*Note to FP Staff: If this gets shared it's RockBottom who deserves all the credit, it's his words I'm using


RockBottom, who was a Beechcraft-employed aeronautical engineer back in the day, shared some thoughts in a recent conversation. After giving me permission to share his reply (you can see the original here) I've tried to reorganize his response with some better context for those who are not as knowledgeable in Beechcraft's history.

Topshot by John Murphy, used under Creative Commons License

On Alternative Fuels

RockBottom explains the context for the General Aviation search for alternative fuels and why it's been even more problematic than in the auto industry:

Now that I think about it, I was briefly part of an advanced task force to investigate what to do with the piston airplanes once AvGas went away (a real fear at the time was that the US Government would take away our 100LL [note: the standard General Aviation piston-engine fuel, more or less equivalent to 100 octane leaded - hence fears of the fuel no longer being considered compliant with current environmental standards]). At the time it looked like we were going to have to jump on the diesel bandwagon soon. The problem was that there were a few 200-ish horse civil aviation diesels at the time but we needed 300 hp. If I remember, Continental (our engine supplier), Lycoming, Thielert, and a few others were all working on 300 hp diesels but they were years away from cert and I don't know if any of them ever even made it that far. Another problem was that we wanted to run them on Jet A-1, but the cetane level of jet fuel is not controlled. That meant that you might get two different loads of Jet A-1 that perfectly met the Jet A-1 spec, but gave wildly different performance in a diesel-cycle engine. That meant we would have had to do something crazy like include on-board fuel testing equipment to tell you what your diesel engine can do today. If you're trying to take off from Denver or Mexico City and need all the power you can get, you don't want to learn that the fuel you just tanked up on is only good for 250 hp!


On Beechcraft's Downfall


The Hawker 800A, a midsize business jet. Image by Juergen Lehle, used under Creative Commons License

I asked RockBottom about what happened to Beechcraft. With a company legacy stretching back to the Great Depression (when the original Walter Beech teamed up with some other guy named Clyde Cessna to found the Travel Air Company) Beechcraft had a very successful market history with such classics as the Bonanza, Baron and turboprop King Air. After being bought out by Raytheon, fortunes started to slip during the Great Recession and finally turning full-circle when Cessna's parent company Textron purchased the brand.

Basically, from where I sat, the company didn't seem to be in a good position to weather the economic downturn. Cessna, Boeing, Bombardier, Cirrus all got hurt too, but Hawker Beechcraft was hit at exactly the wrong time in it's financial life. We had recently been bought by Goldman Sachs and Onex and was deep in a period of investment. In the early 2000s the company had lots of old products (like the Hawker 9-8-7 line) and needed to update to compete with Lear and Cessna. That meant dumping a TON of cash into the Premier and the 4000, both of which were clean-sheet designs that took a huge pile of money to develop. Remember that once the planes go on sale, it takes years (maybe decades) to recoup that investment. Until then, you owe money to someone. The Premier was starting to turn in good sales numbers, but the 4000 was fraught with production and certification delays that would drive you nuts. Some were the fault of the company, many (in my humble opinion) were due to the stupidity level of the average FAA engineer. If they had never seen something before, they probably wouldn't understand how it worked. It was bad. One of my bosses once said that there were 3 types of engineers in the business: 1) Good numbers guys that could design things right from the start, 2) Hot-rodders that can make an educated guess that's probably gonna work well, and 3) the guys that can't do either one of those so he goes to work for the FAA. Ba-dum-tsss.


Beech Premier "plastic jet." Image by Bill Larkin, used under Creative Commons License

As far as the composite planes, well both the Premier and 4000 were plastic.

I think the "flop" of the 4000 was economic. It was fairly advanced and it had it's teething problems, but they were getting sorted out pretty well. Given a couple more years it would have evolved into a great airplane. I believe the 4000 was the first mass-produced FAA Part-25 aircraft made from composites (not sure if that damned abortion that was the Beech Starship was Part-23 or Part-25) and that brought it under intense scrutiny by the government. When the company finally had to declare bankruptcy, they had to rethink their production capability. They decided to focus on the low-risk King Air and Bonanza/Baron lines and cut the jets all together. Remember, business jets were demonized in the 2000s as extravagant and bourgeois and they became kinda hard to sell for a while. Everyone who could normally afford them went broke, too. I must admit, I wasn't there in the end so some of this is second-hand information at best. I left the company to work at NASA in 2009 and most of what I know about what happened after comes from my friends that stayed on.


Hawker 4000 "big plastic jet." Image by Peter Bakema, used under GNU Free Document License

In the end, I'm super sad the Hawker Beechcraft jets are gone. To me, they offered technology that Cessna and Bombardier were afraid to implement, and in a package that was appealing to air-fans around the world. They were beautiful machines that just looked and felt so much classier than the Citations and Lear Jets they competed against. You should have seen some of the absolutely gorgeous machines we had on the drawing boards! I often thought of them as the Aston Martins of the sky, with Cessna being like Chevy or Toyota (except they cost almost the same). An Aston will never be Camry reliable, but it sure is nice to be seen in!