Rohit Jaggi’s test flights

The Cessna Citation Mustang

The Cessna Citation Mustang’s weight, carrying capacity and equipment make it one of the very light jets, a new low-cost class that has promised to change the face of air transportation. But Kansas-based Cessna Aircraft Company, the largest manufacturer of general aviation aircraft in the world, can afford to take a more relaxed view: “Call it what you will,” says Jack Pelton, Cessna chief executive. “We’re calling it an entry-level jet.”

The Mustang was born, Mr Pelton tells me, out of the availability of sophisticated, integrated all-glass cockpits from avionics manufacturer Garmin, and improvements to the efficiency and price of turbofan engines from Pratt & Whitney Canada.

A preflight check of the Mustang outside Cessna’s hangars at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport provides the first evidence of user-friendliness. The number of safety items to check is probably fewer than for the 172 – the four-seater that is the entry-level aircraft for Cessna’s single-piston-engined range.

Each of the Mustang’s P&WC W615F turbofans has an oil sight gauge at eye-height behind a little panel, a few other levels to check, and a glance at the sturdy landing gear. The aircraft is low – height of the T-tail is just 13ft 5in – so checking the 40ft 7in length, 43ft 2in wingspan airframe is easy.

Inside the 4ft 6in tall cabin, plush leather passenger seats face each other in a club arrangement. The spaciousness is in line with larger Citations – perfectly adequate office space for the three-hour endurance of this aircraft.

Climbing into the cockpit seats is much easier than on most jets: there is actually room to slip your legs between the seat and the pedestal that houses the trim controls, the power levers and the flight management system keyboard.

The turbofans have sophisticated electronic systems to control them, simplifying the pilot’s workload hugely. There are just two power levers, one for each engine, and startup using the onboard battery is not much more difficult than starting a car engine.

While the aircraft is designed and certified for single-pilot operation, there are full controls for a co-pilot. Both places have a 10.4in flat primary display in front of them. The two primary displays each show all the flight and navigation information that would have been displayed on old-style dials, but more clearly.

The single, central 15in multi-function display can show a Global Positioning System map, or an instrument approach. It also shows engine indications, with anything out of the ordinary in red. So fully integrated is the Garmin system that this is also where the pressurisation is set – simply by dialing in the elevation of the destination airfield. The system does the rest.

Cleared to take off, I line up on the runway and push both power levers to the take-off setting. The 1,460lb of thrust from each turbofan quickly pushes us up to take-off speed. We rapidly climb to 20,000ft for the hop south-east to Independence, Kansas, where Cessna manufactures the Mustang along with its piston-engined aircraft. Even going on up to the 41,000 ft certified ceiling would only take 27 minutes in standard conditions.

The Garmin autopilot gives a number of options – a yaw damper, normally engaged soon after take-off, a flight director that puts “command bars” on the primary display to indicate where you need to point the aircraft to fly the flight plan you have entered, and the full three-axis autopilot.

All the way, the Mustang is stable but very biddable. If the speed creeps a knot or two above the 98kt approach speed, a touch of back pressure on the yoke bleeds it off without putting us above the glide slope. And judging the moment to start the flare is remarkably easy – the landing is so smooth that we hardly feel the wheels kissing the tarmac.

The Mustang production line at the Independence plant displays the expertise that Cessna has developed in bonding aluminium alloy. With a healthy order book of more than 260 aircraft, production is set to rise from one a week to two a week by the end of the year, and to three a week by the end of 2008.

Departing Independence for our return to Wichita, we do not use anything near the 3,110ft of runway that the Mustang would need at its 8,645lb maximum takeoff weight. I let the autopilot fly the Mustang so that I can play with the avionics system. There is a weather and terrain radar in the nose, a traffic alerting system that allows me to see other aircraft overlaid on the central map screen, and a satellite link that shows weather and winds across the US. Both for the level of information, and for the ease of accessing it, the Garmin system brings airliner standards of flight information into the bottom rungs of the business class.

Cessna’s entry-level jet is as docile and easy to fly as a humble four-seat piston-engined 172, but with a maximum cruise speed of 340kts (391mph) at 35,000ft it is about 100kts faster than most of its turboprop opposition. Its range, at maximum weight of 1,150 nautical miles (1,323 miles) with generous reserves, gives it long legs too, though with full fuel you could only fill four of the six seats.

