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The Business of Private Jets: How Gulfstream is Leading the Charge for Safety and Innovation in Aviation
Gulfstream Aerospace produces arguably the world’s finest and most recognizable private jet aircraft. Founded in 1958 by a military aircraft manufacturer, the company made the switch to private aircraft with the Gulfstream I propeller aircraft. Since then, flying on or having a Gulfstream aircraft has become a status symbol for the world’s elite, with celebrities, corporations and even the President of the United States having the iconic aircraft in their fleets.
While airline-focused manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus have made great strides in their newest aircraft models in the past decade, Gulfstream has been making strides of its own, pushing the envelope of what its aircraft can do and raising the bar for the aviation industry. In addition to maximizing the range of its largest aircraft, the G650ER, Gulfstream has incorporated highly advanced and intuitive technology in both the cockpits and cabins of its business aircraft.
Since most Gulfstream flights only cater to the most elite travelers, the everyday passenger seldom gets to experience these innovations in action. However, AirlineGeeks was able to get an up close look at what Gulfstream is up to at its headquarters in Savannah, Georgia, adjacent to Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport.
As the leading producer of large-cabin aircraft in the business aviation industry, Gulfstream has always dealt with successful corporations and wealthy individuals both of which expect continuous improvements that drive Gulfstream to push the bounds of what it can do. When asked for planes capable of flying longer routes at faster speeds, Gulfstream responded with the G650/650ER aircraft capable of flying routes over 7,000 nautical miles long at speeds of around Mach .85, and hasn’t stopped there.Its newest aircraft, the G500 and G600, are the new face of Gulfstream, looking more like the G650 than the G550, one of Gulfstream’s best-selling aircraft. With new aircraft come new amenities and selling points, aimed at benefiting both the customers and pilots. When building the new aircraft, the manufacturer was driven by feedback from customers and employees alike.
Unlike Boeing and Airbus, whose customers are mostly airlines, Gulfstream delivers aircraft to the end user, with the company seeing more and more private individuals purchasing the aircraft. When your customer is the primary user, you’re able to solicit suggestions directly from the people who have the most interaction with the aircraft and are uniquely qualified to offer feedback. Gulfstream’s own employees, regardless of position, can also submit suggestions to continuously improve the products and services the company offers customers.
To streamline the feedback process, Gulfstream created the Customer Advisory Board. Consisting of flight attendants, pilots, maintenance technicians and owners, the board meets twice yearly in Savannah to convey its feedback to the company. Such feedback can include improvements large and small, such as the location of the handrail at the main entry door and having it extend all the way down the length of the door.
Although such issues may seem tiny, they add up to provide a better experience all around. Subtle issues are magnified when it’s one’s personal aircraft being used by them exclusively and often, behooving Gulfstream to listen to ideas and make changes accordingly. As opposed to airliners, where the name of the game is capacity over passenger comfort, Gulfstream deals directly with aircraft owners, making their experience its top priority.
To further customer satisfaction with its aircraft, Gulfstream has interior designers around the world who work with customers to create the perfect aircraft, inside and out. The designers forge relationships with the clients, visiting their offices or homes to get a sense of their design preferences. The personal relationship between designer and customer is paramount, as the aircraft is an extension of the client, acting as a home away from home for executive travelers.
Improvements Inside and Out
As previously mentioned, Gulfstream aircraft continue to be the fastest and longest ranged aircraft in the business aviation industry. Its newest aircraft, the G600, can fly transcontinental from Los Angeles to the company’s headquarters in Savannah in 3 hours, according to a company advertisement.
When the G650ER was introduced, the company announced the aircraft would be able to connect New York via White Plains with Beijing, a monumental city-pair for a business jet. Not only can it fly the near-6,000 nautical mile route with a buffer of 1,500 nautical miles at long-range cruise speed, it can fly the route at close to Mach 0.90, without a technical stop along the way. Nearly any city-pair in the world can be flown nonstop on the G650ER.
In the cabins, with some help from the Customer Advisory Board, numerous improvements have been made to enhance the customer experience, with Gulfstream maximizing its use of technology for passenger convenience. At each seat, there are numerous ways to control settings such as light, media and even window shades.
