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Turbine What saves this King

Beech’s 350/360 thumbs its nose at those glitzy jets

By J. Mac McClellan

Any conversation in a pilots’ lounge includes the question “what are you flying?” When I say it’s that Beechcraft King Air 350 out there, the invariable response is some mixture of nostalgia and envy.

Photography by Mike Fizer.
Zoomed image
Aerial photography of the Textron Beechcraft Special Missions King Air 350ER over the Blackwater National Wildlife Reserve. The 350ER is equipped with engine nacelle fuel tanks that extends its range and a gravel kit for unimproved field operations.Blackwater National Wildlife ReserveFrederick MD USA

It seems every corporate pilot has flown a King Air at some point in their career, and I have yet to meet the jet jockey who doesn’t have fond memories of what is really a newly built antique.

There’s more than nostalgia at work for customers, because the 350/360 matches the delivery numbers of the popular light jet models, many also built by Beechcraft parent Textron Aviation. People spend more than $9 million for a new King Air 360, and the U.S. military takes a steady chunk of the production. The airplane is much more than just hanging on in the marketplace.

King Airs have been around for 60 years, longer than most corporate pilots. And the 350 has been in service for more than 30 years. In 2022 it was renamed the 360 after Beechcraft added electronic control of the pressurization system, and a somewhat limited capability autothrottle system.

But the most important addition to the 360 is, finally, an electrically powered air-conditioning compressor so you can cool the cabin on the ground. The biggest of the King Airs is the last twin turbine of any size that I can think of that lacked the capability to cool the cabin without an engine running. A great leap ahead into the 1980s.

As I sit there seeing a solid 300 knots true airspeed, I have plenty of time to ponder what it is that makes the King Air enduring and endearing. One thing for sure, it’s not the cockpit sound level. It’s noisy and torture without a good noise-canceling headset. But in the cabin our passengers converse with little interference because the big propellers—the source of the racket—are far forward.

Passengers experienced with other corporate airplanes often ask if it matters where they sit. Nope. Any and all eight chairs in the double club are within limits.

For pilots, the cockpit is the place of our childhood imagination. All switches, levers, and stuff to touch and move. For fun we counted the circuit breakers spread across panels on both sides and lost count north of 120. We also counted more than 50 switches, most of them toggles, but there are a few rocker and push button switches tossed in. And there are six large levers to control the Pratt & Whitney PT6 turbines. Being a pilot once meant flipping lots of switches and making fine adjustments to keep everything just right. In the King Air, we still do.

Of course, over its decades in production, the King Air has hosted a huge variety of avionics. For the past dozen years or so the Collins Pro Line Fusion system has been standard. Fusion is an immensely capable system.

Fusion features three huge touchscreen displays with excellent resolution. But the unusual feature of Fusion—and what prompts many pilots to call it “Collins Confusion”—is that you can perform the same interface tasks in multiple ways. You can touch any of the three screens and get a response. You can use the keyboard. You can use a joystick. You can twist a knob. And any of those actions in a variety of sequences control the system. For example, none of the three pilots on our staff command a “direct to” using the exact same actions. There is no right or wrong way, just personal preference. Odd.

Climbing into the pilot seats is a chore, mostly because Beechcraft retained the long center pedestal that was once filled with avionics. Now it’s mostly empty, but you must still stretch one foot far forward while supporting your weight with your arms and hands on the seat or something. But once in the seat, it’s as or more comfortable than in any of the light and medium jets. And the seats have loads of vertical travel so you can change seating height to ease the cramps of sitting in one place.

Beechcraft likes to tout the King Air life at 35,000 feet. The airplane will get there, but it’s not really all that happy at that certified ceiling—kind of sluggish and gives me that feeling of reaching too far. And the cabin altitude threatens 11,000 feet, so only the fittest among us will feel comfortable over a long flight.

The airplane does its best work in the twenties. There it cruises faster than 300 knots, the cabin is below 8,000 feet, and traffic is light because the jets are above and the pistons below. Direct clearances in that mostly empty airspace are routine.

Please don’t read this, FAA, but King Air 350/360 pilots will quickly get bored doing detailed CG calculations. We’ve worked every extreme we can think of, and short of loading 500 pounds of anvils in the aft baggage and magically dropping 100 pounds off my not-svelte frame in the pilot seat, with no passengers in between, we can’t get the airplane out of CG limits. Passengers experienced with other corporate airplanes often ask if it matters where they sit. Nope. Any and all eight chairs in the double club are within limits.

As for useful load, a 200-pounder in each seat is no problem for trips of over two hours. We always fly with two crew but can still put all 3,611 pounds of fuel on and carry six 200-pounders plus bags. I can’t figure out why this is true, but the 350 seems immune to weight in terms of cruise speed. At 15,000 pounds it does 300 knots or a little more, and it’s the same at 12,000 pounds. A mystery.

Dependability is a trait we can all love, and the King Air has it. In 1,600 hours of flying more than four years since the airplane came from the Wichita factory we have canceled exactly one trip. That was for a starter/generator failure. Since identical systems start the wide fleet of light and medium jets, that failure was not unique to the King Air.

The King Air is what we once called a “pilot’s airplane.” That’s because there’s lots a pilot must do.The 350/360 is certified in the commuter category, so you must abide by runway requirements that ensure you can stop if an engine fails before V1 decision speed, or fly with a safe climb gradient if the engine quits at an airspeed faster than V1.

The category also requires a type rating to command, and the rating can be awarded for single pilot operation or for a required SIC. But there is an odd situation for training requirements. Because the 350/360 is certified for single pilot, and is not a turbojet, no annual FAR 61.58 training requirement applies as in jets. The insurance underwriters blow off that legal technicality and demand we train exactly the same as if the King Air were a jet. After three days of classroom and sim sessions we are handed an FAR 61.56 signoff, the same thing we would get after an hour flying with a CFI in a Skyhawk.

Flying the big King Air is a hands-on experience. On takeoff you need to split your concentration between the runway centerline and the engine torque meters because tiny throttle movements can send torque blasting over the limit. The new autothrottle system is of some help, but it is nothing like the jet autothrottles that with one movement set takeoff power with precision.

On climbout you need to get the props back from their 1,700 rpm noisy speed to 1,600—or better yet, 1,500 rpm—to tame the racket and vibration. And that prop movement changes the torque—so more throttle adjustment. Then you reach for the rudder trim knob for the first time in the flight, but there are many more adjustments along the way to touchdown. And to keep the climb going, constant throttle adjustment is needed to use all available power.

The King Air is what we once called a “pilot’s airplane.” That’s because there’s lots a pilot must do. From takeoff to touchdown we humans are vitally involved, and that yields a certain gratification. I believe it is that feeling of really flying hands on in a good performing airplane that carves an eternal spot in pilots’ hearts. That, plus a passenger cabin that matches the light jets for comfort, keeps the airplane in demand. God save this King? Not necessary.

J. Mac McClellan is a corporate pilot with more than 12,000 hours, and a retired aviation magazine editor living in Grand Haven, Michigan.

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