Settled into the left seat at our final cruise altitude of 26,000 feet, we were showing a true airspeed of 304 knots and burning about 700 pounds of jet-A per hour. As the lush rolling landscape of central Pennsylvania slid by far below, a nagging question had entered my mind. What is it about the Beechcraft King Air family of twin turboprops, I asked myself, that keeps these airplanes rolling out of the factory in Wichita, Kansas, more than 53 years after the first one emerged? I always thought I knew the answer to that question, but there in the confines of the King Air 250’s cockpit a quiet crisis of confidence was beginning to bubble up in my mind. Who, precisely, should be buying this airplane anyway? I wondered.
Beech conceived of the original King Air 90 in the turbulent period in history that coincided with the JFK assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the dawn of Beatlemania. The models that followed in the ensuing years — the King Air 100, 200 and 300 series — constitute the best-selling business-aircraft family in aviation history, with well over 7,000 produced and delivered. Still, I asked, how can a decades-old design like the King Air possibly continue to keep pace with the latest business aircraft making their debuts in the era of Uber and Usher?
The T-tail Super King Air 200, introduced in 1973 and superseded by the upgraded versions that followed, including the King Air 250 that emerged in 2010, holds its own special place of distinction as the most successful business-airplane model bar none, with more than 2,400 in service across the globe. Clearly, people have always had their reasons for buying this airplane. Still, I couldn’t quite get over the sticker price. At $6 million, a new King Air 250 sells for a million dollars more than a HondaJet, 2 million more than a TBM 910 and 4 million more than a Cirrus Vision Jet.
Perhaps these comparisons are unfair, I admitted, because none of these competing airplanes can do everything a King Air 250 can. Undeniably, however, the truest rival of a new King Air 250 is a used King Air 200, which you can find on the open market for under a million dollars, upgrade to your heart’s content and still end up nowhere near the price of a new King Air 250.
It took me a while to have an epiphany about why the King Air 250 remains relevant, but I finally did. A new King Air 250, I decided, can indeed offer clear advantages over a used King Air. Come along on a tour of the latest iteration of this timeless airplane and see if you don’t agree.
Why the King Air Still Matters
Over the years, Beechcraft (now part of Textron Aviation) has made more than 2,000 improvements to the original King Air 200, some major, others minor. One of the most important refinements is an engine swap that gives the King Air 250 more speed and better climb rates. The latest Pratt & Whitney PT6A-52 engines in the King Air 250 (first introduced to the King Air 200GT) deliver the same flat-rated shaft horsepower as the PT6A-42 in the previous Model 200, but the newer engine can produce maximum power all the way up into the high 20s, where cruise speed can be 30 knots or more faster, and climb rates several hundreds of feet higher.
To achieve this improvement at high altitude, Pratt & Whitney took the gas generator section of the PT6A-60A that powers the bigger King Air 350 with a 1,050 shp rating and mated it to the gear-box section of the -42 engine. The resulting PT6A-52 engine is still limited — or flat rated — to 850 shp at the propeller, but the engine has the thermodynamic ability to produce well over 1,000 shp.
Speaking of the propellers, another key improvement in the King Air 250 is the incorporation of a pair of Hartzell 93-inch nickel-steel-tipped composite props, which weigh 25 pounds less per side than the old aluminum propellers and provide an additional 3 inches of ground clearance. Best of all, time before overhaul is 4,000 hours or six years, and the blades aren’t life limited as is the case with the aluminum propellers. The Hartzell propellers also provide greater thrust for improved takeoff performance, and reduced time to climb and less noise.
A couple of other notable features of the propellers, which have actually been included in the design for decades, are the electronic synchrophaser, which allows the pilot to easily keep the props in sync, and automatic feathering. This second capability is a safety enhancement that quickly — and without pilot input — feathers the prop in the event of a loss of engine power. Simultaneously, rudder boost provides rudder input opposite the dead engine to make an engine failure at low altitude a relatively benign event. The King Air 250 has power to spare to climb briskly even on one engine under most conditions. When I did my King Air 200 initial training a few years ago, I recall marveling at what a no-brainer engine failures were compared with lesser twins.