An operating cost of about $4 per nautical mile, assuming 400 flying hours a year, makes it more costly than some of its turboprop rivals. But the price tag of $2.6m is keen. Cessna includes a 12-day type-rating course for a pilot, worth $18,500. There are also finance and insurance deals for buyers worldwide.

The Beechcraft King Air B200

The Beechcraft King Air B200 is the most popular model of turboprop aircraft of all time. It sits in the middle of a range of twin-engined aircraft launched in 1964 – since then more than 6,000 King Airs have been produced, and between them they have logged 40m flight hours.

The turboprop aircraft have survived a number of changes in the company that makes them – the latest was in March when the aircraft subsidiary of Raytheon, the US defence company, was sold to Hawker Beechcraft, a company formed by a Goldman Sachs subsidiary and Onex Partners, for $3.3bn.

The sale may be new, but the name harks back to former times. Walter and Olive Ann Beech founded Beech Aircraft Corporation 75 years ago last month in Wichita, Kansas. Beech became a subsidiary of Raytheon in 1980, which in 1993 bought the Hawker corporate jet business from British Aerospace. Last month’s sale completes the circle.

The King Air range, according to Ron Gunnarson, marketing director and an 18-year veteran at Beechcraft, is “one of the backbones of our company”.

The first King Air 200 appeared in 1974, and almost 2,000 have been delivered since then. The latest iteration, the eight-seat B200, was certified in February 1981. According to Mr Gunnarson, “it has a better safety record than any comparable sized jet, and a better dispatch rate”. It can handle grass strips and runways as short as 2,600 ft, and has low operating costs, at $2.65 per nautical mile.

Almost a third of B200 King Airs are owner-flown, which means that handling and ease of use are vital too.

Approaching a B200 at the company’s own Beech Field airport, the aircraft has huge ramp presence. Nearly 44ft long and 15ft tall, with a 54ft 6in wingspan, it looks supremely capable. The 94in propellers hanging off the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-42 turbine engines look as though they take huge chunks of air each time they turn.

The cabin is impressive too. At 16ft 8ins long, 4ft 9ins tall and 4ft 6ins wide, it is big. The circular windows are big, too, and there are a lot of them, so the six passengers in the back have a great view. The toilet at the back of the cabin is fully enclosed, and there is a large baggage area that is accessible in-flight.

There are also 32 tuning forks in the cabin that improve on a troublesome but innovative noise reduction system and bring the average sound level in the cabin to a quiet 79 decibels.

The cockpit is dominated by the three flat screens of the Collins Pro Line 21 fully integrated avionics system. Climbing into the left-hand seat over the input keyboards of the flight management system is awkward, but I manage it with only a slight bump to my head on the roof.

Starting the engines cannot compare for simplicity with that of modern turbofans with digital engine management systems. But the B200 wins back points with checklists that can be called up on the central multi-function display. There is also a reverse thrust position for the throttles that makes taxiing easier – and allows shorter landing distances.

Turned up to maximum forward thrust for takeoff the 850 shaft horsepower from each turbine engine makes the B200 leap
off Beech Field in short order – even at the 12,500lb maximum takeoff weight, the aircraft needs only 2,600ft.

Climb rate is impressive too – nearly 2,500 feet per minute at maximum weight.

As befits an aircraft whose usage shows 78 per cent of time is logged as being on business, the ride is stable – passengers in the back would have no problem having a business summit. At the helm, the B200 feels steady, but responds smoothly and precisely to control inputs. It gives the impression of being a reassuring partner for bad-weather flying.

Cruise speeds can vary between 289kts (333mph) for maximum speed, and 228kts (262mph) for maximum range and almost half the fuel consumption. Range with five on board and generous reserves would be more than 1,300 nautical miles, or easily London to Moscow.

The aircraft’s ceiling is 35,000ft, enabling the aircraft to skip above a large proportion of bad weather.

Handling at the lower end of the speed range and in landing configuration is benign, too, with solid feedback from the controls.

Almost all King Airs are bought by businesses, but a buyer who is also a pilot would have to be very tied up with business matters to not want to fly this aircraft. And while the purchase price of $5.08m might be on the high side compared with some of the small jets coming on to the market, direct operating costs are impressively low.

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