframe. It's a great story of a terrific airframe filling the role that unmanned planes can't. Drew even quotes an Air Force intelligence official as saying that in the field the troops prefer the MC-12 to a drone, as the crew, which is actually onboard the aircraft, can communicate more effectively with the troops whose boots are on the ground. Now the Army wants to do the same thing.
Unfortunately, the story makes it sound as though the King Air is a new thing for the military, which it is only in the context of geologic time. The Army started flying King Airs soon after the airplane was introduced in 1964. The Navy has been using the T44 as a trainer since 1977 to provide multi-engine instruction across service lines; every branch has been flying it for transport for decades. A King Air served as Air Force One under President Lyndon Johnson. Bottom line: The military has operated hundreds of King Airs for decades. It's an old story, true, but a good one. The airplane is rugged, easily convertible and it hauls a good load. Our armed forces, and militaries around the world, use the King Air becasue it gets the job done.
Which is why Drew’s focus on the luxuriousness of the model is so perplexing. In one paragraph he says that the airplane is "commonly associated with business executives flying to meetings and wealthy vacationers to weekend ski outings," and adds that "King Airs have also drawn celebrity pilots like the late actor and comedian Danny Kaye." I find it interesting that Drew couldn't find a living celeb to associate with the King Air. Kaye, an entertainer who died in 1987, bought his airplane 40 years ago. Digging for more dirt, Drew also commented on the interiors of the used King Airs that had been been gutted for the conversion, pointing out the "bubinga wood veneers" in some, the "stereo and high-definition television system" in another and the "jazzy metallic strips" on one more. Drew noted that one was emblazoned with the owner's daughter's initials as part of the N-number.
Of course, except for the N-number, all of this decadence can be obtained for the family's Dodge Caravan at WalMart.
Indeed, Drew's insistence on portraying the King Air as a flying carpet for the rich is puzzling. One can only speculate that the story of great used airplanes being snapped up by the military and put to use as spyplanes wasn't sexy enough for the Times. Instead, the paper turned to the cliche that executive airplanes are playthings of the very rich. Yawn. I liked the "used airplanes become spyplanes" theme much better. It's an actual story.
The use of the playthings theme, which Congress wielded a couple of years ago to cudgel already battered auto execs into submission, is now apparently being used to denigrate operators of twin turboprops. It goes to show either that there's a built-in bias against personal airplanes or politicians and members of the press turn to this hurtful mode of attack because they've found that it resonates with disaffected consumers. Sadly, it's probably only a matter of time before this kind of class envy makes its way down to fat cats flaunting their wealth in Skyhawks and Comanches. "Vinyl seats and two-tone paint schemes?" Shocking!