Turboprops Yes, Jets No

Beech King Air

I have believed there will always be a market for turboprop airplanes. But I would never have guessed right about what is happening at Beech.

I remember the late 1970s when the GA industry delivered about 18,000 airplanes in both 78 and 79. The few years before were nearly as good. There didn’t seem to be an end to the good times.

The end turned out to be 1980. New airplane deliveries fell by half, but the situation was much worse than that because a delivery was counted when an airplane went to a dealer, not when it was retailed to a customer. Most of the airplanes “delivered” in 1980 and 81 just sat there on dealer ramps. It was a disaster.

At first jets and turboprops escaped the 1980 fiscal cliff of new airplane sales. All of us insider experts decreed that if an airplane burned jet fuel its future was solid. Avgas burners—bug smashers the less kind called them—were finished.

We experts were correct for a year or two but then the general aviation disaster spread to all types of airplanes. By the mid-80s all of the traditional GA manufacturers had changed hands, or gone out of business.

The turbine airplane market eventually recovered. In fact, turbine airplanes posted all-time highs in sales in the years following the GA disaster of the 1980s. But the turbine boom was in jets, not turboprops.

In the 1970s there was a robust market for turboprops from Beech, Aero Commander, Piper, Mitsubishi, Swearingen and even Cessna, the company that said it “skipped over the turboprop market” with the fuel efficient Citation line of jets. The only twin turboprop maker to survive the 1980s disaster was Beech with the King Air line.

But even at Beech company management attention turned to jets. The company had dabbled in the jet business earlier with nearly zero success. Beech had been the U.S. sales outlet for the Hawker 125 business jet and the light Paris Jet. The name of the Hawker was changed to BH-125 for Beech-Hawker instead of Hawker-Siddeley, but under either name sales were a bust.

Despite its past problems with jets, Beech, under Raytheon ownership, saw its competitors booming jet sales and wanted in on the action. Beech bought the Diamond light jet from Mitsubishi, figured out how to cram more fuel into it, and renamed it the Beechjet. The U.S. Air Force bought a bunch of them to use as trainers for tanker, transport and bomber pilots. And the Beechjet was very popular with companies of all sizes and owner-pilots. Beech eventually moved all construction of the Beechjet airframe from Japan to Wichita.

Beech also acquired the HS-125 jet from British Aerospace. The basic airframe continued to be built in the United Kingdom and was then shipped to Wichita for final assembly and completion, and sales boomed.

Beech then created two new jets of its own, the Premier and Hawker Horizon. Fresh off the disaster of the composite Starship, Beech decided composites made sense for the fuselage, but not the rest of the airplane so both jets have carbon fiber fuselages. The Premier development program took longer than expected and the airplane didn’t quite make most of its performance goals, but sales were modestly successful.

The Hawker Horizon took many years longer than expected to enter service. So long that there was time to change the name to 4000 from Horizon. And even when airplanes left the factory they had to be returned for major modifications at huge expense. The Horizon was just about ready for prime time when the current financial crisis hit sending jet sales on the skids again and the Hawker-Beechcraft company into bankruptcy.

Now we have come full circle and it is the propeller Beechcrafts that have a future, not the jets. Plans are in the works–and I sure hope they succeed—for the company to emerge from bankruptcy building only the King Airs, Baron, Bonanza and the T-6A military turboprop trainer. As far as I know, there is no company that wants to purchase the jet line and put it back into production.

Despite the significant advances in turbofan jet engine technology, the turboprop still has significant advantages in fuel efficiency and operating costs on many trips. Turboprops can fly missions jets aren’t optimized for. Most of us knew that all along, but it was forgotten by decision makers during the jet boom of the last 20 years.

Every branch of the U.S. military operates King Airs, along with many military forces around the world. Big and small companies, and many individuals fly King Airs, often as part of a fleet that includes jets. And the Baron is the highest performing piston twin in production while the A36 Bonanza is still an extremely desirable six-seat high performance piston single.

I lived through the 1980s when piston airplane production faded to a fraction of the peak. And then I was here while turboprops were largely pushed aside by jets. Who could have guessed that, at least in the case of the King Air, a turboprop could catch up and pass a jet? The propeller is here to stay.

