Gulfstream G550

The Gulfstream G550 PlaneView cockpit.

Awesome. That's the word that kept running through my mind when I first stepped into the new Gulfstream 550 cockpit. The aviation industry has been talking about "glass" cockpits for more than 20 years, but Gulfstream has finally done it. Four 14-inch flat-panel displays mounted in the horizontal landscape position cover the entire instrument panel, presenting more viewing area than any business jet.

Gulfstream calls its new cockpit PlaneView, and it is an exclusive version of Honeywell's Primus Epic avionics system. PlaneView is integrated into every system on the airplane, and pilots operate it with traditional keyboards and knobs, or, another Gulfstream exclusive, two cursor control devices mounted to fall naturally to each pilot's outboard hand.

And when a G550 pilot looks out the windshield, he can see every bit of information he needs to fly the airplane on the standard head-up display (HUD), including an infrared picture enhanced vision system (EVS) that can see through darkness, fog and other obscuration. With its standard autothrottles, PlaneView avionics system, HUD with EVS, triple inertial navigation systems, multiple redundant systems and increased range, the G550 is the most capable and safest airplane Gulfstream has ever built.

Gulfstream announced development of the new airplane in the fall of 2000. At that time Gulfstream was still using the Roman numeral designators for its models, and the new airplane was to be called the GV-SP, for a special performance version of the highly successful GV, the first business jet with New York to Tokyo range.

Development of the PlaneView avionics system was the primary change to the airplane, but Gulfstream also promised more range and a roomier cabin. While the GV lived up to its promises, it could not make the flight from New York to Tokyo if the headwinds were significantly stronger than average, or if air temperatures aloft were high. Another 250 nm of range would be enough to make the trip every time, and that's what the G550 delivers.

The GV is such a successfully designed airplane that there are no obvious changes that would reduce drag and thus increase range. But Gulfstream didn't need big improvements to add up to significantly increased range over the 12 or more hour stage lengths the airplane is capable of.

Some of the drag-reducing steps Gulfstream took have been done before, such as improving the seals between the rudder and fin, and the elevators and horizontal stabilizer. A smaller drain mast, antennas that conform to the fuselage and a new fairing around the fuselage skeg are also small but easy to understand improvements. But Gulfstream engineers really went for the last bit of drag reduction when they reconfigured the cabin pressurization outflow valve so that its escaping air was recovered as a tiny bit of thrust. The blade type VOR/LOC antenna was realigned to conform with the local airflow for another tiny improvement. And the wing trailing edge contour was changed to a non-intuitive sort of blunt shape to further reduce drag.

All of these small drag reduction changes were tested in the wind tunnel, and again on the prototype G550, and they worked. Rolls-Royce kicked in with a fuel efficiency improvement at cruise from the BR710 engines, and the result was a new tanks-full range of 6,750 nm with full reserves while cruising at Mach .80, which equals 460 knots true airspeed. Push the power up to cruise at Mach .85 and the G550's max range is up from 5,750 nm to 6,000 nm. Even more remarkable, at the maximum cruise speed of Mach .87-which equals 499 knots true airspeed-the G550 flies 5,000 nm compared to 4,700 nm for the GV. As cruise speed goes up, drag reduction becomes more complicated and demanding, so you can see how successful Gulfstream's Pres Henne and his engineering team were.

The G550 proved its range capability last October when it set the all-time distance record for a business jet flying 7,301 nm from Seoul, South Korea, to Orlando. The previous record had been 6,132 nm set by a GV in 1997. The G550 also showed its speed over distance in December when it flew from Tokyo to West Palm Beach, a distance of 6,619 nm, with an average cruise speed of Mach .83 with elapsed time of 12 hours and 32 minutes. Because of the international dateline, the G550 actually landed before it took off. It departed Tokyo at 11:58 p.m. and landed in Florida at 10:30 p.m. on the same day.

Gulfstream didn't stretch the fuselage of the GV to make the 550, but it did enlarge the usable space in the cabin and baggage compartment with several changes. The biggest change was moving the cabin entry door two feet forward, allowing space for one more of Gulfstream's lovely trademark oval windows on each side. The move was made possible because the PlaneView avionics are smaller and a radio rack could be eliminated. That, and other changes, adds 58 more cubic feet of usable space to the cabin, providing the room to have four separate seating and living areas in the cabin.

The G550 was certified on schedule last fall and entered service before the end of the year. Not long before the airplane was certified, Gulfstream offered me a chance to fly it on an actual test flight. The cockpit was complete, but the cabin space was unfinished and stuffed with flight test engineers and their monitoring and recording equipment.

