Warplanes: The King


August 13, 2012: The U.S. Army has ordered another four King Air twin-turboprop airplanes. These are used aircraft and will be used for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) missions. Beechcraft King Air 350 (and earlier models) twin engine commercial aircraft have long been used by the military for transport (the C-12 Huron), electronic warfare (RC-12), and ISTAR (MC-12) operations. There are so many King Airs out there that the military often buys used ones because they are so much cheaper.

In the last few years King Airs have also performed, for the U.S. Air Force, like a heavy (Predator or Reaper) UAV (as an MC-12) or an electronic warfare version crammed with vidcams, electronic sensors, jammers, and radios. This aircraft (Ceasar, for Communications Electronic Attack with Surveillance And Reconnaissance) can spend hours circling an Afghan battleground, keeping troops on the ground aware of enemy walkie-talkie and cell phone use, including location of these devices and translations of what is being discussed. The enemy is vaguely aware of what the militarized King Air (MC-12) can do but have no better way to communicate. Thus the few Caesar equipped aircraft sent to Afghanistan have proved very useful for the American and British troops that use them.

Military use of the King Air arose in the United States (where Beechcraft is located) in the early 1970s, when the U.S. Army adopted the King Air as the RC-12 and then used it for a wide variety of intelligence missions ever since.

The King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft. The MC-12 version can stay in the air for up to eight hours per sortie. Not quite what the Predator can do (over 20 hours per sortie) but good enough to help meet the demand. The MC-12 has advantages over UAVs. It can carry over a ton of sensors, several times what a Predator can haul. The MC-12 can fly higher (11 kilometers/35,000 feet) and is faster (over 500 kilometers an hour, versus 215 for the Predator). The MC-12s cost about $20 million each, more than twice what a Predator goes for. The MC-12's crew consists of two pilots and two equipment operators.

Although Beechcraft has manufactured over 6,000 King Air's since the 1970s, the company has run into financial trouble and is seeking a buyer. The leading candidate is a Chinese aircraft company. This has caused some anxiety in the U.S. Department of Defense, which does not want to be buying its King Airs from a Chinese firm. That attitude may change or the Chinese firm may not get Beechcraft in the end.



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