For all the talk about lingering economic uncertainty and struggling aircraft market segments, it’s hard to think back to a more fascinating time for the business aviation industry. From emerging models like the Cessna Denali turboprop and Cirrus Vision Jet to larger airplanes, including the HondaJet, Pilatus PC-24, Citation Hemisphere, Bombardier Global 8000 and Dassault Falcon 8X, the market is brimming with new choices. At the pinnacle of this list of business airplanes are two large-cabin jets that inarguably rank among the most technologically advanced civil airplanes ever designed. The Gulfstream G500 and G600 can fly several thousand miles just a few knots below the speed of sound. They will whisk passengers in ultimate comfort thanks to their astonishingly quiet and supremely comfortable cabins. They feature the first active-control sidesticks in civilian aviation, linked by fly-by-wire flight controls that keep the pilots firmly in the loop (right where they belong), and cockpits incorporating a multitude of touchscreen displays that can be used for managing an unprecedented array of technology.

I recently had the chance to visit Gulfstream’s sprawling world headquarters in Savannah, Georgia, for an up-close look at the G500, which is well on its way toward certification next year, with first customer deliveries scheduled for 2018. Pilots of the four certification test airplanes and one cabin test airplane are being kept busy flying scores of sorties while engineers in the lab continue to assess and refine the G500’s various systems. By the time the G500 reaches the market, Gulfstream will be well into the test regimen for the slightly larger G600, slated to enter the market a year later, in 2019.

Though the G500 features a smaller wing and tail and a shorter fuselage than the G600, the airplanes are so similar — owing to the fly-by-wire computers, which make the jets feel exactly the same to pilots — that they will share a common type rating. Once a pilot has completed initial training at FlightSafety International’s learning center in Savannah, a freshly minted pilot certificate will be issued with GVII-G500/G600 added. That’s not a typo: The G500 and G600 technically form the G7 model line, just as the G650 really is a G6 and the current-production G450 and G550 are G5s. For you plane spotters, forget trying to tell a G500 and G600 apart — both have seven large oval windows per side (a change from the original design for the G500, which began life with six windows) and will be nearly impossible to distinguish without a tape measure or a peek at the data plate.

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What puts these airplanes in uncharted territory from a technology standpoint can be distilled to a few key areas: The Honeywell Symmetry flight deck, based on the Primus Epic architecture, is all-new and the basis for a workspace that will make the G500 and G600 the envy of pilots flying other bizjets. The passenger compartment builds on achievements first realized in the G650, with the lowest cabin sound levels in the industry, the same large signature oval windows, and a cabin altitude for the G500 of 4,850 feet at its max operating altitude of FL 510. Another noteworthy change in the G500 and G600 are the airplane’s Pratt & Whitney PW800-series turbofan engines; it’s the first time Gulfstream has wavered from offering Rolls-Royce power in its large-cabin jets, and a switch that gives the models the best fuel efficiency in the class, the lowest noise, and an engine TBO of an impressive 10,000 hours with no midlife inspection requirement.

I obviously wasn’t given the opportunity to fly the G500 on this visit, but I got a taste of what the experience will be like when I was invited to fly in the sim. With Gulfstream experimental test pilot Tobias van Esselstyn as my guide in the right seat, I settled in amid all the vibrant touchscreens inside Gulfstream’s CASE, or Conceptual Advanced Simulation Environment. The simulator lacks motion, but everything else, from the cockpit layout to the feedback of the sidesticks to the flight dynamics, is spot on, van Esselstyn assured me.

As we departed from Savannah’s Runway 28 and climbed out over the tide-swept Atlantic coast, my first impression of the G500 was that it flies very much like a conventional airplane, despite its fly-by-wire computer brains. Unlike the Dassault Falcon 7X and 8X, which lack trim controls, the G500 has the familiar trim switch on the sidestick. As I moved the sidestick, I could see that the other stick on the right was mimicking my movements precisely, despite there being no physical link between them.

Gulfstream G500
From my experience in the G500 simulator, it's clear this is an airplane designed to fly like a tried-and-true Gulfstream despite the fly-by-wire technology operating behind the scenes.Gulfstream

One of the only clues I had that I was indeed at the controls of a fly-by-wire airplane was my ability to press the autopilot disconnect button on the stick and have the airplane automatically trim itself to present airspeed. Gulfstream calls it “intelligence-by-wire,” and I’d have to agree. The architecture in the G500 and G600 uses wires, relays, circuits and servos rather than mechanical rods, pulleys and cables to manipulate the flight controls. Intelligence-by-wire advances that philosophy a few steps by linking the active-control sidesticks and touchscreen avionics with the autopilot, auto-throttles, autobrakes and automatic emergency descent to protect against lost cabin pressurization. It’s heady stuff.

