Flying the G550
Crew issues at the front end of most airplanes tend to sound the same … how roomy is the cabin, how comfy are the seats and what’s the noise level like on a long trip. Pilots also wonder how complex the avionics systems are and how difficult is it to understand each new piece of gear. On my flight in early June, I was lucky to have two experienced Gulfstream captains, Bob McKenney and Marilyn Whicker with to keep me from getting into too much trouble. Bob occupied the right seat while Marilyn acted as safety pilot from the jump seat. Climbing into the 550’s left seat is pretty easy as long as you make sure to remember the brake handle sticking up from the lower pedestal lying in wait for new pilots. If I had any criticism of the cockpit layout, it’s simply how high the pilots must tilt their heads back to find something on the overhead panel although I later realized this is a minor concern. Once the aircraft leaves the ramp, the pilot almost never looks up that high on the panel again.
Once the engines were running and stabilised, we taxied out to runway 28 at SAV where at our reduced weight of about 70,000 pounds on a warm Georgia day, the book said we’d need about 3,780 feet for a flaps 20 takeoff. Conveniently, all the 550’s fuel sits in the wings. That means no real fuel management issues to worry about. Bob McKenney told me the G550 also feels right at home in places like Toluca Mexico, where the 8,500-foot field elevation on a summer day often creates density altitude issues that scare away many other airplanes.
Ground taxiing requires very little additional thrust once the aircraft is moving and the brakes were kind enough to prevent a newcomer from jerking the aircraft in the turns despite never having flown a Gulfstream product. The tiller’s great for tight manoeuvring on the ground, but steering through the rudders after that works just fine. Taxiing efforts are made easier with a number of optional cameras, two of which are located under belly that double as both a positive gear-down check, as well as a good way to be sure the aircraft is on the centreline of a narrow taxiway. The third camera at the top of the vertical stabiliser points forward for a panoramic view of each flight.
The 550 comes standard with a Heads Up Display (HUD) that serves as a focal point in front of the pilot’s eyes to integrate nearly a dozen critical flight parameters voiding the need for the pilot to focus back inside the cockpit and down the various readings on the 14-inch displays. Even the EVS information can be displayed on the HUD.
For the first takeoff, I simply turned onto the centreline and advanced the thrust about a third of the way as my thumb engaged the auto throttles that took it from there. I simply steered as the relatively light aircraft quickly accelerated. We left the ground headed west out of SAV with my plan being to hand-fly the G550 as long as Bob would let me. The VSI was pegged at 6,000 fpm confirming that the G550 wasn’t even working up a sweat. With the aircraft in trim, I was able to easily take my hand off the control wheel. The Gulfstream remained rock steady at the pitch attitude I’d left it, almost as if I were controlling a fly-by-wire airplane without using trim at all.
With a ton of convective activity north and west of SAV, Atlanta Center was all too eager to let us keep climbing and in just under 20 minutes, we levelled at FL410 where I did engage the autopilot for a few minutes to look around the cockpit a bit more. The visibility toward the pointy end of the 550 is impressive. We were still accelerating when I pulled off my noise-cancelling headphones for a sound check. Bob and Marilyn both told me they often operate up high where the wind resistance and hence the noise is low without headphones.
I tried that for about 10 minutes and found it quite comfortable, even when I walked back in the cabin where I realised a conversation with someone a row away was pretty easy.
It was time to go higher as Bob requested FL490 for some air work. I again punched off the autopilot as the power came up and we began the climb. As we levelled at 49,000 feet, I left the power where it was as the aircraft slowly accelerated to about M0.82. There was still plenty of momentum in the 550 at this point although the rate through the last few thousand feet was hovering just under 1,000 FPM.
Once level, Bob suggested I try some turns … steep turns. I rolled into a few 45 degree banks both left and right and by comparison, the airplane didn’t handle any differently up here in the thin air than when I tried those same moves down low a little later. Even a few 60-degree banks didn’t seem to phase the airplane.
I asked Bob why the 550 seemed so incredibly agile at FL490. “Because this aircraft has so much power and uses such an incredible wing, its as good at high altitudes as it is at low,” he said. “Often you’ll have aircraft that are excellent at high altitude, but require extra lift devices. The 550 uses such a simple clean wing that we can make 45-degree banks at high altitude without losing lift. And we’ll still be at 115 knots on final.” That was easy, even when I slowed the aircraft and tried the same manoeuvres again.
There’s one additional Gulfstream feature that removes one emergency worry for the crew, as well as the people in the cabin. McKenney said, “If the cabin should ever rise above 8,000 when the autopilot is engaged (as in a slow cabin depressurization), the G550 will automatically descend to a safe altitude on its own. The auto throttles will engage if they’re off, the aircraft rolls into a 45-degree bank, squawks 7700 and turns 90 off heading as it starts down at Mmo, only levelling out once it reaches 15,000 feet.”
On the way back to SAV, I finally began adding in some of the automation to let the brain inside the Gulfstream try and impress me with what it could do. What I enjoyed most about the hand-flying training with the 550 though, especially up high, was that I now possessed a feel, perhaps comfort is the better word, for what the aircraft could and would do in more demanding flight regimes.
Bob asked for and received a clearance to descend as we headed toward the “Mayar” fix for the ILS runway 10 where the weather was a partial overcast at 2,000 feet and light winds. When Savannah Approach turned us further south to join the localiser, I decided to let the electronics fly and armed the approach to see what kind of landing I could make by taking over at 200 feet above the ground.
Capt. McKenney was a good first officer since I didn’t have all the speeds committed to memory. Despite progressively slowing, we remained at nearly 180 knots, only reducing speed about a mile outside the marker, just so I could watch. The Honeywell PlaneView system and the auto throttles were smooth during the speed reduction, even as we added flaps 39 degrees with the gear down. With a ref speed of about 122 knots, I heard minimums and punched off the autopilot to see what I’d recalled from Bob’s earlier briefing. The G550 likes just the barest amount of flare. Even thinking you’re going to round out almost guarantees you’ll balloon. I managed a firm arrival and smiled as I taxied back to Gulfstream’s demo ramp. A few of my later landings weren’t quite as nice though.