Gulfstream G550 Flight Test

Gulfstream G550 Flight Test

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P1 flys the G550 as Gulfstream celebrates the 500th delivery of this popular, award-winning aircraft. Robert P Mark takes the controls.

When Gulfstream created the G159 in 1958, the G1 as it quickly came to be known was the first large-cabin turboprop constructed strictly for the burgeoning business aviation market. It didn’t take long for Gulfstream to build a jet version called the G2 in 1966, ushering in a new generation of airplanes capable of non-stop leaps to Europe from North America. In the 50 years since, Gulfstream has created a long line of G2 variants, currently numbering six aircraft. The company has grown from a handful of employees at its Savannah Hilton Head (SAV) airport headquarters in the mid-60s to more than 16,000 today. When defence giant General Dynamics, maker of the F-16, purchased Gulfstream Aerospace in 1999, research and development at the now stronger business aviation manufacturer became a priority. The new Gulfstream opened a US$400 million R&D facility in 2006 that’s been the catalyst for many business aviation firsts like Enhanced Vision and Synthetic Vision capabilities.

g550-2

In May, Gulfstream invited P1 to closely examine one member of the Gulfstream family – the G550 that entered service in 2003. The trip coincided nicely with the company’s delivery of the 500th G550 to Chicago-based Abbott Labs. Gulfstream has, in fact, delivered more G550s than any other model. So popular is the aircraft, that even during the 2008 recession that slammed most of the world, delivery numbers for Gulfstream’s large-cabin category aircraft (G-IV, G-V, G450, G550, G650) barely budged while many small and mid-size cabin aircraft makers saw declines as dramatic as 50 percent. Many of those companies have yet to recover seven years later. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) said Gulfstream delivered 88 large-cabin aircraft in 2008. Over the next few years, the numbers were 75 in 2009, 75 in 2010, 78 in 2011, 83 in 2012, 121 in 2013 and 117 in 2014 respectively.

Robert P. Mark is a lifelong professional pilot and journalist. He’s flown a variety of aircraft as an airline, charter and private business jet pilot having logged nearly 7,000 flying hours. Mark has twice been named an Aerospace Journalist of the Year at the Paris Airshow as well as received the NBAA’s award for Outstanding Journalism. He has written four aviation books published by McGraw-Hill and also publishes the award-winning industry blog, Jetwhine.com.
Robert P. Mark is a lifelong professional pilot and journalist. He’s flown a variety of aircraft as an airline, charter and private business jet pilot having logged nearly 7,000 flying hours. Mark has twice been named an Aerospace Journalist of the Year at the Paris Airshow as well as received the NBAA’s award for Outstanding Journalism. He has written four aviation books published by McGraw-Hill and also publishes the award-winning industry blog, Jetwhine.com.

The reasons people continue buying aircraft like the G550 specifically are actually pretty simple. Pilots like the aircraft’s performance and the myriad of useful technologies that come standard in the 550 cockpit. Pilots appreciate the G550’s reputation, often compared to a Chevy Suburban, for demanding just fuel, oil and a little TLC to keep it going no matter the mission. For the people who spend their lives in the cabin, a G550 ride is simply quiet, luxurious and just plain comfortable. When thinking about a 550, Gulfstream says their jet’s competitors are Dassault’s Falcon 7X and Bombardier’s Global 6000.

A pat on the back goes a long way toward marketing any product, but when the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) awarded the 2003 Collier Trophy to the Gulfstream G550 team – one of just three business aircraft builders to ever take the prize – they called it “the greatest achievement in aeronautics in the United States with respect to improving the performance, efficiency or safety of air or space vehicles.” The NAA also named Gulfstream’s Enhanced Vision system “the G550’s greatest safety feature.” EVS uses a forward-looking infrared camera to deliver pilots a real-world image of the airport environment and surrounding areas in limited visibility conditions such as fog and darkness. On December 6, the G550 also broke a distance without landing record by flying the 7,546 miles between Savannah and Dubai at an average speed of 549 miles per hour. Gulfstream’s team brought the company into lofty company with past Collier recipients such as Chuck Yeager for breaking the sound barrier (1947), the Apollo 8 (1968) and Apollo 11 (1969) missions, the Boeing 747 (1970) and NASA’s development of the space shuttle program (1981).

