Special mission turboprops
Cost effective platforms gain popularity in different roles.
By Stuart Lau
ATP/FE/CFII Boeing 747, 747-400, 757/767, CRJ and Saab 340
With more than 7000 King Airs delivered since 1964, this PT6-powered twin is a popular workhorse TP in 127 countries. Special Mission King Air 350ER (extended range) is the latest to be rigged out as an ISR aircraft. It has 2500 nm range, reinforced landing gear and a MTOW of 16,500 lbs. Multitude of reconnaissance and surveillance gear can be carried including FLIR—shown by IR image on screen far left—mission control console with operator space, high-definition imaging systems, daylight cameras, HD color imaging, real-time AV teleconferencing, digital video recorder, GA-ASI Claw sensor, microwave transmitter, Iridium satphone, smart-link interface and data processing computer.
Demand for turboprops is expected to total 6000 aircraft worth about $28 billion over the next 10 years, according to a recent forecast. The study, by Forecast Intl, predicts deliveries to begin picking up in 2013 and accelerating through 2014 and beyond.
Turboprops perform many missions well at a low cost.
Their versatility and efficiency set turboprops apart from other types of aircraft, even during the current economic downturn. According to Forecast Intl Aerospace Analyst Doug Royce, "They've done well through the downturn because the aircraft are used as income generators." Commercial operators and governments alike use a high proportion of turboprops in multiple applications such as charter, freight and, increasingly, in the special missions role.
FLIR, forward-looking infrared, camera for ISR King Airs is usually installed far aft on fuselage. IR sensors are extremely popular with US and allied forces in Middle East ops since body heat of enemy fighters or heat from vehicle engines is easily detected and monitored by this sensor.
Beechcraft and Cessna, according to the study, are well positioned in the market with the King Air and Caravan, respectively. Demand from areas with higher economic growth around the globe such as Brazil, and to some extent India and China, continue to be bright spots tempering weakness in North America and Europe.
GAMA's report on 1Q2013 airplane shipments, released in early May, provides validation to this robust forecast for turboprop deliveries. Year-over-year, GAMA reports a 25.9% increase in all turboprop deliveries. By segment, single-engine turboprops were up 14.6% to 102 units, while multiengine types skyrocketed 78.9% to 34 units.
Special mission aircraft make up, depending on the manufacturer surveyed, between 8 and 25% of total turboprop sales.
• Multitasking twins
Beechcraft King Air
King Air with Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) is being developed for the US Army by Boeing. It provides the capability to detect, locate, classify, identify and track surface targets day or night in almost any weather conditions.
Beechcraft is the undisputed leader in the twin-engine turboprop market with its King Air series. To date, more than 7000 King Air aircraft have been delivered, with a large number operating as special mission or multirole aircraft.
Beechcraft Special Missions Senior VP Dan Keady says, "We have seen the greatest number of deliveries—more than 1300—go toward training missions for military and commercial flight schools.
The next largest areas include utility/transport use and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Other areas served include air ambulance, maritime surveillance, search and rescue (SAR), flight inspection and airways calibration, and aerial surveying."
Special mission aircraft are a major emphasis for the new Beechcraft, says Keady. "Beechcraft has a long history in the special mission market," he says. "It continues to be a major focus for the company with a purposed team assembled to handle all special mission activities."
Beechcraft's special mission team has found success by assembling a portfolio of aircraft ranging from the piston twin Baron G58 and extending through the entire King Air line—including the C90GTx, 250 and 350—each having the capability of being tailored to a specific role.
Keady adds, "While current economic conditions in many regions of the world have had an impact on the sale of new special mission aircraft, it's still viewed as a growing market for Beechcraft products.
The King Air 350, and particularly the 350ER with its extended payload and fuel capabilities, has been the clear leader throughout the past few years for ISR and utility applications."
The most recent example of a King Air 350 in the ISR role is the Boeing Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS), which is being developed for the US Army.
On May 22, EMARSS completed its first flight from BEC (Beech Field, Wichita KS). Boeing claims that EMARSS will provide the US Army with "a persistent capability to detect, locate, classify, identify and track surface targets in nearly all weather conditions, day or night, with a high degree of timeliness and accuracy."
EMARSS builds on the success of other US Army and US Air Force King Air-based ISR programs that played a major intelligence-gathering role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the most successful ISR aircraft projects to date is the US Air Force's MC12W program.