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.