The next clue that the King Air 250 represents a marked improvement over previous iterations comes the moment you pop the rear door latch and pull down the airstair that allows entry to the cabin. The passenger compartment offers improved refinement, compared with older King Air 200 models, while affording the same large space, which is bigger than a Cessna Citation M2 or Embraer Phenom 100’s cabin and about the same dimensions as the HondaJet. The “square-oval” design of the King Air’s fuselage provides lots of head and shoulder room for the occupants of the six passenger seats in back, plus a seventh belted lavatory opposite the entryway.
What stood out to me was the cavernous rear baggage compartment just to the right of the airstair entrance, which measures 55.3 cubic feet and can handle a load of 550 pounds of suitcases, golf bags, cargo or whatever else you might wish to bring aboard. Other welcome enhancements in the cabin include electronic window shades that automatically go dark when the airplane is unpowered for privacy and to keep the cabin cool. Each window can be controlled separately by the passengers, or the pilot can control all at once. Pyramid-style cabinets at the front of the cabin provide easy access to drinks and snacks and also make smart use of the cabin space, which also stays relatively quiet in flight thanks to passive noise-reduction features added to the airplane back in the mid-2000s and the quieter composite props. Optional Wi-Fi, either through Gogo’s air-to-ground network or global Inmarsat SwiftBroadband service, completes a package that stacks up well against pretty much any other turboprop or light jet on the market.
A Dazzling Front Office
Where the King Air 250 really sets itself apart, however, is in the cockpit, which is home to the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics system. Fusion in the King Air features three large 14-inch touchscreen flight displays, a pair of cursor-control devices and a qwerty keyboard. The cockpit space is a blend of old and new. The modern avionics contrast with the analog fuel control panel and circuit breakers on the side walls and the various switches below the displays and elsewhere that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s flown older King Air 200s with round gauges or the original Collins EFIS. Retained in the King Air 250 are cockpit windows that can be opened, a rarity for turbine business airplanes nowadays.
On the glareshield resides the electronic backup display, below which is the modern autopilot control panel designed for ease of use by single pilots. In fact, everything in the cockpit has been created to make the King Air 250 a simple airplane for a single pilot to master with ease. Synthetic vision is included as standard, as is dual FMS, weather radar, WAAS GPS, animated Nexrad graphics, charts and interactive maps, and graphical flight-planning capability. This last item is one of the coolest features of the Pro Line Fusion system because it lets you use the touchscreen to manipulate your route of flight with the simple swipe of a finger.
The primary and multifunction touchscreens are used for just about everything you can imagine, including touch panning, data entry, setting up instrument approaches, looking up and tuning radio frequencies, and selecting map overlays, such as topography, obstacles, weather and airways. The windows that reside within Fusion are customizable, allowing you to choose one, two, three or four for display of charts, maps, flight plans, maintenance information and more. Icons on the screens are easy to interact with, as is Fusion’s shallow menu architecture that makes it all but impossible to get lost in the weeds when searching for information or making inputs.
Two other enhancements to the airplane’s design, accomplished through STC-approved modifications, are what finally elevate a King Air 200 to King Air 250 status. The first is a Raisbeck ram air recovery system that maximizes airflow to the engine induction inlet, allowing the Pratt PT6As to maintain the same power with the ice vanes deployed as when they are stowed. The ram air system also allows the King Air 250 to produce more torque at all altitudes, provides cooler inlet turbine temperatures and increases available shaft horsepower.
The second mod, and the one most King Air pilots will notice the moment they see a King Air 250 on the ramp, is the addition of carbon-fiber winglets from BLR Aerospace. Besides their great look, which is really just a bonus, they increase effective wingspan by almost 3½ feet to 57 feet 11 inches, thereby providing reduced drag and better takeoff and climb performance. The added wingspan increases lift, while the winglets themselves affect the air flowing past them, making it work for the wing instead of against it. It’s no wonder winglets have become a near universal industry standard on turbine airplanes.
Because the PT6A engines lack full-authority digital engine control, there’s a good deal of engine management required, which keeps the pilot occupied more than I’d prefer. The engine start procedure is nearly identical to that of older King Airs, requiring a dance among the controls that takes a practiced captain a solid couple of minutes to complete. I found that the process, which at one time I could perform from memory, had mostly left my brain. With prompting from my traveling companion, King Air demo pilot Bill Sentilles in the right seat, I was able to get the engines spooling and we were on our way.
