Full disclosure: I own a 1972 Bonanza A36. So, when I write about the future prospects of the storied company that built it, I do so with the hope that it will succeed. For without that company, the value of my airplane will decline and my ability to get parts and service may also be impacted. I’m not alone in this. Joining me are tens of thousands of owners of Beech and Hawker airplanes dating back 80 years. Even those who are not owners are pulling for the company because they hope to someday own one of the products, or because they recognize the negative impact its failure would have on the health of our fragile industry.
About the time you read this, if all goes as projected, a new company, Beechcraft Corporation, will emerge out of the bankruptcy of Hawker Beechcraft Corporation. HBC entered bankruptcy in May 2012, a move that had been anticipated for months—years, in fact. Many of us who have followed general aviation for decades predicted back in 2007 when Raytheon sold the Hawker and Beechcraft product lines to a group of investors that the debt load would crush it. The sale saddled the new HBC and its product lines with $2.5 billion in debt, an amount that few of us thought sustainable even in an up-market period and, if you’ll recall, the 2007 up market quickly turned into 2008’s down market. With that, a dated product line, and especially the albatross of the Hawker 4000 business jet, the company’s finances spiraled downward, leading to massive layoffs and eventually the bankruptcy filing. The Hawker 4000 was a decade late coming to market and even then was not as complete as it ought to be, requiring the company to infuse some $750,000 in upgrades to numerous delivered airplanes, which it did at no cost to the customers—the right thing to do.
Those Hawker 4000 and Premier IA jet customers are the ones who will suffer the most as a result of the bankruptcy. The company will not be honoring the warranties for those products and has received permission to fire-sale the remaining 4000s, which will highly devalue those already in the fleet. All those moves are ones for which HBC Chairman Bill Boisture has expressed regret, but were deemed necessary to protect the rest of the company. Speaking of the warranty issue at NBAA last fall, Boisture said, “We are truly sorry to have to disappoint our customers with this decision.”
The new Beechcraft will produce propeller-driven airplanes only, a move that one former HBC executive believes is short-sighted. The executive, who asked not to be named, said the Hawker 200—which was the next generation of the Premier IA in development—should be kept as a step-up airplane for King Air owners. The spun composite fuselage of the Premier will form the basis of the first new product from Beechcraft. Boisture announced at NBAA the company plans to introduce a single-engine turboprop based around a stretched Premier composite fuselage. Beechcraft officials have not confirmed that the airplane will be called the King Air 125 or will include the metal T-tail section of a King Air 200 and a metal wing from another King Air model. Based on specs announced at NBAA, the airplane will fly at about 300 knots behind a new-generation Pratt & Whitney PT6 engine and include a large fuselage door, similar to the Pilatus PC–12. However, the new King Air will be larger in volume than the PC–12.
I was initially skeptical about the company’s ability to pull off a new single-engine turboprop. Not from a technical capabilities standpoint—they certainly have the expertise—but from a financial standpoint. Such a program, even for a company with all the right engineering and manufacturing talent, will be hugely expensive and take at least three years—quite likely longer. However, the more I learn about the project, the more confident I am that they can pull it off. Of course, building and certifying it is one thing. Succeeding in the already crowded single-engine turboprop market will be another thing altogether. The thing they have going for them is worldwide name recognition and a terrific service and support network.
We also have been told by sources at Beechcraft that the Bonanza and Baron will be offered with three engine variants—avgas (presumably compatible with potentially lower octane unleaded avgas of the future), Jet-A burning diesel, and turboprops. This is especially good news for those us who own those products. The news gives us hope that the airframes will be produced for years to come and potentially offer us retrofit options that otherwise might not exist.
Stay tuned, the final chapter in this complicated tale is not even drafted yet. 2013 will be a watershed year in the life of this legendary company.