“The military calls it a ‘force multiplier’…that’s what business aircraft have been for FedEx. ”
Hawker Beechcraft Premier I
In 2006, Hawker Beechcraft (HBC) introduced the Premier IA to near-universal acclaim: Here was a composite-fuselage light jet that could be flown single-pilot at speeds up to 450 knots with a near-standup cabin with room for six to seven passengers and a range of nearly 1,500 nautical miles, depending on load. Compared with the Premier, the original Cessna Citation CJ looked like a lawn tractor and was slower to boot.
The IA sold relatively well for a long time and was supposed to be replaced last year by an updated model dubbed the “Hawker 200.” That was, until HBC ran off the financial rails, eventually filing for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.
The IA was itself a successor to the Premier I, the first business jet Raytheon designed from the wheels up. (The company acquired its Beechjet and Hawker models, except the 4000, from other manufacturers.) Announced in 1995 at an introductory price of $4.5 million, the Premier I was delivered to customers from 2001 to 2005. The airplane features a rigid and lightweight rolled graphite, epoxy laminate and honeycomb fuselage mated to highly swept aluminum wings. The fuselage is manufactured on a giant automated computer-controlled machine that dramatically cuts production time. Boeing is using this advanced technology to make the fuselage barrels on the new 787.
The Premier’s composite fuselage is incredibly strong. Several thousand people got to see just how strong when one crashed on landing at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Oshkosh air show in 2010. The pilot and passenger, although injured, walked away; in just about any other jet, the outcome would likely have been far worse.
The Premier’s composite construction yields a fuselage with 15 percent more interior volume that is 20 percent lighter and up to three times stronger than comparable aluminum structures. The cabin is substantially wider and taller than anything else in this class.
On the outside, the I and IA look virtually the same and they have the same engines. That’s where some of the similarities end. The Premier I, to put it politely, had issues. Some were cultural, others were physical.
All Premiers have the FAA designation RB-390. The R stands for Raytheon, the B for Beechcraft. Raytheon bought Beechcraft in 1980 and sold it in 2007. The Raytheon purchase did many good things for Beechcraft. It brought more professional management and financial stability, but it also instilled a risk-averse culture, a rigid management style and a laser-like focus on the bottom line that took no prisoners. Raytheon introduced innovative and game-changing aircraft such as the Starship, Premier and Hawker 4000 with much fanfare only to become slaves to cash-flow aerobics. The models languished in development, were sent to market before they were ready and took too long to fix after they were field-tested by unappreciative, paying customers. Unfortunately, the ill will this created lingers in the minds of some airplane buyers to this day.
While you expect low-serial-number aircraft to have a few teething problems, the Premier I had more than its share. Cabin ceiling panels, attached with Velcro, came loose in flight and smacked passengers on the head. The rigid composite fuselage tended to amplify cabin noise. Sensors malfunctioned, prompting rejected takeoffs and precautionary landings. De-icers died. Hydraulics leaked. Air conditioners overheated and failed. Thrust levers stuck at high altitude. Automatic lift-dump spoilers (control surfaces that provide aerodynamic braking) failed to deploy on landing, sending several airplanes off runway ends.
The manufacturer remedied these problems over time through a series of service bulletins and mandated and optional modifications. The company redesigned the lift-dump system–which originally relied on an automatic switch for activation–so that the pilot could manually activate it more quickly with a handle in the cockpit.
Early Premiers encountered other problems, mainly because some of the pilots who flew them were new to jets and brought bad habits to the cockpit, such as landing too fast or landing with a tail wind. These are things you shouldn’t do in any airplane, but you can get away with them on occasion in a turboprop because the pitch of the propeller blades can be reversed on landing, substantially decreasing stopping distances.
Bugs aside, with the proper training a single pilot can operate the Premier safely and HBC estimates that about 50 percent are flown this way. All Premiers feature Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 glass-panel avionics and Williams International high-efficiency FJ44-2A turbofan engines. The engines propel the Premier to 41,000 feet in just 23 minutes and burn around 130 gallons an hour–for the pair–while the aircraft cruises at 450 knots. As fuel burns off, pilots must take care to reduce engine power settings to prevent the aircraft from exceeding its maximum design speed. The Premier performs well on short runways and can easily use 4,000-footers. With seats full, it has a 700- to 800-nautical-mile range. With full fuel, the airplane can carry a pilot and two passengers 1,200 nautical miles with comfortable IFR reserves. Most operators fly the aircraft lightly loaded with throttles to the wall: Climb high quickly and go fast.
The Premier’s cabin features a beverage center with snack, ice and beverage drawers and room for hot and cold beverage jugs. Six individual executive seats slide, swivel and recline. An electric-flushing chemical toilet seat is in the back. You can equip the cabin with entertainment options such as a DVD player and Airshow and the external baggage compartment can hold 400 pounds.
The engines of aircraft enrolled in the Williams Total Assurance Program benefit from an increased time-between-overhaul interval of 4,000 hours (compared with 3,500 for those not enrolled). HBC offers a Support Plus program that covers all scheduled and unscheduled airframe and systems maintenance for $280 per flight hour (annual minimum 200 hours).
A 10-year-old Premier I runs about $1.7 million and updating the avionics, repainting the exterior and putting new fabric in it will set you back another $300,000. Considering that a new Premier IA rings the register for $7 million and goes no faster, that’s a bargain. The airplane’s early history may have been troubled, but you can’t argue with its present value.
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