The G-550 entered service in 2003 and has been Gulfstream’s best-selling model
The G-550 entered service in 2003 and has been Gulfstream’s best-selling model

A Few Specs for Pilots

The G550 can carry as many as 18 people, 19 at a squeeze, and berth as many as eight over long distances inside its 1,669 cu. ft. cabin that translates into a fuselage 50 feet long and seven feet four inches wide. With full fuel, the G550 will carry a 2,500 pounds payload as far as 6,490nm. With eight passengers, the aircraft will fly 6,750 nm at M0.80 (609 mph approx.). That creates non-stop legs like Shanghai to Los Angeles or New York to Dubai at M0.80 or London to Los Angeles clipping along smartly at M0.85 (647 mph approx.). The G550’s maximum speed is Mach 0.885 (674 mph approx.).

The 550 sports the best runway performance of any Gulfstream clan member needing just under 6,000 feet of runway to depart at its 91,000 lbs. maximum weight.
A relatively high maximum landing weight – 75,300 lbs. – makes the G550 an excellent aircraft to tanker fuel too.

Earlier Gulfstream aficionados will recognise the aircraft’s 93-foot, six-inch high-lift wing because it’s the same one on the earlier G5. The G550’s clean wing, free of any movable leading-edge devices, is still quite capable of getting the airplane down and stopped in as little as 2,770 feet of runway.

Gulfstream selected the Rolls-Royce BR710 C4-11 Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) as its powerplant, each generating up to 15,385 pounds of thrust, yet quiet enough to qualify as Stage 4 noise compliant. The 550’s flight controls are hydraulically operated through a traditional control wheel, with a manual option in case of a total hydraulic failure. The 550 and its sister airframe, the G450 are the last Gulfstreams to fly without fly-by-wire controls.

The G550’s Plane View cockpit is created around four 14” liquid crystal displays controlled by a mouse-like cursor device for each pilot with thumb controls for easy scrolling through a number of pull-down checkbox menus that allow the system to customize the displays to the tastes of each individual pilot. The aircraft comes standard with triple Flight Management Systems (FMS) FMS, Inertial Reference Systems (IRS) and Inertial Navigation Systems (INS). The G550 is equipped with DO260A compliant ADS-B out that works well over Canada, Australia and parts of SE Asia. The aircraft will also be delivered with DO260B compliant ADS-B for use over the US and Europe in time to meet those requirements.

Gulfstream Doesn’t Forget the Passengers

For people who turn right at the top of the entrance stair, rather than left, the Gulfstream cabin offers a variety of customisable options focusing around four basic cabin layouts. Three of them add a crew rest station and a lav to the front of the aircraft near the cockpit. The fourth design involves no crew rest station. Steve Cass, Gulfstream’s vice president of technical marketing and communications said, “We’ve been seeing more aircraft delivered with a crew rest area.” That flight crew option means the galley’s built in the rear near the second lav. Cass said most G550s are also operated with a full-time flight attendant.

G550-interior

The G550 cabin offers ample room between seats, as well as a number of privacy options created by hard partitions or flexible dividers to create a private stateroom or conference area. The cabin comes standard with 14 oval-shaped windows measuring 26” x 19” that allow plenty of natural light into the cabin. The company cabin-management system also allows passengers to control the environment around their seats, such as overhead lighting, window shading and entertainment through their smart phone. The environmental system pumps only 100 percent fresh air that maintains a 6,000-foot cabin altitude at 51,000 feet and also completely changes cabin air every 90 seconds. At 41,000 feet the cabin treats passengers as if they were just 4,000 feet above the ground.

Cass said, “Because we take our brand rating very seriously, we feel it’s important to control the reliability and quality of our cabin completion process.”

The Savannah showroom offers customers a large, well-lit room in which to choose from more than 42,000 fabric and leather samples, as well as more than 1,000 wood possibilities and other options down to the china, silver and glassware. Gulfstream also builds all the seats for its aircraft.

Maintenance: Just in Time

The care and feeding of an aircraft the size of a G550 can, at times, seem incredibly complex, especially when parts fails a long way from home. Gulfstream’s PlaneConnect system was created to monitor the inner workings of the aircraft and report back to ground maintenance teams about critical system fluctuations early enough to head off a failure before it occurs. Using a wireless data recorder and processor, PlaneConnect tracks, analyses and stores vast amounts of operational data in real time during each flight. That data, captured through a number of preset parameters, is then transmitted in real time directly back to the customer’s maintenance team, and very often upon customer request, back to the Gulfstream support team.