Yes, the intelligence-by-wire system makes continual minor corrections to keep the airplane in an optimum aerodynamic condition, resulting in consistent handling for smoother flight and greater passenger comfort, but it’s easy to forget it’s there. Safety advances include stall protection at low speed and buffet protection at high Mach, both of which I got the chance to test. As the stall approached with the power levers pulled to flight idle, the nose automatically pitched down even though I was holding the stick fully aft. Even rolling the airplane to the left and right in this precarious state didn’t lead to catastrophe.

Landings in the G500 sim were surprisingly similar to the experience of flying light general aviation airplanes. The big Gulfstream wing provides lots of cushion in ground effect, van Esselstyn explained. The force-feedback technology in the G500 works wonderfully well. If one pilot moves the stick opposite of the other pilot, both feel the input. If they fight over the controls, eventually they will split and the captain’s stick takes precedence. It’s all very Gulfstream in its philosophy, and I can’t imagine pilots transitioning from yoke-equipped jets complaining once they’ve tried it.

Gulfstream G500
The sidesticks in the G500 retain trim controls.Gulfstream

I’m not so sure what the reaction to the touchscreens will be among longtime Gulfstream pilots, but I liked them a lot. The four main flight displays do not have touch capability, but 10 other displays oriented around the cockpit are touch-controlled. To me, the displays seemed logically arranged, with the usual systems accessible overhead and strategic flight tasks completed on the lower displays. I had a hard time discovering just the right technique to swipe between pages, and of course I couldn’t try the touchscreens in turbulence. What I did appreciate was the fact that menu selections aren’t made until the pilot removes his or her finger, which should help cut down on erroneous inputs in the bumps.

The touchscreens have the look and feel of electronic flight bag units, which is on purpose. They’re designed to be pilot-replaceable should a particular screen start acting up while away from home base. The rest of the cockpit, meanwhile, is stunningly beautiful: The seats are perforated leather, and the center pedestal and sidewalls flow together in a way that gives the impression of sitting in a high-end sports car, though with a lot of extra space. There are a pair of cursor-control devices on the center pedestal that can be used to access menus and data, with brushed-metal accents that carry over to the sidesticks and trim.

Of course, the aesthetics of the cockpit are nothing compared with the cabin. Gulfstream’s interior designers have created spaces that seamlessly carry over from the home, office, yacht, luxury car or whatever the buyer desires. The $44.65 million price of a new G500 includes a fully outfitted interior. When you sign the papers to buy one, you can use Gulfstream’s app on an iPad to add, remove and rearrange a seemingly endless array of cabin modules that include seating arrangements, divans, cabinets with hidden flat-screen TVs and more. You can also pay a bit more and add special touches like stone floors (really), beds and a shower.

Gulfstream G500
The attention to detail Gulfstream places on cabin refinement shows in the finished result.Gulfstream

Every G500 comes standard with a galley, which the buyer can choose to position up front or in the back of the cabin. There are also standard fore and aft lavatories. To assist well-heeled buyers in choosing their signature cabin look, the interior team has created five basic aesthetic designs to choose from: classic, layered, sport, minimalist and next-generation. As you might guess, the classic look is traditional and will be familiar to any corporate jet passenger. 
Layered takes the classic approach a step further by using patterns and textures together with accents such as plated metals to create a more stimulating look. Sport values high contrast, and unsurprisingly takes its cues from the automotive and yachting industries. Minimalist might be described as a look coveted by tech entrepreneurs, with tonal aesthetics that focus more on the architecture of the cabin — think Palo Alto office. Next-generation, meanwhile, is a free-for-all of design concepts, reserved for the unreserved.

The cabin environment has become so important to Gulfstream, in fact, that the fifth G500 test airplane, designated P1, is being used as the interior test plane. It is outfitted with a production-ready cabin that gives the airplane the look of a sales demonstrator. The approach allows Gulfstream engineers and designers to test all of the interior components and technology in the real environments that the airplane can be expected to fly in. As on the G650, the interiors of the G500 and G600 were designed with input from engineers brought over from Gulfstream parent General Dynamics’ submarine division. These minds figured out how to make the cabins so quiet that passengers scarcely know they are flying at all.

