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.
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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.
Anyone who doesn’t immediately understand that Gulfstream will leverage this new way of building airplanes into new products down the line doesn’t know Gulfstream. The investment in new technologies and facilities will continue to pay off.
Gulfstream chose to create its new design, the G650, very much in the Gulfstream mold by making it a modestly sized jet with a large, comfortable cabin and insisting on great runway performance.
All of these things describe the company’s former flagship, the G550. What makes the Gulfstream G650 different is that it’s a little (or in some cases, a lot) better at everything. It’s faster, has longer range and has a greatly improved cabin over the G550’s already fine seating area.
The question was, how would Gulfstream pull this off? The first necessity was an improved engine, and Gulfstream got that with the latest generation of Rolls-Royce turbofan, the BR725, which puts out nearly 17,000 pounds of thrust but with unprecedented efficiency.
The new wing was a key element too. Its simple (no leading-edge devices), clean (flap tracks contained within the structure of the wing) and efficient (variable geometry and next-gen winglets) yet capacious structure meant a fast wing with lots of room for fuel. The sweep is greater than on previous Gulfstreams too, with 36 degrees of sweep for great efficiency at high speeds. The long, deep chord Fowler flaps provide excellent approach speeds, while the powerful reversers of the Rolls engines and giant anti-skid brakes combine to cut landing distances substantially.
The first chance I had to ride in the Gulfstream G650 was on a hop from Luton, just north of London, to Geneva for the European business aviation show. I was frustrated not to be flying the G650, sure, but I had the rare opportunity to see how the folks in back enjoy the ride. A few things were clear right off the bat. The windows, which look nice from the outside, are truly amazing on the inside. They’re not big; they’re huge. They’re also bright and perfectly positioned, so every passenger with an individual seat has a window to call their own. I also loved being able, thanks to high-speed wireless Internet, to check out the Red Sox scores in flight, send emails back to the office and check my hotel reservation in Geneva. (What rue was that place on?) We were treated to a fabulous meal, including champagne and ice cream for dessert, in addition to the wonderful conversation with the folks from Gulfstream and my fellow aviation journalists (none of whom, it just so happened, were pilots too). The conversation is worthy of note. Cruising along at Mach .92 on our way to Switzerland we were still able to talk in normal conversational voices. It is the quietest cabin I’ve ever flown in, gliders included.
This is in large part due to the efforts of the dedicated Gulfstream acoustics lab, which worked diligently to find out exactly where every peep was coming from in the airplane and do something to quiet it. It paid off.
The cabin also makes use of what Gulfstream calls Cabin Essential design. The idea is that in an airplane that travels such great distances, the operation of such things as sinks, vents, Wi-Fi connections, seat adjustments and the like are critical to conducting the flight, so Gulfstream engineered the cabin so there’s a great deal of redundancy in every component. While that’s no guarantee that something won’t go wrong, it greatly reduces that possibility.
It’s clear that today the sophisticated customers of the most capable business aircraft are looking for great performance across the board, from low cabin altitudes to excellent climbing ability. But in today’s market, ultimately nothing trumps range.
So when members of Gulfstream’s customer advisory team asked for 7,000 nm of range, or roughly a 15 percent improvement from the already remarkable range of the then-current Gulfstream range leader, it was a tall order.
But Gulfstream did just that, delivering an airplane that can fly 7,000 nm with reserves and do it at around Mach .87 (an improvement over the promised Mach .85). No other bizjet comes close to those performance figures. That means that the G650 can pair an impressive number of cities that no other purpose-built bizjet can, including Washington, D.C., to Qatar in 11 hours and 40 minutes at Mach .88 and Teterboro to Moscow at .90.
It is important to think about all of the steps that such flights save. Instead of airports, security lines, changing planes and dedicating two days to such trips even on the nicest airline’s best first-class experience, the entire flight can literally be done in pretty much the flying time involved. Add in the great cabin experience, including fine dining — the galley in the G650 is unrivaled in its class — world-class connectivity and almost-as-good-as-home sleeping arrangements, and it is easy to see how the G650 essentially makes the entire world a day trip.
