Taking the Grand Tour at Gulfstream Aerospace

Longtime manufacturer Gulfstream builds airplanes synonymous with quality and prestige.

FLYING contributor Dick Karl (lower left) poses with some of the folks at Gulfstream Aerospace during a tour of its Savannah, Georgia, facility. [Courtesy: Dick Karl]

One of the unanticipated benefits of getting diagnosed with leukemia is the amazing generosity of your friends. JetVx president Mike Shafer, who has brokered my airplanes over the past 20 years, had a surprise for a group of us airplane nuts.

If a car geek were to visit the Rolls-Royce factory, they might feel as we did while getting a private tour of Gulfstream Aerospace in Savannah, Georgia. We were met at the front door by Shafer’s friend, Jay Neely, vice president of law and public affairs at Gulfstream’s huge campus right on KSAV. It was a federal holiday, so we had the place to ourselves. Neely said he didn’t mind coming in on a day off because he loves showing off the place to fellow airplane lovers.

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“At Gulfstream, we call them true believers,” Neely said.

Jay felt like a flying brother—one with a Piper Cheyenne IIXL. In a gleaming conference room where each of us received and immediately donned a Gulfstream cap, Jay walked us through the history of the iconic airplanes that carry the company name. Born in the 1950s at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Co. in Bethpage, New York, the GI was the first postwar aircraft designed for business use as opposed to those converted World War II military airplanes pressed into civilian service. The success of the GI prompted the development of a business jet called the GII and, in 1966, migration of the civilian component of Grumman to Savannah, where a steady supply of skilled workers and space to expand awaited.

The 1970s and ’80s saw the development of the GIII and GIV despite ownership changes. It was in the late ’90s that General Dynamics purchased Gulfstream.

“Then we had the financing to really build advanced R&D and develop extraordinary airplanes,” said Jay.

We got a glimpse of the Integration Testing Facility. A working, fully decked out cockpit of the new G700 had almost 50,000 hours of testing on it. Gulfstream has worked to make the side-stick cockpit integrative so that the pilot monitoring can feel the pilot flying’s input. You will remember an Airbus accident where a contributing cause was the lack of understanding between crewmembers as to what the other pilot’s inputs were and who, exactly, was flying the airplane. Heads-up display (HUD) and EFVS (enhanced flight vision system) adorned both pilots’ positions.

While they were testing the cockpit, it occurred to Gulfstream engineers to test the cabin too. A fully functioning mock-up of the G700 cabin was constructed.

“We wanted to know if there was something that seemed appealing during the first few hours of flight that became less appealing on a 12-hour flight,” Jay said. “So we put a flight attendant in with some ‘stationary’ passengers, gave them laptops, served them dinner, and let them sleep as if on a real flight.”

That is some attention to detail. A Bentley coupe comes to mind.

In the actual airplane, quiet is the theme. As soundproofing and noise reduction have improved with each iteration, Gulfstreams are almost eerily quiet.

“You can sit at the back of the cabin and speak with someone in the front in a normal tone of voice,” said Jay. “The loudest sound in the cabin was made by the gasper fans to supply air to each seat, so we put a muffler on the fan.”

When you pick out the mahogany or cherry for your dining table, your tail number is attached to the actual log from which the interior will be made. The side rails will match. Same goes for leather choice. Jay had some interesting tales about various clients’ wishes for special touches, as you can imagine.

Space? You want space? The G700 fuselage is larger than the G600’s, and you can feel it. The classic Gulfstream windows are larger than any airplane window I’d ever seen. I couldn’t help but think of the pressure on them at altitude. At the back of the mock-up was a double bed. I just had a moment to contemplate what it would feel like to wake up in flight and look out that window.

Three of us got to experience the G700 simulator at the FlightSafety facility next door. Screens? They’ve got 10 touchscreens, HUDs, synthetic vision, enhanced electronic vision, and electronic checklists. The side stick is intuitive, and the ergonomics seemed perfect. This pilot’s performance? Less than perfect. The haptics, HUD, and excitement must have been too much. I resembled a man fighting off bees at a picnic.

The actual construction of the new G700 and G800 takes place in a dedicated building.

“You may notice that all our buildings except this one are arranged like stripes on a centerline, but this one sits at 45 degrees,” Jay said. “It turns out that all the permits and certifications were in place, and a few weeks before we were scheduled to break ground, the FAA said the new building would obstruct the tower’s view of the approach end of Runway 28. So we turned the building.”

If nothing else, you’ve got to be resilient to make a Gulfstream. As we walked in the production facility to see airplanes under various states of assembly, one of our gang said, “It smells like top quality in here.” Did it ever. Our mechanic friend, who works on other big jets, said these airplanes are built differently. “That bulkhead was milled, not stamped,” he said, marveling at it.

Portions of the fuselage are joined while mounted on cradles that sit on what look like railroad tracks and are so precisely built that the rivet holes, smaller than a No. 2 pencil, line up perfectly.

Toward the end of the building, fully assembled airplanes awaiting type certification were set to go. Standing under the massive wing, Jay explained the anhedral/dihedral design that allows these massive airplanes to land in less than 4,000 feet with no leading edge devices.

More importantly, they can depart high, hot airports, and fly real distances—no more jumping from Aspen, Colorado, to Denver to get gas before heading home to White Plains, New York. That just gets so old.

This column first appeared in the March 2024/Issue 946 of FLYING’s print edition.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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