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36 Responses to Turboprops Yes, Jets No

  1. Charles Tomes says:

    Not to be mean or snarky, but why am I reading a blog post about certificated jets used by businesses on a website named EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT ASSOCIATION?

    Between the recent Sport Aviation focus on warbirds and the continuing shift to business/GA online, I’m not feeling much love for true “experimental” aviation here.

  2. Cary Alburn says:

    The speed vs. utility argument really falls apart when the real world missions are considered. OK, it’s lots of pizzaz to be able to cruise at 500 knots at FL 490 in your new Citation X, but in a 300 nm trip, you can get there almost as fast in the “old” King Air. Granted, you won’t cruise quite as fast, and you don’t need to go quite as high, but realistically, the King Air is on downwind while the engines are still winding down on the Citation X. Both make the flight in less than an hour.

    Same is true when comparing the speeds of more ordinary GA aircraft. The lowly fixed gear Skylane at 130 knots takes 2:20 to make that 300 nm trip, while a slick retractable Bonanza at 165 knots takes 1:50–half an hour difference, almost nothing when you consider arranging for ground transportation, hangaring, etc.

    So the real question isn’t a practical one. It’s “How much is pizzaz worth?”, right? Depends a lot on who’s counting the beans, I think. :)

    • Roger Hasltead says:

      To me that 1/2 hour was worth a lot! Plus the control response s=and harmony of the Bo made it worth the little extra. OTH most of my trips were 500 to 1000 miles where the Bo really shined.

  3. Harold Bickford says:

    As I recall a big part of the fall off in sales back around 1980 was due to the steep price increases which reflected liability premiums for manufacturers. That along with some really bad economic factors meant that a new airplane was not longer a rational or reasonable purchase for many folks and companies. Higher, faster and more expensive doesn’t always bring the hoped for results.

    Fast forward to present day; a Pietenpol is slowly taking shape. It will of course be Experimental and will have a piston engine with a prop. Fully prototypical EAA I think.

  4. Lars Gleitsmann says:

    I really could not care less about this subject, as I did join the EAA to learn about things on how to keep flying affordable for the shrinking middle class and all us folks of limited income or limited surplus money. While I can see why we want to talk about and be involved in Warbirds and Historic Aircraft in a Big Way, I cannot see any merit whatsoever in talks and articles about Executive jets and multi-engine turboporops. Corporate Aircraft might be the big thing for the AOPA, but we all (all I know) joined EAA because it is NOT AOPA and because Corporate Aircraft do not interest us any at all. We dont care why the Honda jet looks the way it is and we dont care why Jets versus Turboprops etc. Many Warbirds are operated in a club or chapter environmemt, giving the “Average Joe” a chance to participate and enjoy! – I have never seen or heard of any coporate Aircraft operated like that or being enjoyed like that. And I do not see a reason why we should pay with our membership for articles like that. I can see why Mac’s writing stuff like that historically, for sure, but I think EAA needs to stay focused on keeping the pilots flying and growing the future pilots population, and I can not imagine that elaboration about corporate aircraft is usefull in that context…I would rather read about why the FAA cant get us checkrides on sport pilots instructors etc and why airports deny tiedowns to sport pilot certificate holders etc….This story here might be great for the NBAA, but its jet another waste on EAA affairs…

    • Carri Hoagland says:

      I think J. Mac’s idea of EAA is so far out of touch that it is damaging to the organization. We are about home building planes, not about multi-million dollar executive business planes. Leave that stuff for Flying or AOPA.

      • Roger Hasltead says:

        Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are homebuilt jets, turboprops, and pressurized singles that are darn near as expensive as some of these certified planes. That was where my interest lay even if my budget didn’t.

        Had I been a bit younger, I would have gone after at least a turboprop. However I was in my mid 40′s when I earned my license and 50 by the time I graduated from college. Not much time for flying, or building and a lot of catching up to do on the budget.

        People who think college has become expensive should give up a very good paying job for nearly 5 years and add that to the cost of college.. That made today’s school look like a bargain and I graduated in 90.

