As the Hawker 4000 leapt towards the end of the runway at Biggin Hill airport, a book performed an equally muscular leap off a rear-facing seat and sped down the length of the aisle to the rear of the plush passenger compartment.
Turning round from my seat at the front of the big jet, I saw it neatly scooped up by the flight attendant. “I’ve done that before,” she said later.
Sadly the book was not on Newtonian physics. But the two big Pratt & Whitney Canada PW308A turbofans on the rear of the fuselage nevertheless kept action and reaction in mind as they put out 6,900lbs of thrust each, giving the aircraft a lively rate of acceleration despite a maximum gross weight of close to 40,000 lbs.
How that total weight is made up, though, is one of the more interesting aspects of this super-midsize business jet, made by Hawker Beechcraft, the veteran US aircraft maker.
The fuselage is made of a carbon fibre and honeycomb composite. This method of construction is still as much a rarity in business jets as in airliners, despite the fact that using composites instead of the traditionally used aluminium alloy can shave significant amounts of weight from structural components.
The aircraft industry has stuck with metal partly because it is extremely cautious about change. Another reason is that using these – relatively – new and lightweight materials to replace big, load-bearing assemblies requires specialist skills, which most of the aircraft industry has been slow to acquire.
But Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft has led the use of composites since – as just Beechcraft in those days – it launched the Beech Starship in the 1980s.
The twin turboprop, an early attempt at the business aircraft of the future, had many interesting features apart from its mostly composite construction. Not least was being designed by Burt Rutan – who is currently busy building the flying machines that will take the first of Virgin Galactic’s customers to the edge of space.
The earthbound Starship was, not, however, a universal success. In recent years, during the time the aircraft maker was owned by aerospace and defence conglomerate Raytheon, the company started the process of buying back as many of the planes as it could to take them out of service and avoid having to continue to support them.
Despite the difficulty with a composite-construction aircraft, Hawker Beechcraft has built a very tidy level of expertise in a technology that is causing hiccups for much bigger aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus as they incorporate the light and strong materials more fully into their next generation of airliners.
In Hawker Beechcraft’s manufacturing plant at Mid-Continent Airport in Wichita, the advantages of composite construction are easy to see. The 4000’s fuselage is made of just three huge thin-wall cylinders. The shells look wafer-thin but the simplicity of their construction contrasts with their strength – and with the vastly higher parts count of a traditional fuselage built up from aluminium alloy frames and panels.
But despite the advantage of the newer materials, older ones have their place too. The Hawker’s swept wings are made of aluminium alloy, albeit with big, single-piece skins above and below to keep their aerodynamic profile clean.
And the Hawker 4000 may be no starship, but it is more international than many business jets. The wings are made in Japan by Fuji Heavy Industries.
The composites help give its big fuselage, standing high off the ground, a slickly smooth appearance. Inside, the passenger cabin looks like as congenial an environment as it needs to be given that the aircraft can fly from New York to London in one hop.
The stand-up cabin can seat up to 12, although eight passenger seats, which can also be configured into a rather smaller number of beds, are the norm.
And here is where the weight savings of composite construction really step in. Fully fuelled the jet will carry eight passengers and a lot of baggage – not all aircraft in its class can do that.
From a pilot’s point view, the Honeywell Primus Epic avionics suite helped to make up time lost, with functions such as weight and balance calculations immediately available on-screen.
Like on the Dassult Falcon 7X, which I flew last year, inputting to the Hawker 4000’s avionics system is made easier by the aviation equivalent of a mouse by the fuselage wall flanking each of the pilot’s seats.
Also like the long-range, large-cabin Falcon 7X, autothrottles make the pilot’s workload much simpler, seamlessly integrating with the autopilot – and making it easier to make full use of the engines’ power to propel the Hawker 4000 into the air at a rapid rate of knots.
Once airborne, I found the roll rate leisurely and the handling sedate rather than sporty. That is appropriate, though for such a big aircraft – the wingspan is 61 ft 9 ins and nose to tail the aircraft is 69 ft 2 ins long.
The stablity, though, means the aircraft is a pleasure to hand-fly, sitting comfortably where I put it. That handling setup also makes for a more comfortable ride for those sitting in the big seats in the back – which is, after all, the object of the exercise.
Maximum cruise speed is Mach 0.82 (480 kts), with top speed a fraction higher at M0.84. The aircraft’s ceiling is 45,000 ft, which is well out of the way of airline traffic and all but the most towering of storm clouds. The pressurisation system keeps cabin altitude at a maximum of 6,000 ft, and lower when the jet is not at ceiling. This translates, for passengers and crew alike, to less arduous journeys – a key factor considering the Hawker 4000’s maximum range is just under 3,500 nautical miles.
When it is time to return to the ground, landings are softened by trailing link suspension, and both carbon brakes and reverse thrust on the turbofans shorten landing rolls.
At Le Bouget in Paris a group of passengers were getting ready to board the aircraft for a short hop to Moscow. They unwittingly demonstrated another feature of the aircraft by loading box after suitcase after bulky parcel into the rear cargo compartment – which has an almost comical ability to swallow items. Useful load including fuel is about 16,200 lbs. Even with tanks full, and all the equipment on Hawker Beechcraft’s options list on board, there is still more than 1,250 lb of payload left.
The Hawker 4000 has taken a while to come to market. Announced in 1996, first deliveries were originally scheduled for 2001 but slipped to 2008. However, its range and carrying capacity have helped win it customers around the world – the first delivery to a Chinese customer was early this year.
The 4000 I flew is the first to be based in Europe – European certification was won in May this year – and its operator, Hangar 8 of London Oxford Airport, will have it on the charter market this year.
After such long delays to its arrival, the aircraft’s blend of sophisticated systems and large carrying capacity, afforded in part by that composite construction, give it its own niche in the super-midsize class. With a price of about $25m typically equipped, this speedy high-flyer also, as a bonus, undercuts some of its current rivals.
Add in a very healthy turn of speed, though, and the aircraft may be able to make up the ground it lost while it was still on the ground.
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