You have to be a Gulfstream expert to tell the difference between a GV and G550 on the ramp. Counting seven windows is the surest way to know that you are looking at the flagship of the fleet. The redesigned trailing edges of the wing, recontoured engine pylons, and many other drag reduction changes take a close look and trained eye to spot.

But when you step into the cockpit, there is no mistaking the G550 for any other airplane. The PlaneView system is unique to Gulfstream and is the product of years of expert pilot input and testing to establish what the company believes is the optimum way to present a wealth of information to the flight crew.

It takes weeks at FlightSafety International to earn a G550 type rating, which is the same as the GV, so it is impossible to explain even a tiny minority of what PlaneView can do. I think that probably the most important difference is that the sheer size of the displays allows Plane-View to open windows so that flight, navigation, safety and system data can be shown as each pilot wants it without being obscured by other information.

The display window is one-sixth the size of the entire display, and can, of course, be opened as one-third, or two-thirds, as well as one-sixth. The primary flight display (PFD) information will not be smaller than two-thirds of each outboard display, but the remaining third can be used to show anything from the wheel brake status page to traffic alerts to engine operation, and so on. The two multifunction displays in the middle can be used to show a massive moving map display of terrain and flight guidance, or can be windowed to show everything from the opened or closed status of every door and hatch on the airplane to real time flight control positions.

Gulfstream retained the display controllers mounted in front of each pilot in the glareshield that are used to manage most display modes as they are on the GIV and GV. But the cursor controls can also be used to click on menus to control many PlaneView functions.

Gulfstream test pilots devoted countless hours to testing and redesigning the cockpit cursor controls. Track balls, all types of computer mouse controls, joysticks and other computer devices were all put to the test in Gulfstream's engineering simulator, and in flight. But no off-the-shelf computer control satisfied the test pilots, so they developed their own cursor control that resembles a pistol grip. There is a trigger switch, a thumb switch to move the cursor up and down, and left and right, a series of buttons to move the cursor from screen to screen and perform other tasks. There is also a wheel that falls naturally to your thumb to scroll items on the screens.

The Gulfstream cursor controls are built into the outboard armrest so your forearm is supported and your hand rests naturally on the control handle. Your thumb and index finger do the work, leaving the other fingers and the palm of your hand to stabilize operations in turbulence. Using your outboard hand to operate the cursor is intuitive from either seat in the cockpit, just as using the electric pitch trim switch on the outboard side of the yoke is. Other airplane manufacturers are devising their own methods of controlling a cursor on advanced avionics, but the ease of use and precision under all flight conditions of the Gulfstream control is going to be hard to beat.

Gulfstream has offered a HUD for several years and certified its EVS infrared system more than a year ago, but both systems are improved in the G550. One important change is to the HUD itself, which now, thanks to some remote electronics, occupies less space in the cockpit ceiling. The display glass is the same size, but the big bulge in the headliner is gone. There is also a head-down display that shows the copilot the same EVS view that the captain can see on the combiner glass so the copilot can monitor both the conventional flight instruments and the EVS view during an approach.

For our test flight, 16,000 out of a capacity of 41,300 pounds of fuel were loaded in the wings. With pilots and flight test engineers and their equipment, gross weight for takeoff was 62,383 pounds. Maximum takeoff weight in the G550 is 91,000 pounds, and with the tanks full a typical G550 will have 1,800 pounds of payload available for passengers and their baggage. That is considerably more payload than in a typical GV, thanks to a lower empty weight in the G550 before the interior is installed.

The G550 requires very little runway for an airplane of such size and range. At maximum takeoff weight on a standard day, only 5,910 feet of pavement are required, and remember, that is fueled for a trip from say, New York to Bahrain, or London to Buenos Aires. Fueled for a short hop of say New York to Los Angeles, runway requirements can be less than 3,500 feet.

Climb performance is equally impressive, as the G550 will climb directly to 41,000 feet after a maximum weight takeoff, and can be at its ceiling of 51,000 feet with fuel for mere transcontinental trips. A maximum cabin pressure differential of 10.2 psi keeps the cabin altitude at or below 6,000 feet while most other jet cabins can climb as high at 8,000 feet. On trips over 10 hours you can really feel the difference a lower cabin makes.

The first item on the flight test card was to fly the G550 to the stall barrier stick pusher in various configurations to make sure the pusher was firing at the proper angle of attack. The big jet is mild mannered in all configurations. Another test point was to turn off one of the Honeywell laser gyro inertial navigation systems and make sure it could re-align itself in flight. The unit was back up to attitude and heading reference quality in a short time and in just a few minutes had found itself and was back producing accurate and independent navigation guidance.