To experience what the performance improvements can do for the airplane, we topped the main tanks with 2,585 pounds of fuel and headed off with three aboard a bit under the King Air 250’s maximum certified takeoff weight of 12,500 pounds. Takeoff is no different from other 200 series King Airs as you advance the throttles to the torque limits — a measure of power to the propeller — and raise the nose gently to rotate. Once off the runway and cleaned up, the King Air 250 flies beautifully.
We saw climb rates of between 1,500 and 2,000 fpm all the way up to our initial altitude of 22,000 feet. Once cleared to FL 260 and set up for cruise flight with the props set at a low 1,700 rpm and the power set for high-speed cruise, we saw speeds just over 300 ktas on the ISA+3-degree day. That’s 30 knots faster than the -42-powered King Air 200 of yore, an airspeed we could have kept up at higher altitudes with a lower fuel burn, though we were limited by the fact that our airplane did not yet have RVSM approval.
Flying the King Air 250
I hand-flew all the way up to FL 260 to get a feel for the airplane, which has a reassuringly heavy feel and is nicely balanced. It’s extremely stable in pitch, so it was no trouble for me to maintain our precise altitude using trim and occasional light fingertip adjustments on the yoke to keep the airplane chevron symbol on the PFD nuzzled against the flight-director cue. During maneuvering, I also found the airplane to be just as stable as I remembered, another excellent attribute for single pilots who will fly in IMC as often as Mother Nature and ATC dictate.
The biggest change in the King Air 250 since the last time we wrote about the airplane six years ago is the switch from Pro Line 21 to Pro Line Fusion avionics. This was my first time experiencing the cockpit in the air. I immediately felt at ease with the technology as I quickly came to understand just how simple the touchscreens are to use. Even in occasional light chop I had no trouble selecting what I wanted and making the system do as commanded. Most pilots will use a combination of touch-screen and keyboard inputs. I really never found the need to use the cursor-control device, although I could imagine it coming in handy in rougher air.
Sequencing for the arrival back into Morristown Airport in New Jersey, I requested a deviation around a cell and had a chance to use the “rubber-band” feature on the touchscreen. I tapped on my course line and pulled it slightly to the right to skirt the weather I could see on the screen and out the windshield. The animated SiriusXM Nexrad imagery is an excellent feature, as are electronic checklists and the ability to select a visual approach that will provide ILS-like course guidance all the way to touchdown — although, without terrain or obstacle clearance assurances, it should be noted.
All current-production King Airs have a three-position flap system with available selections for up, approach or down. Select the setting you want and the flaps move to that position, easy as could be. That’s a welcome change from the ponderous philosophy in some older King Air models, in which moving the flap handle from down to approach elicits no movement of the flaps whatsoever. Instead, you have to move the flap handle from down all the way to up, wait for the flaps to reach approach setting and then move the flap handle to approach. Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to worry about any of that for my ILS approach back at KMMU.
It wasn’t until long after the engines were shut down and I had time to think about it some more that I began to mentally reacquaint myself with the allure of the King Air 250. Because its weight is below the 12,500-pound threshold, there’s no need for a type rating. The cabin size, speed, range and operating economics all make the 250 a fabulous family airplane, especially if you’ll be flying in busier airspace where ATC will often keep you down low — the bane of any light-jet owner’s existence.
Really, the King Air 250 is ideal for the buyer seeking an airplane that can tackle a range of missions, from delivering cargo to jungle villages to flying to executive meetings at downtown airports, taking family on far-flung vacation getaways and more. Big, rugged and dependable, the King Air 250 is a go-almost-anywhere kind of machine that can be flown confidently by any practiced pilot and deliver an experience few other aircraft can match. The proof is that no other manufacturer or airplane has yet succeeded in pushing the King Air off its throne.
So why not buy a used King Air 200 instead and upgrade it with the range of engine, prop and avionics modifications available for aftermarket purchase? By the time you hang the new engines and props, install a new interior, fit the upgraded avionics and pay for a fresh coat of paint, you might find that your refurbed King Air has cost more than you bargained for — and remember, at the end of the day it’s still an old airframe. If a King Air truly makes sense for you, you can buy a new 250 with all 2,000-plus of those great Beech-inspired refinements, fly the heck out of it for as many years or decades as you have left on this earth and be completely satisfied with your decision.