  5. Keith Brown says:

    Modern turboprops can also catch up to and pass jets in another way. Literally. As an air traffic controller at an ARTCC, I’m always amazed by the performance of a King Air 350 or a Piaggio Avanti. If I put one of those behind an old Citation or a newer light jet in some cases, I might have to slow the turboprop down or change somebody’s altitude…

    It’s also not unusual to have one of them passing through at FL350 or even higher, catching the jet stream, with ground speeds well over 400 KTs.

  6. Jack Swanson says:

    Don’t be so narrow minded Charles. I think all of aviation should be welcome here. And we’re lucky to have a writer with Mac’s talent at Sport Aviation. In fact I dropped my subscription to flying when he and Lane moved over. I’d hate to see the day when only Experimental or Sport aircraft are welcome topics here.

    • Charles Tomes says:

      “Talent” is completely separate from “biased”. When the NAME OF THE ORGANIZATION contains the word “EXPERIMENTAL” I have a hard time reading a guy’s words every month who has shown at best a condescending tolerance for real “Experimental Aircraft”.

  7. Donnie La Marca says:

    I see a lot of griping by the home builders and Sport aviators. Respectfully, even though you have somewhat of an argument about direction…this in fact does matter to all of you. For you to thrive and grow as aviators in your niche….GA as a while must do the same around you. You have power in numbers just like AOPA etc. I came to this publication and joined EAA after a quarter century of reading Mac over in Flying Magazine. And now I’m supporting you too. Just suggesting that you might consider a larger view here. Safe flying and Happy Holidays.

    • Jeff Boatright says:

      Welcome aboard! That’s great that someone followed Mac over from Flying, a once-mighty entity in our field of interest. Will the number of people like you make up for those of us, like myself, who have left EAA or are seriously thinking about leaving due to “the direction” issue?

      Our “somewhat of an argument” might be more of an issue than you think.

  8. Pilot in training says:

    The question we should be asking: how can we make turboprop engines more affordable for those of us interested in building their own aircraft with better performance and higher reliability? One that would fit the bill for that 300nm trip without forcing a million (imaginary) dollars to leave my wallet (thinking Lancair Evo or go whole-hog for an Epic LT)

  9. Bill L says:

    I think it’s pretty short-sighted for folks to bash this article because it’s not talking about something ‘experimental.’ At the end of the day, news about the demise and/or survival of a multi-decade old airplane company and the trends in the aviation industry should interest all of us.

    I too wander around AirVenture wondering why there are so many jets there, with sales people standing there looking at you as if to say “why look, you can’t even afford the tire on the gear”, and each of them with “vip” areas. That’s why I don’t look at those aircraft. But, I do admire the stance of a Caravan on floats, the lines and rivet-less body of the Piaggio Avanti, the utility of the Kodiak, and many other of the propeller “kerosene burners.”

    EAA should be as much about experimental aircraft, as it is about a love and history of aircraft in general. I don’t know of any other organization that really celebrates aviation the way the EAA does. To focus totally on experimental aircraft would be tragic. After-all, a person can only write so many articles about how to rivet or lay up some fiberglass, or yet another article on how to wire a panel. The AOPA is just about the politics of aviation, but EAA has been keeping the history alive, and I appreciate that.

  10. Bruce Ziegler says:

    Note that this blog is sponsored and primarily distributed by Aspen Avionics and you should understand why it trends toward certified subject matter. It is also distributed in the EAA Newsletter. I enjoy having Mac’s perspective on all aviation related issues, even if he is a newcomer to the experimental side.

  11. SkyGuy says:

    Let’s keep the airplane reviews at the level of afforabilty of the middle class.

    Turbos & up are not affordable by the middle class.

  12. Mike Stirewalt says:

    I enjoyed the history Mac. It’s great to read somebody who knows how to write and what they’re talking about.


  13. Mike Stirewalt says:

    Yours was the only article of interest in the whole issue. Merry Christmas Everyone.

