The Aluminum Anniversary
Little changes can make a big difference. Just ask the design team behind the award-winning Gulfstream G550. Originally launched as a flight deck redesign for the GV, the effort blossomed into a near total aircraft overhaul, prompting a series of design changes that ultimately made the whole better than the sum of its parts.
“We took a really good product—the Gulfstream V—and made it even better,” says Mike Mena, GV program manager at the time. But it wasn’t as easy as Mena makes it sound.
The original plan, launched in mid-1998, called for incorporating PlaneView, a newly designed flight deck, on the existing GV airframe. That effort alone posed some pretty big hurdles. After all, PlaneView was the first use of integrated modular avionics in civil aviation.
While Mena and his team, which included supplier Honeywell Aerospace, were polishing PlaneView, the Gulfstream Sales group stepped forward with a design requirement of its own: an aircraft with the added range to fly between New York and Tokyo. That meant trying to squeeze an additional 250 nautical miles/463 kilometers out of the GV’s already extensive 6,500-nm/12,038-km range.
And with that, a new aircraft program was born: the Gulfstream G550.
“You have to understand, this was late in the development program,” says Andy Slater, who was senior manager of Flight Sciences at the time. “So it became clear that we couldn’t look at one big solution to get that range increase. We had to look at a lot of little ones.”
With dramatic design alterations off the table, no change was too small to be considered. The team committed to achieving the range increase seemingly one nautical mile at a time.
To determine what they’d change, Slater and his group did a flow visualization exercise on an existing GV. They then assembled a spreadsheet: possible design changes went in one column, the resultant range increase in another and the change’s level of complexity in a third.
“You have to balance all of it,” says Tim Farley, who was the project engineer on the program. “You have to look at what you can change, what effect you’ll get and what the impact will be. Then you need to consider what’s feasible, what gives you the best chance of getting that range, what the cost is and what the timing will be.”
In the end, the team changed the wing’s trailing edge contours, reconfigured the vortex generators, installed a more aerodynamic fairing on the ADF antenna, improved the seals, streamlined the auxiliary power unit exhaust fairing, made minor engine improvements and replaced the GV’s outflow valve with a thrust recovery outflow valve, among other things.
In the decade since the G550 entered service, the aircraft has set world records, won awards and made history.
The sum of those changes helped the team eke out the additional 250 nautical miles of range. “Individually, each element had a small impact on reducing drag, which affects the distance the aircraft can travel,” Slater says. “But when you add them all up, they turn into a bigger, more powerful number.”
More powerful, indeed. In the decade since the G550 entered service, the aircraft has set world records, won awards and made history.
The G550’s ability to fly 6,750 nm/12,501 km at Mach 0.80 has helped it set more than 50 city-pair records. Its safety features, including the first use of enhanced and synthetic vision on a business jet, earned the design team the 2003 Robert J. Collier Trophy for “leading edge achievement in designing, testing and building an innovative aircraft while incorporating measurable safety enhancements and far-reaching advances in aerospace technology.”
For 10 years, the G550—which started as a flight deck upgrade and became a business aviation behemoth in its own right—has stood at the helm of the Gulfstream fleet, serving as a leader among the company’s stars.
“To be responsible for the company flagship was wonderful,” says Mena. “I can tell you, that aircraft is just really good. I’ve been a program manager before. The G550 was the pinnacle for me.”
With more than 400 G550 aircraft in service around the world and the fleet approaching one million flight hours, the G550 continues to be a highlight for Gulfstream and its customers. As the company celebrates the airframe’s 10th anniversary, it’s interesting to note that in the sphere of Western wedding traditions, the 10th anniversary is known as the aluminum anniversary—the very element that gives the G550 its shape. And like any good marriage, Gulfstream remains committed to the G550 for as long as they grace the skies.
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