First, on the new G500 and G600 aircraft, each seat has buttons for each setting, as is normal for any aircraft, except that there are two sets of buttons, one set is next to you at the seat and the other is above you. The reason is so flight attendants can adjust settings such as the lights, without disturbing you while you sleep. Gulfstream also retained its famous oval windows, even increasing their size on the G650/G650ER from the G550 for more expansive views.
Second, the cabin environment, as well as entertainment at each seat, can be controlled via an app on a smart device. The app allows one to control all the aircraft’s settings from your smartphone, seamlessly interconnecting with the aircraft’s cabin management system. Additionally, a touchpad in the aircraft’s galley can control all these functions as well, benefiting flight attendants working on these aircraft.
As is the case with newer aircraft, the aircraft also feature unseen amenities that make flying easier. The cabin altitude on the manufacturer’s newest offerings is 4,850 feet while cruising at 51,000 feet, allowing one’s body to feel as if it’s less than a mile off of the ground while actually 10 miles off of the ground. While the Boeing 787 Dreamliner made history by being able to lower its cabin altitude to 6,000 feet, Gulfstream’s aircraft can go more than 1,000 feet lower.
Additional benefits include 100 percent fresh air, better sleep quality and reduced jet-lag effects, all of which are vital on the long flights that the Gulfstreams make, especially since the size of the aircraft cabin allows for sleeping berths. With these environmental amenities, passengers will be able to step off an ultra-long-haul flight ready to hit the ground running thanks to these improvements.
Advancements in the Cockpit
While the passengers are enjoying the technology and improvements in the cabin, the pilots up front are also getting an upgrade of their own that makes their jobs and workloads easier. The new Gulfstream Symmetry Flight Deck, found on the G500 and G600, is revolutionizing the future of flying for pilots, using advanced technology to reduce pilot workload, increase situational awareness and enhance safety.
The Symmetry Flight Deck features 10 touchscreen panels, which replace 70 percent of a traditional aircraft’s buttons and switches. While glass cockpits and touchscreens replacing certain panels are commonly found on new ultra-modern aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, this is a unique application exclusive to Gulfstream.
For each pilot, two screens featuring navigation, communication and other flight management computer (FMC) functions are found at each seat, each with overlapping functionality to be used per pilot preference. The screens are angled to allow for easy operation during all stages of flight instead of typical FMCs that are flat in the center console and are easier to navigate than the traditional FMCs, even for a novice user.
On the overhead panel, you’ll find three touchscreens instead of the typical rows of buttons and switches found on traditional aircraft. On each screen there are numerous pages for certain aircraft systems, each selectable from a single screen, eliminating the pilots’ need to reach high up to that hard to reach button or switch. Around each of the screens are handholds that allow pilots to anchor their hands when making inputs.
The screens aren’t just making a pilot’s job easier, they’re increasing the safety of every flight. Unlike traditional aircraft where buttons don’t talk to each other, these virtual buttons do and they prevent mistakes, such as accidentally turning off a necessary fuel pump. Furthermore, if you accidentally press a button you didn’t want to, all you have to do is keep your finger pressed on the screen and slide it off of the button, similar to an iPhone. Unlike an iPhone, however, the screens require a higher degree of pressure, preventing accidental inputs.
The smart cockpit even makes running through checklists easier, because Gulfstream-introduced phase-of-flight technology automates many of these activities, allowing pilots to focus on what matters. To make going through flows easier and more efficient, the screens will anticipate the pilot’s next step and have those options loaded up in advance to reduce the need for excessive searching. In addition, checklist items for certain stages of flight can be found grouped together for easy access.
While some might say that these advancements reduce safety, as pilots will rely on the automation than actual flying, Gulfstream maintains that this technology increases safety by eliminating the redundant and time-consuming steps required to prepare the aircraft for the various stages of flight, allowing pilots to focus more on flying. Especially since Gulfstream’s newest aircraft, the G600, can travel up to 6,500 nautical miles in a single shot, reducing fatigue is critical to maintaining situational awareness.
Sitting in a simulator of a Symmetry cockpit, I was shown firsthand how the intuitive system estimates the next steps in the checklist, allowing for pilots to complete them faster without having to exert themselves unnecessarily while doing so. While the time it takes from pre-flight to takeoff take upwards of 30 minutes, the manufacturer estimates it can be completed in around 10 minutes with the advances introduced on the Symmetry Flight Deck.