  14. Bob M. says:

    I have built an RV, helped restore a Stearman, owned a couple Cessna’s, have bought a 71 year old Beech that was on its way to razor blades, and work in aerospace manufacturing every single day, so I believe that I have some room to comment here. If you want to buy AN bolts you had better hope that Cessna and Gulfstream is building airplanes because they and the others buy the bulk of bolts made. If you want to buy prepreg tape for your scratch-build composite fuselage you really, really want Boeing to be making as many 787′s as they can or there won’t be any for you at a price you can afford. Every single Witchita made airplane supports a user base that you are drawing from so if you want sport aviation and homebuilding to be a thing of the past just keep complaining and fragmenting what little of aviation is left for all of us into tiny groups. Economics will then do us in singularly more brutally than the FAA and regulations have ever done. Right now nearly all of the flying at my home field is spam cans and its rare to see a homebuilt on any day (even though I am in RV country) flying around and there is a reason for this that many of us EAA’ers don’t want to hear. Thats because many builders have heads just as big as the people they complain about as if they are more pure than the guy in the adjacent hanger is. Get over yourself. The truth be told is my old RV wasn’t any more “experimental” than the Cessna I later had and had as many building flaws in it too. I might have put it together, but the tough stuff like design, engineering, and contruciton method was all figured out for me by other really sharp guys and it was a very known machine far before the tail kit came. The wife never liked it anyway so thats why it went and literally choose this Bonanza for me this time. She’s working on the interior herself, so where did the fire rated fabric came from? The lot end that Boeing didn’t use. Lighten up everybody. Mac might have spent a lot of time in his Baron and might not have a drill hole scar in his hand like I do, but it would do all of us a lot of good to listen to each other a bit more and take advantage of what we can from what he says.

  15. Bill Strawn says:

    I like the way Mac thinks and writes. As someone who has worked on a Davis, a Classic, a RV-9, building a Fly Baby, but also owns a 44 year old Cessna, I want anyone who talks and writes flying to be in my mag. I walked up to the Embraer exhibit at EAA, and because of my height (6’8″) thought I wouldn’t fit in the cockpit, as no other light jet and lots of big business jets don’t fit me. But the Phenom guy pushed me into the 100, sat in the copilot seat and talked airplanes with me for over an hour. Yep, it cost $3+ million, takes a type rating, and lots of other problems, but if I ever remember to buy the ticket and win the big lotto prize, I’m gonna buy a Phenom 100, along with a hanger big enough to hold it and FlyBaby. Folks, they are planes and I want to talk to anybody else who wants to talk planes. I had as much fun talking to the Phenom test pilot as I did the folks out at the Homebuilders’ Shack.

    • Bob M. says:

      Boy, I sat in one at AOPA Summit at Palm Springs and the fit and finish inside and out was nearly flawless. As good as any airplane made by anyone anywhere which is not something you would expect in a very light jet. Scary clean. Simple panel. Lots of technology everywhere. The Brazilian’s have come a long, long way. But, also it had a lot of creativity in it as well in that it might have flown faster with straighter lines especially at the wing root fairings (think Lancair), but I think that someone wanted to make a statement that says they are different from the competition and spiced up the looks in little ways that seemed to draw the eye more than Cessna, Hawker, or an Eclipse might. No way I could afford to even fuel the thing, but if I could own one it would sure turn heads at the ramp. For sure.

  16. Alex Kovnat says:

    Thank you Mac for the great article on how turbines that swing propellers are more economical than jets and, while they might not be as economical as piston planes, at least they don’t need 100LL, are available in larger sizes than is practical for piston engines, and are less fussy and demanding of a pilot’s attention.

    I participate in AOPA Forums and one discussion that drew a lot of contributors was one that asked the question, [U]Why Doesn’t Everyone Want a Bonanza[/U]. I contributed my say by mentioning a feature article (since replaced) on AOPA’s website, on the Silver Eagle (see http://www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/2012/december/turbine_silver-eagle.html?CMP=ADV:1) – A cantilever high wing single engine, retractible gear Cessna airframe where the 6-cylinder piston engine normally used has been replaced by a Rolls Royce Allison 250 B17-series turboprop engine. Some Beechcraft A-36 Bonanzas have likewise been converted to RR-Allison 250 turboprop engines. Here’s a problem that may hinder conversion of the Bonanza or Baron to turbine power: If the cabin isn’t pressurized, since turbines have to fly high to reduce their fuel consumption, the pilot and passengers are going to have to fly with (to quote those who replied to my post) “a hose up their nose”, or “sucking oxygen”. So it would behoove Beechcraft to study the possibility of versions of the Bonanza and Baron with pressure cabins to allow cruise at altitudes like 16000 to 20000 feet. This would facilitate Silver Eagle type conversions to turbine power, without requiring one’s spouse and children to wear canulas or oral-nasal oxygen masks.

