“When you get into the larger aircraft it becomes like a hotel, with dozens of staff supporting the plane based in a galley area down below. You have very comprehensive cooking facilities, and on larger aircraft we have looked at theatres, with spiral staircases and a Steinway grand piano. The limitations for what you can put inside a plane are pretty much the limits of physics, and even money cannot always overcome that. Even so, people are still always trying to push [the limits]. ”
The $47.95 million Gulfstream G550 mates the latest bells and whistles to an airframe-engine combination that can deliver eight passengers and a crew of four to destinations up to 6,750 nautical miles away. That's Tokyo to Palm Beach nonstop in 12.5 hours, with reserves.
On shorter trips, you can take more passengers and stoke the twin Rolls-Royce engines to go even faster-up to Mach 0.885. Last year, Gulfstream posted numerous distance, speed and time records with the airplane, including Edinburgh to Beijing in eight hours, 47 minutes, Hong Kong to Dubai in eight hours, 29 minutes and Guatemala City to Madrid in nine hours, 11 minutes.
The G550 has good speed in the climb, too. Strap in and hold onto your drink. A sea-level takeoff to 37,000 feet requires just 18 minutes and only 5,950 feet of runway with a full load-a fairly impressive performance for a 91,000-pound (maximum takeoff weight) jet. A transcontinental fuel load shortens the required runway to a mere 3,500 feet, and at maximum landing weight, the G550 will stop in just 2,770 feet.
Gulfstream introduced the G550, a more aerodynamically efficient version of its GV, in 2003. That year, the airplane won the prestigious Robert J. Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association for outstanding technical achievement. Since then, corporate chieftains, heads of state, various secret three-lettered government agencies and A-list celebrities have lined up to buy it. They include Renault and Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, billionaire industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, golfer Greg Norman and singer Julio Iglesias. The U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy operate several G550s that occasionally serve as Air Force One. The Israeli Defense Forces take advantage of the G550's endurance to use it as a Compact Airborne Early Warning platform.
The airplane boasts a comfortable passenger cabin that measures more than six feet tall, seven feet wide and 50 feet long. A variety of "standard" configurations offer up to four separate living areas. Cabins are available with either forward or aft gourmet galleys, storage credenzas, walk-in baggage area, dual forward and aft lavatories with flushing vacuum toilets, crew rest areas, conference groupings, executive "club-four" seating areas and divans with berthing tops that convert to sleeping areas. The individual seats have full slide and swivel motions and footrests; can be reclined to the full berthing position; and can be modified with optional full or partial electric function. Cabin dividers with pocket doors can be installed for privacy. If these options aren't enough, Gulfstream will work with you to craft an even more customized environment.
The cabin maintains a sea-level altitude through 29,000 feet and has a maximum cabin altitude of 6,000 feet. A 100-percent fresh-air system frequently replaces cabin air, eliminating the health risks posed by recycled air systems. Ample ambient light brightens the cabin through the G550's 14 large oval signature windows. LED reading and cabin lights reduce eye fatigue. The lower cabin altitude, fresh air and lighting combine to create a highly comfortable environment and substantially reduce the impact of jet lag.
You will be well-entertained on the G550. Standard equipment includes CD and DVD players, a 17-inch LCD monitor in the forward cabin bulkhead, a 15-inch LCD monitor above the credenza, wireless remotes, telephone handsets in four locations, a fax machine, power outlets at each seat grouping, electronic window shades, a wireless cabin local area network, an audio system and the Airshow 4000 passenger flight information system. Optional equipment includes larger monitors, individual seat monitors, the SecuraPlane three-camera system, enhanced soundproofing and even an espresso maker.
Outside, the G550 looks sharp thanks to two-tone paint with Teflon coating. Gulfstream points out that the airplane takes 20 percent more time to paint than comparably sized jets, largely because of attention to detail. It paints areas where some competitors do not, such as inside baggage doors, wheel wells and engine nacelles. After painting, each aircraft goes through up to 400 hours of detailing.
The painting, long legs and cushy cabin are nice, but it is the intelligent integration of advanced avionics, cabin information and entertainment systems, and other bells and whistles that set the G550 apart from other uber barges.
Consider this scenario in the cockpit: Your pilots are shooting a landing at an unfamiliar airport in the thick soup, maybe at night. Sinking lower and lower, hoping that the runway will pop into sight at any second, praying that all the fancy stuff connected to the instrument panel works and guides the airplane onto the runway center line. At the last possible moment, the airplane breaks free of clouds and, seconds later, the landing gear smacks the pavement. But if the pilots err or something in the panel breaks, it is going to be a bad day. It's called controlled flight into terrain, and it is one of the leading causes of fatal aviation accidents.
The standard enhanced vision system (EVS) aboard the G550 eliminates this anxiety. EVS displays real-time images from a forward-looking infrared camera onto a head-up display (HUD) that also contains critical flight data. The pilot looks through the HUD and the windshield. Although he can see nothing outside the airplane with unaided eyes, with the EVS he can literally land blind. It shows the runway, surrounding terrain and other land features. (You can see a pretty amazing cockpit video of this at www.gulfstream.com.) Gulfstream calls EVS "the most significant advance in aviation safety" since the instrument landing system. There's a little hyperbole there, but not much.
EVS is part of the G550's PlaneView integrated glass panel, cursor-controlled avionics system. Rather than using a mouse or trackball control, Gulfstream fashioned a proprietary, military-style controller with a trigger switch, trigger, scroll knob and rocker switch. It fits naturally into the outboard hand and is easy to use. Working with Honeywell, Gulfstream developed an integrated flight deck with clear, crisp and uncluttered displays with an interactive navigation management system. The system is designed with open architecture to accept upgrades. It was the first business jet system to employ the Jeppesen Flight Deck electronic charts and maps.
The G550's electronic sophistication doesn't stop in the cockpit. During the mad rush to the airborne Internet five years ago, some system manufacturers and aircraft OEMs were making outrageous claims about how well their systems worked, only to disappoint customers under actual conditions. Gulfstream kept its powder dry, taking its time methodically developing and testing a system called broadband multi-link (BBML) that delivers DSL-like performance of 3.5 megabytes per second-10 times faster than single-channel systems and five times faster than dual-channel systems. While other providers concentrated on providing a system comparable to dial-up or home use, Gulfstream knew that its customers would settle for nothing less than the same speed and convenience they enjoyed via cable or landlines in their offices. With BBML, you can move huge files over a secure wireless cabin LAN, conduct live video conferences and use VoIP networks, all for per-minute charges that are 50 to 75 percent less than with other systems. Just open up your wireless laptop and you're there.
Fully laden with options and custom interior, a G550 can easily cost more than $55 million. One 2005 model recently hit the resale market at $59.5 million.
At that price, you would expect the G550 to do just about everything well. It really does.