Gulfstream G500
The G500’s Honeywell Symmetry flight deck represents a sea change for Gulfstream. It incorporates 10 tablet-based touchscreens, each of them replaceable by a pilot, plus four main flight displays that are not touch-capable. The active sidesticks move together in response to pilot inputs, a first for a civilian fly-by-wire airplane. The overall look of the workspace is stunningly beautiful, with ample room for even the tallest pilots to stretch out.Gulfstream

During my visit to Savannah, I was permitted to don a virtual reality headset and go inside a computer-generated cabin, where I could interact with anything I so desired — opening and closing the refrigerator door in the galley and seeing the carafe of fresh-squeezed orange juice inside, for example — and make changes using a controller that I pointed at seats, couches, tables and more to instantly make them become something else. I was also invited inside the secretive Gulfstream acoustics laboratory to learn how designers test the sound-deadening properties of everything that goes inside the cabin.

Finally I was able to board the P1 test airplane and see the finished interior firsthand, as well as the actual production flight deck. It occurred to me that in a cockpit this quiet, comfortable and dark, staying awake on long flights might be a challenge. For passengers, the G500 will be an inviting place to relax, enjoy a meal, work, read, or watch a movie.

And that’s the secret to business aviation’s long success story, isn’t it? In a world where airline travel can seem like drudgery and schedules are dictated on their terms instead of yours, a private plane can take you anywhere you need to be, when you need to be there. In the case of the G500, passengers will appreciate the capabilities just that much more. Pilots, meanwhile, will be flying a Gulfstream — the ultimate Gulfstream, in fact. And that’s saying something.

Gulfstream G500
A virtual headset at Gulfstream's Savannah headquarters allows the user to interact with objects in a computer-generated cabin.Gulfstream

Technology Transfer

As I walked the production line at the Gulfstream factory in Savannah, Georgia, and marveled at the ­fantastical G500s and G600s being assembled by ­humans and, yes, robots, I couldn’t help but wonder what Orville and Wilbur might think of it all. What they’d say, I’m fairly certain, is, Gee, we could have used some of this technology at Kitty Hawk. Which begs the question: Are there certain elements from the cutting-edge world of business jet development that can be applied to the lower echelons of general aviation, perhaps in tomorrow’s light airplanes?

The answer is a resounding yes. The smart use of touchscreens in the G500, for example, should prove to tomorrow’s airplane designers that touch technology has a firm place in GA’s future. Automation, meanwhile, can be used to make smarter airplanes that sense when something is amiss and work to correct a problem without the pilot having to lift a finger.

Sidesticks are a revelation from the G500 that have also been used in the Dassault Falcon 7X and 8X, ­Embraer Legacy 450 and 500, Cirrus SR series and ­Vision Jet, Cessna TTx, and others. There’s little question they should be a de facto standard in any future light airplane. They put the flight controls within natural reach of the pilot’s hand while freeing space in the cockpit that’s taken up by yokes and control columns in other airplanes. If Gulfstream has embraced them, isn’t it time everybody else did too?

The 10,000-hour TBO of the G500’s Pratt & Whitney PW814GA engines is something we’d all love to be the beneficiaries of in the future. The lesson here? Turbine power is superior to the venerable piston engine, no question. With the Cirrus Vision Jet on short final for certification, and several highly capable single-engine turboprops and light jets to choose from, my money is on a continued shift among buyers to turbine power and jet-A fuel rather than avgas-powered piston engines.

It’s also high time that smaller airplanes started benefiting from fly-by-wire flight controls, auto­throttles and a more electric architecture in general. At the ­moment, the technology is too costly to filter downstream even to the highest-performance piston airplanes, turboprops and small jets. I’ll wager you this, however: The first manufacturer to do it will sell a lot of airplanes.

Gulfstream G500
The Pratt & Whitney PW800 engines give the G500 the best fuel efficiency in class, the lowest noise and an engine TBO of 10,000 hours with no midlife inspection.Gulfstream

Gulfstream G500

Price $44.65 million
Engines Pratt & Whitney PW814GA (2)
Power 15,144 pounds of thrust each
TBO 10,000 hours
Passenger seats Up to 19
Length 91 feet 2 inches
Height 25 feet 6 inches
Wingspan 87 feet 1 inch
Cabin length 41 feet 6 inches
Cabin height 6 feet 4 inches
Basic Operating Weight 46,600 pounds
Max Takeoff Weight 76,850 pounds
Max Landing Weight 64,350 pounds
Max Fuel 28,850 pounds
Max Payload 5,500 pounds
Range (high speed) 3,900 nm
Range (long range) 5,000 nm
Mmo Mach 0.925
High-Speed Cruise Mach 0.90
Long-Range Cruise Mach 0.85
Takeoff Distance (SL, ISA, MTOW) 5,200 feet
Landing Distance (SL, ISA, MLW) 3,100 feet
Max Operating Altitude 51,000 feet
Initial Cruise Altitude 41,000 feet
Baggage Volume 175 cubic feet