  17. Dan says:

    I have to agree, turboprops cannot be replaced. I began my professional aviation career flying RC-130′s for the USAF. They served a purpose and provided a service that turbojets still cannot do effectively. The proof is that Lockheed is still turning them out. Jets don’t do so well “off runway” so to speak and the Herk is still the “king”. The Air Force ordered the C-5 and the C-117 (I believe) to perform on non paved surfaces, but they just didn’t make the cut (they were just to vulnerable to F O D with those big suction pumps).

  18. Alex Kovnat says:

    If sales of the Beechcraft King Air family (our only domestic turboprop twin currently in production) become high enough, I wonder how many owner-operators might prefer a high-wing turboprop twin, specifically the Commander aircraft described on pages 70-77 of the November 2012 edition of Flying magazine, if the type certificate of said aircraft were to be acquired by someone with enough financial backing to put it back into production.

  19. Glenn O says:

    I enjoy reading about all froms of aviation. Keep the articals coming. Happy Holidays. GO >’

  20. Gordon says:

    Well…what Mac says about turboprops is true…they do fit certain kinds of mission at least as well as a jet…although the jet is going to give a more “civilized” and usually quieter ride…and is thus more desirable…at a higher acquisition and operating cost of course…

    However…since we are looking back at the big historical picture…I think it is important to see the forest and not just the trees…the forest being the fact that the idea of a certified personal airplane is something whose time has clearly passed…

    Last year there were a mere 668 piston aircraft manufactured in the US (860 world wide)…and that’s is counting 121 piston twins…compared to about 15,000 in 1978…and each of those piston aircraft cost an average of $481,000…

    We can see this by looking at industry statistics compiled for many years now by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association…you can download a report for each year going back to 1973…


    If we download the 1978 report we see that it does not break down the total dollar sales between pistons and turbine aircraft…but we see that of the 17,811 total aircraft shipped…including the jets, turboprops and piston twins…the average GA aircraft sold for $115,000…

    In today’s dollars that would be just under $400,000…but today the average GA aircraft costs over $1 million…2.5 times more than the “cost” of money has increased in those years…WHY…?

    That is my challenge to Mac…please tell us why the piston industry has now become extinct…other than aircraft bought for small business use or for flight schools…

    The fact of the matter is that we can guess all we want about the cost of certification…insurance…etc…but that is all malarkey…the real reason is that the companies making general aviation airplanes long ago saw that the real dollars were in the turbine airplanes…especially jets used int eh corporate setting…

    And we can see this with one stark statistic in the 2011 GAMA datebook…total piston sales accounted for a tiny TWO PERCENT of total GA Sales of nearly $19 billion…

    Two lousy percent…that is what has changed…yet I do not see Mac or anyone else being upset with that…yes the kitplane segment has jumped up and taken up some of the slack of everyday folks who want to own their own airplane…but for all intents and purposes the GA industry has closed the book on us…

    And we can see some more interesting dynamics at play if we examine the numbers a little more closely…

    For example…in 1994 the average cost of a piston airplane…including pistons and twins… was just under $180,000 in 1994 dollars…which is $270,000 in today’s money…

    Yet in 2011 the average cost of a piston…again including twins…was nearly double…$480,000…

    Now how do you explain that…?…

    Well guess what…the only explanation that makes sense is that the industry said to heck with the private flyer…it’s not worth building 10,000 piston singles a year only to make as much profit from all those little planes as we make from a couple of dozen executive jets…

    Now we see one more interesting fact staring us in the face when we look at the year over year figures in the mid 2000s…the average price suddenly jumped by $60,000 in one year…from 2003 to 2004…going from ~$287,000 to ~337,000…

    This was back when there was a mini-boom in pistons and about 2,000 were being cranked out each year…this prices continued going up until the bottom fell out in 2009 and less than 1,000 pistons were shipped…

    So that is the big picture…we went from a quarter-million dollar price of entry into the world of piston airplane ownership less than 20 years ago (in today’s dollars) to a half million dollar price of ownership today…what the heck happened…?…

    Now am I the only one that is upset by this…?…Should we all just sing Kumbaya…as some comments here suggest…?…it’s all good no…?

