Flying|August 2021

As I stood on the Textron Aviation ramp in Wichita, Kansas, for my first look at the company’s new turboprop flagship, the King Air 360, I slipped back in time to a different era and form of transportation: cars (muscle cars as they called them). My pal Lennie had just bought a brand-new, fire-engine-red Chevrolet Chevelle and, to my amazement, spent his first weekend with it stripping off many of the stock parts, mostly the ones no one could see.

He changed out the wheels, lowered the front end, added a growly exhaust, and yanked the automatic transmission in favor of a four-speed stick. The 1960s marketplace offered a plethora of options to add horsepower and torque, while owners maintained the stock look of the original machine as much as possible. The auto-parts store we visited in Chicago one Saturday was as vast as a Walmart today. Noticing my obvious awe at the incredible collection of mods for any kind of car, a salesman told me, “Kid, they only build this stuff for machines that have withstood the test of time.”

Back to the present in Wichita, I realized the King Air—a muscle airplane of sorts—has certainly stood the test of time, nearly 60 years since the first model 90 took to the air. With more than 7,000 King Airs having rolled off the Beechcraft production line since 1964, King Air magazine labeled it the most modified business airplane in history. Companies including Raisbeck Engineering, Garmin, BLR Aerospace and Blackhawk Aerospace wouldn’t have wasted time and money designing retrofit options for King Airs if they didn’t see a market— and they were right.

King Airs emerged from a rich Beechcraft heritage dating back more than 80 years. In the late 1930s, the Beech 18—of which 9,000 were built—became the guide for rugged, do-practically-anything airplanes. Those were followed by nearly 1,000 Twin Bonanzas, and then Queen Airs in the early 1960s. Because all King Airs share some version of the NACA 23000-series wing, they all owe part of their success to the Bonanza, where that airfoil’s use began. In fact, every Beechcraft product features a scaled or modified version of that 23000 airfoils. Over the years, the world eagerly purchased first the model 90, then the 100, then the 200, 250 and 260, and on to the 300 series that included the 350, 350i and now the new 360. This latest King Air was announced in August 2020 at block point change 1234 on the production line with deliveries beginning in November 2020.

On the ramp, most King Air 350 pilots probably won’t be able to distinguish a new 360 from a previous model from the outside. When I climbed on board, my eyes were drawn to the myriad ancient toggle switches and pop-out circuit breakers that have defined King Air cockpits for decades. Alex Hunt, a Textron Aviation technical marketing advisor and sales engineer on the 360, told me that in order to update any of that analog-era circuitry I’d noticed, Textron would have needed to reopen the original aircraft-certification documents with the FAA. Think big dollars for minimal return. He said, “We were very focused on reducing the pilot workload while improving passenger comfort.” That translated into “ improve it where we could and not fix what wasn’t broken.”

That makes discovering how the 360 differs from the 350 a visual challenge. “We didn’t make any performance changes to the airplane,” Hunt said. “The powerplants are the same 1,050 shp P&W Canada’s PT6A-60As from the 350 and the same four-blade Hartzell aluminum props. With dual main landing gear, the 360 is still at home with rugged off-field landings.” In a pinch, the airplane can support its entire weight and operate on just one tire per gear. There’s also a Kevlar belly-plate option to cope with gravel runways, as well as a heavier version that comes with the landing gear from the Beech 1900 and tundra tires if needed.

The 360 retained the King Air’s elongated, oval-shaped fuselage, but the 360 added passive cabin-noise reduction versus the 350i’s active system. The 360 comes standard with 85 tuned absorbers working behind the scenes, sucking in all that annoying noise energy. The airplane also includes 11 seats: two in the cockpit, eight in the cabin and one belted potty seat. Some special-mission 360 models can seat up to 15. With a 1,550-pound useful load, flight-planning a King Air 360 is pretty simple. Fill the fuel tanks and all the seats, and with a 3,300-foot balanced-field-length runway nearby, trips of 1,500 nautical miles are a snap. How many twin-engine airplanes can handle that?

Jared Jacobs, the Textron Aviation operations pilot I flew with, told me during the preflight: “About two-thirds of the wing is flat for lower approach speeds. The aileron is about the other third of the wing that leads to some really nice handling characteristics. That NACA wing has great low-speed handling characteristics and good mid- to high-speed handling characteristics. We typically cross the threshold at about 100 knots. It also has a very good ice-carrying capacity because it was designed to [accumulate] less ice.

“The 360’s fuel system is pretty simple,” Jacobs continued, “[with] two mains in the outboard wing that gravity-feed the two auxiliaries inboard. Nothing tricky about moving fuel around. The engine nacelles each hold 300 pounds of baggage while the rear fuselage compartment next to the potty can carry up to 550 additional pounds. The wings and tail use pneumatic deicing. The props, the engine inlets, the windshield, the pilots and the fuel vents are all heated too.” He mentioned the T-tail has more than one advantage: “The 350/360’s [tail] helped create a wide CG envelope, so you’re pretty hardpressed to create any CG issues when loading. There’s no need to tell passengers to sit in one seat or the other.”

The King Air was always designed to be flown by a single pilot, and most customers operate it that way. Upfront, the Collins Aerospace Fusion avionics support that goal by bringing the Collins team’s airline experience to the flight deck, with three 14-inch touchscreens that include synthetic vision, TCAS II, dual FMSs and optional dual GPSs. The touchscreens allow the pilot to drag icons all over for graphical solutions, such as updating flight plans and diverting around any weather highlighted with the new multiscan weather radar.

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