Additionally, I was able to play around with the various flight computers in the cockpit and found it easy to navigate even without experience with the system. If its easy enough that a novice with a basic understanding of flight computers can easily understand, a skilled pilot with a type rating under his belt will be able to conquer the system with ease.
Increasing Ergonomics and Situational Awareness
Making a cockpit more efficient, however, isn’t just a matter of throwing in new technology and high-resolution screens. When designing the new cockpit, Gulfstream’s chief pilot hand designed the sidestick control using a lump of clay to optimize pilot comfort when using it. Gulfstream still has the original clay sidestick on display in a glass case in Savannah.
Instead of a straight, vertical sidestick, the controller is angled and ergonomically positioned to match a handheld grip. There’s also an elbow rest to allow for pilots to prop their arms while using the sidestick controls. While it may seem that these features only make the pilots more comfortable, they drastically increase the safety of the flight by ensuring pilots are able to control the aircraft as easily and comfortably as possible while reducing unnecessary fatigue.
The sidesticks, manufactured by BAE, are in an active configuration instead of passive, the difference being that when active, both sidesticks move when a pilot or the autopilot makes an input similar to the mechanical controls found on trainer aircraft. The idea behind an active configuration is to allow for the non-flying pilot to know what inputs are being made by the pilot flying, increasing situational awareness and preventing conflicting control inputs.
Airbus aircraft have passive sidestick configurations, so the opposite pilot does not know what his counterpart is doing, as seen in the Air France flight 447 accident over the Atlantic. Although Airbus aircraft do have a feature called “sidestick priority,” where one sidestick is dominant, it doesn’t increase situational awareness or show inputs being made by the pilot flying, rather it just enables one pilot to take over when necessary.
Sidestick controls have their benefits over the traditional yoke, including more space for the pilots during times when the autopilot is flying the aircraft. As any Airbus pilot will tell you, the free space is great for eating during flight, since those aircraft come equipped with tray tables that extend from below the display screens. The G500 and G600 aircraft have this same feature.
Additionally, the new Gulfstream aircraft operate on a fly-by-wire system, designed to further protect the aircraft from extreme situations. The system, found on all Airbus aircraft and newer Boeing aircraft, also makes flying easier as it predicts what the pilot wants to do and performs the desired action. If a pilot starts to bank the aircraft, the system will maintain that bank until told to do otherwise.
A major advantage of the system is that it reduces the need for extra control inputs and can prevent dangerous scenarios such as a stall. Flying the simulator, I was physically unable to stall the aircraft, despite a fullback pull of the sidestick. Stalls can occur in aircraft with fly-by-wire systems, as seen with Air France 447, but only in scenarios where another part of the aircraft fails or is providing false information.
The onboard computer systems that control the cockpit systems features numerous redundancies to prevent failure. The data concentration network, produced by General Electric, operates with eight redundant pairs with each one operating on a different system from its counterpart in case there’s a glitch in a specific operating system. If there’s a problem with one pair, the next pair is called up to take over.
Inside one of Gulfstream’s cavernous facilities in Savannah, you’ll find a deconstructed model of these aircraft with their computers laid out as they would be on the aircraft, as well as a model of the cabin complete with furnishings and working features. Here, Gulfstream’s technicians are constantly working to improve the aircraft and ensure its systems are capable for flight.
Almost every modern aircraft feature one aspect of this system, but the Gulfstream Symmetry Flight Deck found on its new G500 and G600 incorporate all these aspects to improve the flying experience for pilots and passengers alike as well as the overall safety of the flight. Passengers on these elegantly executed Gulfstream jets can rest assured that they’ll be getting to farther destinations quicker with more attentive, aware and relaxed pilots getting them there.
Pushing the Envelope
These aircraft are made and produced at Gulfstream’s main facility on the grounds of Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport, where the manufacturer has buildings surrounding the airport, and its newest jet, the G600, can be found undertaking its test flights. Over 10,000 people work here, helping design and build the American-made aircraft, with Gulfstream also employing thousands around the world to outfit, maintain and support these aircraft.
Although the average traveler can’t simply book a flight on these newest aircraft, Gulfstream continues to push the boundaries of the aviation industry, bringing it to new heights with every new aircraft produced.
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