A High-Tech Wonder
The Gulfstream G650 design is ingenious in its clean, simple and efficient approach to speed and range, but it’s important to understand that this is arguably the most advanced business aircraft on the planet.
The most noteworthy example of this is the three-axis fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system on the G650.
The G650 is the first FBW airplane for Gulfstream, but I can pretty much guarantee you it won’t be the last. The advantages so far outweigh the disadvantages at this point, it’s hard to remember what the downsides are.
If you are not familiar with it (there are very few such airplanes in the GA fleet), fly-by-wire is a different way of giving pilots control of the airplane. As the name implies, instead of the pilot being on one side of a mechanical connection — think control cables or push tubes — between yoke and aileron, fly-by-wire controls simply allow the pilot to electronically command the flight path. With the G650 this gives not only extraordinarily smooth flying qualities but allows a range of flight control redundancies, so you can fly it with or without the primary flight control computer, depending on what kind of failure mode you find yourself in. With each of the backup modes, there are certain functions, such as autopilot or speed control, that are lost or less aggressively maintained. That said, the chance of a failure of the flight control system is hovering a fraction of a hair’s breadth above zero.
What fly-by-wire does is make the Gulfstream G650 behave the same regardless of the loading, so the crew isn’t flying one airplane at 70,000 pounds takeoff weight and a completely different-feeling one at 95,000 pounds. The control feeling is identical. Similar in design to the fly-by-wire systems in Boeing aircraft (the 777 and 787), the fly-by-wire computer in the G650 is a smart compromise between computer aiding and pilot control. The system helps provide a feel of finesse and precision that no human pilot could otherwise achieve, while protecting the flight without forcing the pilot to give up control in any normal flight regimen.
Flying the G650
As I mentioned earlier, it was a rainy summer day in Savannah with a nasty front in the offing when I showed up to learn about and fly the Gulfstream G650. My guide for the flight would be Tom Horne, with international captain Dave Smith acting as safety pilot. We had all checked the radar a few times before we showed up for the meeting, and we thought it best to go flying earlier in the day, when the weather looked at least flyable, rather than wait for some unknown circumstances in this fast-changing weather system.
Like other Gulfstreams, the G650 is equipped with the PlaneView cockpit, which in this case is based on Honeywell’s Primus Epic flight deck. I’d not only flown Gulfstreams with PlaneView before, but I’d flown a couple of other business jets with differently configured versions of Primus Epic. To be honest, I like them all. So I was familiar with it but certainly not proficient in its operation.
With the Gulfstream G650 you use a side-mounted controller for the avionics suite. It looks for all the world like a sidestick, but it’s not. There are multiple ways to do anything you want to do on the various displays. The side-mount cursor control device is in many cases the handiest one.
There’s also a head-up display with enhanced vision. The primary flight displays feature synthetic vision, all technologies that Gulfstream pioneered, many of them with longtime partners Honeywell and Rockwell Collins.
Taxiing is done via the side-mounted tiller. It’s very sensitive, so you need to lead all of your turns and make very slight and smooth inputs. I got a little better by the time we arrived at the takeoff end of the runway. Once you line up to go, you can forget about the tiller and just fly the airplane. We weighed around 70,000 pounds, and our V1 and VR speeds were 107 and 109 knots, respectively. The rest of the Gulfstream fleet was staying on the ground due to incoming weather, but thankfully we were given the OK to go flying. The tower cleared us to go on Runway 19.
After activating the autothrottles, I stood them up and watched as they automatically advanced to our best takeoff power. And off we went, accelerating very briskly, barreling down the runway, the nosewheel within easy shouting distance of the centerline.
To avoid the need to negotiate with Center controllers for our strange flight plan, up to 45,000 feet and back down in stages, with maneuvering and slow flight in the mid-teens, Tom flight-planned us out to a military operations area off the coast, which we’d get to share with a bunch of fighter jets that day playing in and among the clouds like we were. None of that stuff was in the FMS, but Tom played the system like a virtuoso and we were soon on our way out over the Atlantic.
