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February 1, 2007
Raytheon Aircraft Co., as far as we know, isn't concerned with the very-light-jet (VLJ) groundswell. Instead, its jets are designed for a blend of speed, interior spaciousness, and comfort.
The Beechcraft Premier I, rolled out in 2001, has been a fair success — with 133 total sales. Its big draws are its merging of a 451-knot maximum cruise speed with a six-seat cabin featuring berthable seats, an aft lavatory, and a choice among five different refreshment-center designs. The cockpit features the popular Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics suite, and the airplane is certified for single-pilot operations.
The newest Premier, dubbed the Premier IA, is an incremental improvement over its predecessor. It retains the 2,300-pound static-thrust Williams International FJ44-2A engines that power the Premier I, touts the same speeds and performance numbers, and has the same Pro Line avionics, but several noteworthy changes have been made. IAs began production in September 2005, at serial number 435.
One welcome addition to the Pro Line 21 is Rockwell Collins' Integrated Flight Information System (IFIS) — a feature first introduced on Raytheon's Hawker 800XPi models in June 2005, and a system that's been used in larger business jets such as Falcons and Challengers since 2004. The IFIS talks to the Pro Line's displays via an Ethernet connection, and can support electronic charting (JeppView services from Jeppesen) and datalinked graphical and textual weather information from either XM WX Satellite Weather or Universal Weather and Aviation datalink services.
The hardware and software modules to enable these services are options: $31,610 for the XM package; $73,595 for the Universal option; and $28,095 for Collins' ECH-5000 enhanced map overlays, which provide such nice-to-have features as superimposition of the aircraft's location on approach charts and airport diagrams.
Rockwell Coll-ins reports that most customers opt for XM satellite weather services, and order the full line of weather products. This includes graphical METARs, sigmets, Nexrad imagery, and storm-cell echo tops, as well as textual METARs, terminal area forecasts, and airmets. The IA comes with a Collins TWR-800 weather radar as standard equipment. Its TWR-850 turbulence-detecting Doppler radar is a $38,030 option.
The electronic charts and datalink services go a long way toward minimizing a paper-cluttered cockpit, and are especially welcome in single-pilot situations. The front office of an IA can be a busy place, and the extra situational awareness comes in very handy, indeed.
Cabin changes have made the IA a better place for passengers, too. At Raytheon, the marching orders are "cabin first" in the design department, and it really shows in the new Premiers. Company officials are quick to point out the cabin's large size, stating that it's modeled after those used in Raytheon's Hawker series of super-midsize jets. In fact, Raytheon's mid-size Hawker 800XP cabin is just 4 inches taller and 6 inches wider than that of the Premier IA. The IA's "boss' seat" — seat number four, or the first forward-facing seat at the right side of the cabin — now has its own independent heat control, which controls cabin temperature and operates off the right bleed-air system. Cockpit temperature is controlled by the pilot, and runs off the left bleed-air system.
Cabin seats are more comfortable than the Premier I's, having been restyled and re-contoured for more support; the I's large circular overhead dome lights have been replaced with individual reading lights; there's new recessed, indirect overhead lighting that runs the length of the cabin; the first four seats translate, swivel, and are berthable; the old circular window reveals have been replaced with a cleaner, flush-to-the-sidewall design; and a new single-action side-table design is less of a protrusion into the cabin space than the previous design was. As for refreshment centers, you can opt for a top-end unit that includes the basic features, plus an Airshow flight information display, a 10-inch color monitor, a CD/DVD player for audio and video programs, adjustable shelves, and storage drawers.
But passengers don't have all the fun. The Premier IA is very much a pilot's airplane that just happens to have a plush cabin. Up front, you have the thrills that come with taking off, climbing at 250 KIAS and 4,200 fpm, and reaching 23,000 feet in 9 minutes, as I experienced on my flight with four aboard. It took us 23 minutes to reach an altitude of 37,000 feet, where we settled into a 450-KTAS cruise at outside air temperatures only 2 degrees Fahrenheit below standard.
I flew the ILS 1R approach into Wichita Mid-Continent Airport, and then made the short hop across town to Raytheon's home base at Beech Field. Final approach speed worked out to be 120 KIAS with full (30 degrees) flaps, with airspeed across the threshold targeted at 110 KIAS. After touchdown, I got to sample two other improvements in the IA. The brakes are less "grabby" and easier on the passengers, thanks to a new brake master cylinder design that does away with the actuating cables used by the Premier I. The I's brakes were perhaps too effective, and neophytes could find themselves lurching from side to side as they taxied. Not anymore.
The Premier IA also has a new lift-dump system. Premier Is have an automatic lift-dump feature that deploys when three wheel-actuated squat switches make contact with the runway. Then the outboard, middle, and inboard spoilers deploy to put more weight on the wheels and slow the airplane significantly after touchdown (if the lift-dump system fails, pilots are advised to add 53 percent to the airplane's landing distance). But if one or more squat switches don't make contact, there's no lift dump on the I models. The IA uses a manual lift-dump lever that gives all lift-dump control to the pilot.
At $6 million, the Premier IA isn't the least expensive light business jet. But its unique combination of speed, cabin comfort, and advanced composite construction puts it in a league all its own. The IA's typical mission, Raytheon says, is flying three passengers 740 nm in one hour, 45 minutes. It's doubtful that a VLJ could do that. "There's nothing 'very light' about any of Raytheon's airplanes — unless you're talking about the weight savings from the carbon-fiber fuselage," said a Raytheon representative. "We specialize in making derivatives of existing designs. There's not one product we make that doesn't have a derivative planned for it." Makes you wonder what the Premier II will look like.
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