King Airs to Kandahar

Spy duty for the iconic Beech turboprop twin.

King Air 350ER

King Air 350ER

A story that appeared Wednesday in The New York Times — but which actually dates back more than a year — reported on a U.S. Air Force program that takes lightly used, corporate-configured King Airs and turns them into spy planes — the newly named Liberty MC-12, which are used to gather intelligence on enemy operatives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The King Air conversion takes a $3 million to $4 million airplane, rips out the amenities, installs operator stations and, most importantly, the electronic and optical eyes and ears of the transport-turned-spyplane. The cost of the electronics installation, done by a division of well known avionics supplier L3, is quoted in the Times story as being $13 million per airplane, or nearly three times the cost of the original. (Light airplane owners who have invested heavily in glass for the cockpit can probably relate to that ratio.) The program was necessitated by the shortage of unmanned aerial vehicles for military missions, a situation that we’ve discussed over the past few years with sources working at military contractors.

The King Air program, which began with the Army getting used airplanes to convert, has expanded to new King Airs. Hawker Beechcraft is looking to sell 23 King Airs for use as spyplanes over the next year, a deal that the company confirmed would be worth $171 million. The King Airs that Hawker Beechcraft is supplying are the 350ER models, which give the Air Force greatly extended range and, more importantly, endurance, for spy missions.

The Times story was interesting in another regard: the fact that it equated the workhorse King Air with executive jets, a confusion that might not have been an accident.