Steve Cass said, “Seventy percent of customers allow us to see their PlaneConnect messages so a technician can often be ready with a needed solution when the aircraft arrives.” In complicated circumstances, Gulfstream tech ops employees in Savannah can use an aircraft maintenance simulator to help identify problems and often create a solution while the aircraft is still airborne. For owner operators, this means only replacing needed parts saving both the downtime and money often wasted simply changing out expensive parts in search of a solution. The G550’s dispatch reliability, according to Cass, is running at 99.9 percent over more than a million flight hours. While some manufacturers work from the assumption that 99.5 percent reliability is adequate, he explained the added difficulty of making the leap that extra .4 of a percent. “Ninety-nine point five percent reliability translates into a missed trip once a year.

“At 99.9 percent, the operator misses one trip every five years.”

So sure is Gulfstream of the quality of the aircraft, that they offer a 20-year warranty on the structures, five to six years on the engines and five years parts and labour on everything else. With more than 800 of the G450/550 category aircraft flying in the world, the population of experienced technicians is vast.

Gulfstream operates eight service centres in the US, with another at Luton England, Beijing and Sao Paulo Brazil. Should a G550 find itself stuck on the ground unexpectedly in the US, Gulfstream will swiftly dispatch a technician with the correct parts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to fix it.

Those techs are transported quickly thanks to the two Gulfstream G150s the company keeps on standby for just those kind of situations, as well as US$1.6 billion worth of parts scattered at strategic maintenance locations around the globe.

Flying the G550

Crew issues at the front end of most airplanes tend to sound the same … how roomy is the cabin, how comfy are the seats and what’s the noise level like on a long trip. Pilots also wonder how complex the avionics systems are and how difficult is it to understand each new piece of gear. On my flight in early June, I was lucky to have two experienced Gulfstream captains, Bob McKenney and Marilyn Whicker with to keep me from getting into too much trouble. Bob occupied the right seat while Marilyn acted as safety pilot from the jump seat.

gulfstream g550 p1 magazine

Climbing into the 550’s left seat is pretty easy as long as you make sure to remember the brake handle sticking up from the lower pedestal lying in wait for new pilots. If I had any criticism of the cockpit layout, it’s simply how high the pilots must tilt their heads back to find something on the overhead panel although I later realized this is a minor concern. Once the aircraft leaves the ramp, the pilot almost never looks up that high on the panel again.

Once the engines were running and stabilised, we taxied out to runway 28 at SAV where at our reduced weight of about 70,000 pounds on a warm Georgia day, the book said we’d need about 3,780 feet for a flaps 20 takeoff. Conveniently, all the 550’s fuel sits in the wings. That means no real fuel management issues to worry about. Bob McKenney told me the G550 also feels right at home in places like Toluca Mexico, where the 8,500-foot field elevation on a summer day often creates density altitude issues that scare away many other airplanes.

gulfstream g550 flight test

Ground taxiing requires very little additional thrust once the aircraft is moving and the brakes were kind enough to prevent a newcomer from jerking the aircraft in the turns despite never having flown a Gulfstream product. The tiller’s great for tight manoeuvring on the ground, but steering through the rudders after that works just fine. Taxiing efforts are made easier with a number of optional cameras, two of which are located under belly that double as both a positive gear-down check, as well as a good way to be sure the aircraft is on the centreline of a narrow taxiway. The third camera at the top of the vertical stabiliser points forward for a panoramic view of each flight. 

The 550 comes standard with a Heads Up Display (HUD) that serves as a focal point in front of the pilot’s eyes to integrate nearly a dozen critical flight parameters voiding the need for the pilot to focus back inside the cockpit and down the various readings on the 14-inch displays. Even the EVS information can be displayed on the HUD.

For the first takeoff, I simply turned onto the centreline and advanced the thrust about a third of the way as my thumb engaged the auto throttles that took it from there. I simply steered as the relatively light aircraft quickly accelerated. We left the ground headed west out of SAV with my plan being to hand-fly the G550 as long as Bob would let me. The VSI was pegged at 6,000 fpm confirming that the G550 wasn’t even working up a sweat. With the aircraft in trim, I was able to easily take my hand off the control wheel. The Gulfstream remained rock steady at the pitch attitude I’d left it, almost as if I were controlling a fly-by-wire airplane without using trim at all.

