““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
In the late 1960s, NASA was looking around for an aircraft that would do a good job of training astronauts to practice space shuttle landings. The agency selected the Gulfstream GII, and that says a lot about the airplane.
The shuttle basically drops like a brick and touches down at about 250 mph, approximately twice as fast as the average airliner. NASA needed to find an airplane that could withstand repeated descents from 35,000 to 50 feet in just three minutes. (Normally operated, the airplane would do this in about 20 minutes.) The airframe had to be strong enough to tolerate in-flight deployment of the thrust reversers (professional drivers, closed course, don't try this at home or in any airplane, for that matter) and sustain shuttle-like G-force loading. The Gs were generated by two, specially added, side-force generators that look like open bomb bay doors on the belly of the airplane and by dropping the main landing gear at extremely high speeds-speeds that would rip most airplanes apart. Today, shuttle pilots still practice those "picture perfect" landings on a fleet of 30-year-old GIIs.
The GII was designed by Grumman, the same company that made carrier-based naval aircraft, including the F-14 "Tomcat." (Grumman sold its Gulfstream division in 1978. The company subsequently passed through three civilian owners and is today owned by yet another defense contractor, General Dynamics.) A lot of this carrier-based durability made its way into the GII.
"Grumman's philosophy was to build an airplane that met 140 percent of the FAA requirements," said a West Coast mechanic who regularly works on GIIs.
The first Gulfstream II was built in 1966 and is still in the hands of its original owner. In Van Nuys, Calif., another Gulfstream II does yeoman's service for a charter company, logging an average of 75 hours a month, but most are in the air far less. The average GII flies just 14 hours a month.
The 12-seat GII will climb 4,350 feet per minute and has a service ceiling of 42,500 feet. It typically cruises at 450 to 475 knots and has a full-seats range of 2,625 nautical miles. A longer-range variant, the GIIB (a GII retrofitted with the GIII wing), will fly more than 3,500 nautical miles. Sixteen copies of another variant, the GIITT, were produced. They are fitted with the GII wing and tip tanks (structures that look like torpedoes attached to the ends of wings that hold additional fuel). Under typical loads, a GII can comfortably use 5,000-foot runways. Of the 256 GIIs produced between 1966 and 1979, 240 remain in service. Used ones can be had for as little as $1.5 million, with the average price running around $2.7 million.
For that amount, you get a cabin about the same size as a Gulfstream IV's. It is a comfortable 1,270 cubic feet and measures 39 feet long, seven feet wide and six feet tall-plenty of space for four club seats, another four seats in a conference grouping with a table and a divan or two. The galley and lav are located aft of the passenger seats. The 157-cubic-foot baggage compartment is accessible through the lav in flight. The compartment can be externally loaded. The cabin is awash in natural light, thanks to Gulfstream's large, signature elliptical windows.
GIIs were originally delivered unpainted and without an interior to aircraft distributors who were responsible for the completions. In 1967, these "green" airplanes fetched $1.5 million each (like now, the cost of the completion depended upon how much the customer wanted to spend). Almost all GIIs have since had their interiors redone at least once, but you can still find a few flying around with eight-track stereo and primitive ice drawers. Something as simple as replacing the carpeting runs around $15,000, while a total "gut job" of the interior can easily cost more than $2.5 million.
However, the GII is a qualified bargain. As you might expect of an airplane designed by a 1960s-vintage military contractor, it is noisy, sucks fuel and can be expensive to maintain.
The noise is courtesy of the two Rolls-Royce Spey MK 511-8 turbofans bolted on the back end. The 1950s-designed Spey was one of the first turbofans to enter wide military and civilian service. It was more economical than the "straight pipe" turbojet engines of the day and, at 11,400 pounds of thrust each, the engines give the 62,000-pound GII plenty of reserve power, even at high altitudes. The pair of Speys drink an average of 556 gallons per hour, or about 20 to 25 percent more than the engines on a 1990s-vintage GIV. Aftermarket blended winglets (structures that resemble small tails mounted on the wingtips), from Aviation Partners, at $500,000 a set, can improve fuel efficiency by 7.3 percent and increase range by 230 miles at speeds between 0.74 and 0.80 Mach. The winglets reduce aerodynamic drag and improve a wing's efficiency. About half of all GIIs have been retrofitted with the winglets and accompanying vortex generators and vortilons for the wings that make them more efficient. GIIs fitted with the winglet system are often referred to as GII-SPs.
Solving the GII's noise problem is more costly. In most cases, the GII cannot operate where there are Stage 3 (or soon, Stage 4) noise restrictions. Stage 3 covers most popular airports in the U.S. and Europe. Two aftermarket manufacturers offer engine "hush kits" that make the GII Stage 3 compliant, but they aren't cheap, at $1.25 million to $1.75 million. One of the hush kit companies has installed its system on nearly 50 GIIs and GIIIs.
Reflecting the durability of their airliner heritage, the Speys have a time between overhaul (TBO) limit of 8,000 hours. (Generally a business jet fanjet engine has a TBO of 3,500 to 5,000 hours.) The highest-time GII has logged more than 21,000 hours and 10,000-hour GIIs are easy to come by. But a growing number of them are coming up on 14,000 to 16,000 hours, or about the time they are due for a second round of engine overhauls.
In general, these are the airplanes to avoid, because overhauling a Spey can easily run $700,000 per engine. The price of refurbishing a pair can equal half-or, in some cases, all-the value of the airplane. Mid-life engine inspections (due at 4,000 hours) are no bargain either, and can easily cost $500,000 per ngine. Depending on engine condition, these costs can vary widely and could be lower. However, these overhaul costs are driving a small but increasing number of operators to scrap or "part-out" their GIIs rather than to continue operating them.
Routine maintenance costs are more as well. A GII requires almost twice as many maintenance hours per flight hour as a 10-year-old GIV. There are also a variety of less expensive, but inconvenient aging aircraft issues that generally show up during 24-month inspections, including brittle wiring that needs to be replaced and small cracks in the wings and the tail that generally require $20,000 to $30,000 repairs. Overall, the 24-month inspections can be rather pricey. Explained one Midwest mechanic who works extensively on GIIs: "We're two weeks into one right now with three guys working on it and we're not done yet." He calculated that average 24-month inspections take 150 to 200 man-hours.
But, as witnessed by its space shuttle training duty, the GII has an airframe that just won't quit.
New inspection standards are being developed that could extend a GII's life to 40,000 flight hours, or more than 100 years of average use. Will anyone take advantage of this? Probably not, but it would be comforting to know that you could.
Gulfstream supports the GII through its General Dynamics Aviation Services affiliate. Support for older Gulfstreams ranked number one in a survey by our sister publication, Aviation International News.
Even though a GII is a guzzler and requires more maintenance, a new airplane with this kind of cabin space, range and speed starts at about $27 million, while a newer used one starts in the high teens. The $15 million to $23 million saved buys lots of gas and wrench time, particularly if you plan to fly less than 300 hours a year.
While the GII may be an iron bird, it does have a silver lining.