Settled into the left seat at our final cruise altitude of 26,000 feet, we were showing a true airspeed of 304 knots and burning about 700 pounds of jet-A per hour. As the lush rolling landscape of central Pennsylvania slid by far below, a nagging question had entered my mind. What is it about the Beechcraft King Air family of twin turboprops, I asked myself, that keeps these airplanes rolling out of the factory in Wichita, Kansas, more than 53 years after the first one emerged? I always thought I knew the answer to that question, but there in the confines of the King Air 250’s cockpit a quiet crisis of confidence was beginning to bubble up in my mind. Who, precisely, should be buying this airplane anyway? I wondered.
Beech conceived of the original King Air 90 in the turbulent period in history that coincided with the JFK assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the dawn of Beatlemania. The models that followed in the ensuing years — the King Air 100, 200 and 300 series — constitute the best-selling business-aircraft family in aviation history, with well over 7,000 produced and delivered. Still, I asked, how can a decades-old design like the King Air possibly continue to keep pace with the latest business aircraft making their debuts in the era of Uber and Usher?
The T-tail Super King Air 200, introduced in 1973 and superseded by the upgraded versions that followed, including the King Air 250 that emerged in 2010, holds its own special place of distinction as the most successful business-airplane model bar none, with more than 2,400 in service across the globe. Clearly, people have always had their reasons for buying this airplane. Still, I couldn’t quite get over the sticker price. At $6 million, a new King Air 250 sells for a million dollars more than a HondaJet, 2 million more than a TBM 910 and 4 million more than a Cirrus Vision Jet.
Perhaps these comparisons are unfair, I admitted, because none of these competing airplanes can do everything a King Air 250 can. Undeniably, however, the truest rival of a new King Air 250 is a used King Air 200, which you can find on the open market for under a million dollars, upgrade to your heart’s content and still end up nowhere near the price of a new King Air 250.
It took me a while to have an epiphany about why the King Air 250 remains relevant, but I finally did. A new King Air 250, I decided, can indeed offer clear advantages over a used King Air. Come along on a tour of the latest iteration of this timeless airplane and see if you don’t agree.
Why the King Air Still Matters
Over the years, Beechcraft (now part of Textron Aviation) has made more than 2,000 improvements to the original King Air 200, some major, others minor. One of the most important refinements is an engine swap that gives the King Air 250 more speed and better climb rates. The latest Pratt & Whitney PT6A-52 engines in the King Air 250 (first introduced to the King Air 200GT) deliver the same flat-rated shaft horsepower as the PT6A-42 in the previous Model 200, but the newer engine can produce maximum power all the way up into the high 20s, where cruise speed can be 30 knots or more faster, and climb rates several hundreds of feet higher.
To achieve this improvement at high altitude, Pratt & Whitney took the gas generator section of the PT6A-60A that powers the bigger King Air 350 with a 1,050 shp rating and mated it to the gear-box section of the -42 engine. The resulting PT6A-52 engine is still limited — or flat rated — to 850 shp at the propeller, but the engine has the thermodynamic ability to produce well over 1,000 shp.
Speaking of the propellers, another key improvement in the King Air 250 is the incorporation of a pair of Hartzell 93-inch nickel-steel-tipped composite props, which weigh 25 pounds less per side than the old aluminum propellers and provide an additional 3 inches of ground clearance. Best of all, time before overhaul is 4,000 hours or six years, and the blades aren’t life limited as is the case with the aluminum propellers. The Hartzell propellers also provide greater thrust for improved takeoff performance, and reduced time to climb and less noise.