Our journey up to Flight Level 450 took just over 20 minutes at an airspeed of 300 knots and between 1,500 and 2,000 fpm. To get the feel of the fly-by-wire controls, I hand-flew the airplane on the departure and up through the mid-20s, using the HUD for primary reference and letting the autothrottles handle the thrust.
At 45,000 feet we leveled out and were able to see the airplane’s maximum forward speed of Mach .925. At that same altitude and Mach .90, we were burning a total of 1,500 pounds of fuel per hour, a remarkably low figure but one that is specifically crucial in the airplane achieving the kind of range figures it boasts.
At 45,000 feet hand-flying the airplane is easy. There’s plenty of control feel, and maneuvering feels very natural. I commented to Tom that if I hadn’t known it was a fly-by-wire airplane I never would have guessed. Gulfstream nailed the control feel.
We headed down to 15,000 feet at .90, so we got there fast and proceeded to do a number of maneuvers designed to demonstrate the smart envelope protection built into the system. With the airplane in landing configuration, for instance, you can hold the stick back and the plane will descend, never getting too slow but staying very slow, down to around 90 knots. Yikes. We also did an alpha limit demonstration, where we climbed at the maximum angle of attack, the envelope protection never once letting us get too slow, while allowing us to climb at maximum effort.
Heading back to KSAV we used another cool Gulfstream G650 safety device, its sophisticated 3-D weather radar, to pick our way between the buildups back to the base. As we listened on frequency, we heard a number of airliners calling the missed approach on the ILS and heading for an alternate. Instead we asked for the LPV to Runway 19 and got vectors toward the final and were cleared for the approach.
On final and on glidepath, the autothrottles kept us right on Vref, and using the HUD, I kept the needles centered. At our decision altitude (DA), I could see the runway lights through the enhanced vision system on the HUD — Tom said he saw the runway from there, and I believed him. The rain was lashing the windshield, and I was ready to go missed, but acquiring the runway environment at the normal DA allowed us to descend to 100 feet on the approach, so I kept it coming down, ready to go missed at any second. We needed every inch. I saw the runway, flipped up the HUD and landed. There is no automatic braking, but the big and powerful anti-skid brakes coupled with the powerful reversers got us stopped in no time, water flying up and in back of us as we made the first turnoff, less than 3,000 feet from touchdown, in a blinding rainstorm while airliners diverted elsewhere. I’m still smiling.
And that, my friends, is what the Gulfstream magic is all about.
A while later, after shutting down and grabbing a few last pictures, we regrouped in the briefing room. A wry smile on his face, Tom again asked what was the best airplane I’d flown. I smiled back. “I just got out of it,” I said.
With the G650, Gulfstream has created an airplane that is at once instantly recognizable as a Gulfstream while being a brand-new airplane with best-in-class performance, comfort, safety features and support.
At a cost of $65 million, the Gulfstream G650 is competitive within its market, even more so because that price represents an all-up cost. You get paint, interior, EVS, synthetic vision, cabin management and much, much more, all of which are very substantial extra charges on some airplanes.
Gulfstream has orders for about 200 G650s, and at this writing it has delivered around 20 of them. My airplane, the factory demonstrator, was lucky serial number 13. If you were to order an airplane today, you’d get it in 2017. Having had the chance to both fly it and fly in it, I can only say this: It would totally be worth the wait.
Telling the difference between the G650 and the G550 isn’t as easy as you might think. Here are a few clues to help you out.
1. The top part of the Gulfstream G550’s horizontal tail is visibly more slanted than that of the new G650.
2. The Gulfstream G550 features seven windows on each side, versus the G650, which features rows of eight.
3. The G550’s winglets are longer than those featured on the G650, but they don’t stand up quite as straight.
4. The Gulfstream G650 comes equipped with EVS on the upper deck of the nose.
5. While it’s hard to tell from a distance, the G650’s windows are larger than the G550’s.
6. The engine nacelles featured on the G650 are slightly bigger than those of the G550.
7. In addition to larger windows, the G650’s door is also bigger than that of the G550.
8. Finally, if the jet features “G650″or “G550” in tall characters on the tail, it probably is one!
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