    • Jeff says:

      I have looked at the same problem myself and would like to hear any additional information/ideas you might have about why this is.

  21. Ramiro Silveira says:

    Sometimes I feel so sad when I read this: “…the Baron is the highest performing piston twin in production…”
    The Baron is really beutiful and delightful to fly but it was designed more than 50 years ago.
    As an aeronautical angineer nI would like so much to see something new, modern, I would like to be desigining, testing, building something better.
    Cirrus was great news in the single piston niche.
    May be we will never see such great news in the twin piston niche?

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  23. Ray Moeller says:

    I too enjoy reading about all facets of aviation, just to have the larger picture. Just because this is an EAA site, doesn’t mean that it has to be about tube and fabric or composite, or it just isn’t worth being posted here. So, good job, Mac! Keep the interesting topics coming.

    As far as costs, and manufacturers “closing the doors on GA”… well, I remember remember as a small boy around 1970 when my dad took me flying and we taxied up to the pumps. I can still remember the little number on the pump showing 25 cents per gallon. And now I see the digital sign reading in the area of $6 a gallon. What middle class person can do much flying at that price. And if you’re not doing much flying, you’re most likely not as sharp in your skills as you could/should be. And when you’re not so sharp, you’re more likely to be involved in a mishap which in our field quite often involves fatalities. And then of course, it wasn’t the pilots fault that he buried the thing nose first into the ground.. “it was a manufacturing defect!” cries the estate, and the lawyers get involved. Remember why Cessna quit making single engine planes for an extended period? They were tired of getting sued by survivors of pilots that made mistakes, or errors in judgement, and having to pay out huge dollars. Mac would know better, but isn’t about 1/3 of the current new aircraft price set aside for the day when the lawyers coming calling? And then you get to deal with environmentalists who think that the lead additive in the fuel is poisoning the world, and we have to sue the FBOs that are selling it. REALLY? With as few people doing so little flying these days, do you really think that we in GA are putting enough lead out there to make a negative impact. I personally doubt it, but then again I don’t have any scientific data to back up that statement… oh, wait a minute.. they don’t have any scientific data to back up their lawsuits either. Stalemate. So, are the manufacturers intentionally shutting the door to spite us, or is it just good marketing sense to offer products that appeal to the folks that have the Green stuff to spend on airplanes, as well as other necessities like food, housing, cars, etc. I think they have a desire to stay in business and build the things they enjoy building.. and make it worth keeping the doors to the factory open. It seems like such a vicious tailspin that we’ve gotten involved in, not only in aviation but in so many other areas of our lives.

    So, I’ll go back to building my airplane with the hopes that by the time I get the finishing touches on it, I won’t be regulated to death (no pun intended) and unable to actually fly it. Maybe I’ll even be able to afford to teach my kids to fly, as my dad taught me. God only knows that if they want to go to college, they’ll have already accumulated the cost of a new house in debt by the time they graduate, and there won’t be any play money left so they can learn to fly on their own. Just my opinions, and yours may differ… this is the United States. It is still the United States, isn’t it?

  24. Mac –
    Thanks for your article on the legacy of Beechcraft and how things can come full circle, just like old ties. For almost 50 years, the King Air has proven to be a safe, reliable and scalable airplane for those fortunate enough to fly one.

    For all of you who protest about a turboprop article or an author writing on corporate aviation in this forum, there are at least two paths to pursue: 1) simply don’t read it and/or 2) take your complaints to the executive leadership of EAA, not to Mac. My observation of the recent EAA behaviors was that it was trying to keep its EXPERIMENTAL constituencies paying annually while accommodating the big marketing budgets of corporate aviation which allows AirVenture to be the wonderful, summertime destination it has become. Maybe Jack Pelton, an airplane guy and extremely successful former leader of Cessna can re-energize the organization & provide a needed rudder for EAA.

    I think a merger between AOPA and EAA makes the most sense to serve all of general and business aviation. I would gladly pay more for an annual membership knowing that one organization was representing me with all I would like to accomplish in an airplane at different times in my life. Again, perhaps Jack Pelton can maneuver a course such as this one now that there is a change of leadership at EAA and AOPA continues to search for membership and revenue growth as always.

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