P1 flys Gulfstream G550

With a ton of convective activity north and west of SAV, Atlanta Center was all too eager to let us keep climbing and in just under 20 minutes, we levelled at FL410 where I did engage the autopilot for a few minutes to look around the cockpit a bit more. The visibility toward the pointy end of the 550 is impressive. We were still accelerating when I pulled off my noise-cancelling headphones for a sound check. Bob and Marilyn both told me they often operate up high where the wind resistance and hence the noise is low without headphones.

I tried that for about 10 minutes and found it quite comfortable, even when I walked back in the cabin where I realised a conversation with someone a row away was pretty easy.

It was time to go higher as Bob requested FL490 for some air work. I again punched off the autopilot as the power came up and we began the climb. As we levelled at 49,000 feet, I left the power where it was as the aircraft slowly accelerated to about M0.82. There was still plenty of momentum in the 550 at this point although the rate through the last few thousand feet was hovering just under 1,000 FPM.

Once level, Bob suggested I try some turns … steep turns. I rolled into a few 45 degree banks both left and right and by comparison, the airplane didn’t handle any differently up here in the thin air than when I tried those same moves down low a little later. Even a few 60-degree banks didn’t seem to phase the airplane.

Gulfstream aircraft G550

I asked Bob why the 550 seemed so incredibly agile at FL490. “Because this aircraft has so much power and uses such an incredible wing, its as good at high altitudes as it is at low,” he said. “Often you’ll have aircraft that are excellent at high altitude, but require extra lift devices. The 550 uses such a simple clean wing that we can make 45-degree banks at high altitude without losing lift. And we’ll still be at 115 knots on final.” That was easy, even when I slowed the aircraft and tried the same manoeuvres again.

There’s one additional Gulfstream feature that removes one emergency worry for the crew, as well as the people in the cabin. McKenney said, “If the cabin should ever rise above 8,000 when the autopilot is engaged (as in a slow cabin depressurization), the G550 will automatically descend to a safe altitude on its own. The auto throttles will engage if they’re off, the aircraft rolls into a 45-degree bank, squawks 7700 and turns 90 off heading as it starts down at Mmo, only levelling out once it reaches 15,000 feet.”

On the way back to SAV, I finally began adding in some of the automation to let the brain inside the Gulfstream try and impress me with what it could do. What I enjoyed most about the hand-flying training with the 550 though, especially up high, was that I now possessed a feel, perhaps comfort is the better word, for what the aircraft could and would do in more demanding flight regimes.

Bob asked for and received a clearance to descend as we headed toward the “Mayar” fix for the ILS runway 10 where the weather was a partial overcast at 2,000 feet and light winds. When Savannah Approach turned us further south to join the localiser, I decided to let the electronics fly and armed the approach to see what kind of landing I could make by taking over at 200 feet above the ground.

Gulfstream g550 aerial
Gulfstream g550 aerial

Capt. McKenney was a good first officer since I didn’t have all the speeds committed to memory. Despite progressively slowing, we remained at nearly 180 knots, only reducing speed about a mile outside the marker, just so I could watch. The Honeywell PlaneView system and the auto throttles were smooth during the speed reduction, even as we added flaps 39 degrees with the gear down. With a ref speed of about 122 knots, I heard minimums and punched off the autopilot to see what I’d recalled from Bob’s earlier briefing. The G550 likes just the barest amount of flare. Even thinking you’re going to round out almost guarantees you’ll balloon. I managed a firm arrival and smiled as I taxied back to Gulfstream’s demo ramp. A few of my later landings weren’t quite as nice though.

The G550 lists at US$61.5 million, no small chunk of change. It also takes about 18 months from signing the purchase order until delivery. So is the G550 worth the extra money it costs – about US$15 million more than a shorter-ranged, shorter cabined G450 for instance?

I’d say yes, but only to people who value their comfort and their time on long-range trips.

Gulfstream G550 specs

Performance:
Normal Cruise Speed: Mach 0.80 459ktas
Max Cruise Speed: Mach 0.87 500ktas
Total Range: 6750nm
Engines: 2 x Rolls-Royce BR710

Aircraft Dimensions:
Wingspan: 93ft 6in/28.5m
Length: 96ft 5in/29.4m
Height: 25ft 10in/7.9m

Cabin:
Length: 50ft 1in/15.3m
Width: 7ft 4in/2.24m
Height: 6ft 2in/1.88m
Passengers: up to 15
Baggage Capacity: 226 cubic ft/6.4 cubic m