Air Transportation: Why The King Air Is King


March 21, 2014: It’s no surprise that the American C-130 four engine turboprop aircraft is the most widely military transport in the world. There are nearly a thousand of these aircraft in military service. But ask about the second most common air transport and you find it is the King Air twin-turboprop aircraft, with nearly 300 in military service. It’s not surprising that most people think of the King Air as a civilian aircraft because most of the 6,000 built since the 1960s have been for commercial not military use. Yet over the decades more than a thousand King Airs have been bought, often second-hand by the military because the price was right and the King Air could get the job done.

The U.S. military is still ordering King Air. These days most are for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) missions. Beechcraft King Air 350 (and earlier models) models 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 and still get the job done.

In the last few years King Airs have also performed (as the MC-12), for the U.S. Air Force like a heavy (Predator or Reaper) UAV 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 this militarized King Air 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 manufacturer 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 current King Air 350 is a 5.6 ton, twin engine aircraft that evolved from the first King Airs that showed up in the 1960s as a 5.3 ton aircraft that could carry 13 passengers. In the 1960s a much improved 5.6 ton version called, until the 1990s, the Super King Air was introduced. The Super King Air is simply a slightly larger and more capable version of the original King Air.

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 1960s, the company has run into financial trouble and was seeking a buyer in 2013. The leading candidate was a Chinese aircraft company. This 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 resulted in U.S. Defense manufacturer Textron buying Beechcraft at the end of 2013. Beechcraft has been around for 81 years and for the first 48 years it was owned by the Beech family (which created the firm in 1932). After that it had a succession of corporate owners. While company fortunes had their ups and downs, the King Air has been selling briskly for 50 of those 81 years and playing a large role in keeping Beechcraft in business.

The military and civilian users both admired the simplicity and sturdiness of the design. The only other civilian aircraft on the top ten list of military transports is the single engine Cessna 208. Beechcraft and Cessna are now combined into the same light aircraft division of Textron and individual models like the King Air and Cessna 208 will continue to be built and sold under the same names.

Actually, most military transports are modifications of civil aircraft or what was originally designed as a military transport goes on to be sold as a civilian version. Many C-130s serve as commercial transports. The Russian An-24/26/30/32 line was designed as a military transport but most ended up as commercial aircraft.

The United States has the largest military transport fleet, with 25 percent of the world total. Russia is second with 8 percent followed by India and China (5 percent each) and a whole lot of other countries (Brazil, France, Iran, Turkey, Germany, Thailand and so on) with 1, 2 or 3 percent. By tonnage lift (that is, larger aircraft) the U.S. has over half the world total.





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