There were thunderstorms to dodge, and it was revealing to see the weather radar returns overlaid on such a variety of maps and other nav information on the PlaneView displays. We weaved our way between the storms to Asheville, North Carolina, for an approach using only the EVS infrared picture on the HUD. The high terrain, airport environment, and details of the runway are all clearly shown in that green glowing image on the HUD, and it's a piece of cake to land without ever seeing the actual runway, but that would be illegal. The HUD and EVS are approved to continue down to 100 feet below normal Category I ILS minimums, at which point you must see the actual approach or runway lights to continue.

Flying around the North Carolina mountains emphasized the layers of protection the PlaneView system offers pilots and passengers in a G550. First, the terrain warning system is comparing our position and flight path to the known elevation of terrain stored in its memory. You can see an artificial topographical map on the PlaneView showing the height of terrain relative to your flight path. Get too close and a voice calls out a warning and shows you the best escape route on the display. And if you somehow fail to notice that warning, EVS looks through darkness and clouds to show you a picture of the terrain on the HUD. And if cabin pressure were ever lost, the autopilot system retards the power and automatically rolls the G550 into an emergency descent and levels off at a breathable altitude, giving an incapacitated crew time to recover.

On our return to Savannah the PlaneView system proved its worth for real. A thunderstorm was just west of the airport moving east. We were landing on Runway 27. The tower controller said the storm had not yet reached the airport, but it was close. On the PlaneView displays we could see the edge of the radar return overlaid on the interactive navigation map (I-NAV) and see that the storm had not yet reached our runway. Gulfstream test pilot Tom Horne and I discussed which way to turn if we had to go around, but with the autothrottles nailing the target airspeed and the wind shear warning system looking for trouble, it made perfect sense to continue the approach and land.

With its enormous 93.5-foot wingspan, the G550 touches down softly in ground effect. As the main landing gear wheels spin up the big ground spoilers automatically deploy to keep you on the pavement. And then comes the second landing, which is somewhat more challenging than the first. All Gulfstreams land in a quite nose-high attitude, but the extra length of the GV/G550 fuselage means the nosewheel is way up in the air as the mains touch and start rolling, and that's when you make the second landing by pulling back to keep the nosewheel from banging down. Getting a soft nosewheel touchdown is what separates the Gulfstream pros from the guys like me who only get to fly them occasionally.

The G550 is the latest example of how Gulfstream stays on top. The most obvious feature is the exotic PlaneView cockpit. But the almost invisible changes that lowered the drag, increased the range and save fuel on any length trip are also crucial. And selecting the optimum engine is vital. Consider how Gulfstream has effectively controlled weight to provide more payload while most airplanes gain weight as they mature. Gulfstream gives the G550 a greater interior completion weight allowance, industry leading support, and it is easy to see why Gulfstream remains the leader in large-cabin business jets.

Gulfstream G550
The Gulfstream exclusive Honeywell Primus Epic PlaneView avionics system is standard on the G550 and includes four 14-inch displays and all electronics to perform communications, navigation and hazard warning information. Triple flight management systems, laser inertial reference systems, comm and nav transceivers and air data computers are standard, as are dual GPS receivers. Autothrottles and dual-channel autopilot are also standard. The visual guidance system (HUD) and enhanced vision system (EVS) are also standard. The G550 is delivered "green," and the interior is installed to customer specifications in one of Gulfstream's completion centers. All data shown here is from the airplane manuals and represents standard day conditions at sea level unless otherwise noted.
Typical price $46.5 million
Engines Rolls-Royce BR710, 15,385 lbs thrust each
TBO On condition
Passenger seats (typical) 16 to 19
Cabin height 6.2 ft
Cabin width 7.3 ft
Cabin length 50.1 ft
Length 96.5 ft
Height 25.9 ft
Wingspan 93.5 ft
Wing area 1,137 sq ft
Wing sweep 28 degrees
Wing aspect ratio 7.7
Max ramp weight 91,400 lbs
Max takeoff weight 91,000 lbs
Basic operating weight (includes 2 crew) 48,300 lbs
Max useful load 43,100 lbs
Max zero fuel weight 54,500 lbs
Max payload 6,200 lbs
Max fuel capacity 41,300 lbs
Payload, max fuel 1,800 lbs
Max landing weight 75,300 lbs
Wing loading 80 lbs/sq ft
Power loading 2.96 lbs/lb
Ceiling (certified) 51,000 ft
Pressurization 10.2 psi
Takeoff runway, max weight 5,910 ft
Landing runway, max weight 2,770 ft
Climb to 37,000 ft 18 min
High-speed cruise 499 kts/Mach .87
Long-range cruise 460 kts/Mach .80
Max IFR range 6,750 nm
Range at high speed cruise 5,000 nm
Vmo/Mmo 340 kts/Mach .885

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