Gulfstream Aerospace President, MARK BURNS talks about development of its new G500 and G600 business jets, the pre-owned market and the outlook for business jet manufacturing.
Gulfstream President Mark Burns (Gulfstream)
AEROSPACE: You have been in post now since February 2015. What have been your highlights so far?
MB: I have experienced many great moments over those nearly two years. Many of them have to do with our two in-development aircraft, the Gulfstream G500 and G600. I have watched four new flight-test aircraft join the G500 test program, putting that aircraft well on its way to earning type certification from the Federal Aviation Administration later this year.
Along those same lines, we closed 2016 with the first flight of the Gulfstream G600 on 17 December. Seeing that aircraft take off from Savannah was breath-taking, especially since the chase plane was the Gulfstream G500. It was a truly incredible experience to stand side-by-side with our employees and see their excitement. Even though it was a Saturday, we had quite a crowd assembled to watch these two aircraft. It demonstrated the dedication and commitment of our employees that they would come out on a Saturday to watch an aircraft take off.
That brings me to my next highlight: getting to lead such an incredible team of people, many of whom I’ve known for years. Every day, I meet and interact with the brightest minds in business aviation, and it’s just an honor to know I’m part of their team. They have a commitment to Gulfstream and to excellence that is second to none. I feel very fortunate.
Gulfstream G500s and G600s under construction. (Gulfstream)
AEROSPACE: The business aviation industry is still reeling somewhat from the 2008 financial shock. How has Gulfstream weathered the storm?
MB: We haven’t been without challenges, but ultimately, I think we have continued to be a leader in the business aviation industry. There are a number of reasons for that. First and foremost, we have a tremendous partner in our parent company, General Dynamics. They have a long-range plan and stick to it. So, while other companies were pulling back, we were going forward, carrying out two aircraft development and flight-test programs: the Gulfstream G650 and the Gulfstream G280. We were also in the midst of developing the G500 and G600, although those programs were not public at the time. Thanks to General Dynamics, we invest for the long-term, dedicating a consistent flow of resources to researching and developing new aircraft, new technologies and new services that provide value to our customers.
Beyond that, I think we are most disciplined in our production and business practices, especially when it comes to establishing manufacturing rates and aircraft pricing, retaining our customers’ residual value and setting a prudent trade-in policy. And, finally, we’re committed to delivering on our promises, and even exceeding them. The investments we’ve made in our ground-based labs, our employees’ development and our flight-test programme for the G500 and G600 reflect that commitment and have allowed us to move customer deliveries up to 2017 and 2018, respectively.
AEROSPACE: With the industry still sluggish, has the pre-owed segment impacted on sales on new aircraft?
MB: The used aircraft market is very active. We see transactions related to pre-owned aircraft come through our service centres on a daily basis. The value in the pre-owned market is something our customers always consider in today’s market. The products we have, such as the G650, G500 and G600, enable us to compete with new technologies and innovations that aren’t seen in the larger portion of the pre-owned market.
AEROSPACE: A couple of companies are now aiming to bring supersonic flight back and NASA is working on a quiet supersonic X-plane. Are you tempted to revisit Gulfstream’s supersonic research in the area?
MB: Ever since Gulfstream developed the Quiet Spike sonic-boom mitigator in 2006, it has had a small team dedicated to researching sonic-boom mitigation and working with the authorities to remove the ban on flying supersonically over land.
Gulfstream G550. (Gulfstream)
AEROSPACE: As well as VIP and corporate customers, Gulfstream also supplies military and government customers with special mission aircraft. What is the current split between your civil and military sales? Do you see that balance changing as some customers mull replacing larger aircraft (eg JSTARS) with bizjets?
MB: Government and special mission aircraft represent a small, but important, portion of our worldwide fleet. Our Gulfstream G550 is the ideal platform for special missions thanks to its ability to fly at higher altitudes, achieve higher speeds and fly longer ranges. Combine that performance with an unrivalled cabin environment – low cabin altitudes and 100% fresh air – and you have the perfect platform to support a wide range of special mission applications, including medevac; conformal airborne early warning (CAEW); atmospheric research; maritime patrol and surveillance; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (IS&R). In the US alone, Gulfstream aircraft serve the military as well as several government agencies.
AEROSPACE: How do you think new President Trump will affect business aviation? On the one hand he seems to be an enthusiastic user of business aviation – but on the other are you worried that US protectionism could end up damaging key markets – for example China?
MB: We have seen positive economic signs following the US Presidential election, but it is too soon to tell how this will impact our business and the industry over the long-term. We’ll continue to work with advocacy groups, such as GAMA and NBAA, to create awareness around the needs of the business aviation community and to represent the industry on policies that could impact our business. Business aviation needs to be recognised for the high-tech jobs we have and continue to create, which helps our economy.
AEROSPACE: China and the Asia-Pacific are big markets for Gulfstream. What is the reason for your success there – given that it seems that many buyers went direct to large-cabin aircraft, rather than ‘trade-up’ in size?
MB: We made a decision to invest in the China market many years before the China business-aviation market developed. We delivered our first aircraft there in 2003 and we’ve been there ever since, building our presence and investing for the long-term. We were the first original equipment manufacturer to open a service centre in China, Gulfstream Beijing, and it’s doing well. Since it opened in 2012, we’ve serviced more than 600 aircraft there. We have more than 75 people based in Greater China with offices in Beijing and Hong Kong, as well as an Asia Customer Contact Centre with nearly ten people. Ultimately, the investments we’ve made have earned us solid standing with our customers and a 70% share of the large-cabin market. Of course, it goes without saying that the performance, reliability, safety, quality and craftsmanship of our aircraft are at the centre of our success. Our long-range aircraft are ideally suited for customers in China due to their tremendous range and speed, which allow customers to fly from there to Europe, Africa or North America nonstop.
Gulfstream G500. (Gulfstream)
AEROSPACE: Business jets often pioneer some of the latest aviation technology first. What can we see from Gulfstream’s latest aircraft that will end up going mainstream? What percentage of your profits do you invest in R&D?
MB: Over the past decade, thanks to our parent company General Dynamics, Gulfstream has invested significantly in its research efforts, with more than 1,500 engineers and designers working at our Research and Development Centre campus. The campus was established in March 2006 with a single office building and over time has grown to include three office buildings, a dedicated lab facility and the G500 and G600 building, which combines the two and puts our engineers and pilots in the same facility as our ground-based labs. I think some of the innovative technologies we’ve developed in those labs and introduced on the G500 and G600 will work their way into the mainstream. The G500 and G600 will have the first active control sidesticks in business aviation, and it would be wonderful to see that technology, which enhances safety, find its way into the broader aviation community. I believe the continued and consistent investment in our engineering workforce has created an environment of learning. This makes our products better and our company stronger.
AEROSPACE: Can you give us an update on the new G500 and G600 models as they progress through flight test? Are there any special challenges in conducting two near-simultaneous flight test campaigns?
MB: The G500 and G600 are doing extremely well. So well, in fact, that we were able to move up their entry-into-service dates to customers. There are five aircraft flying in the G500 programme, including one with a fully outfitted interior. As of late March, those aircraft had accumulated more than 2,600 hours of flight time. The G600 programme is doing equally well, with two aircraft flying and a third about to be. Since we launched the flight-test programme for the G600 in late December, the aircraft have achieved more than 200 hours of flight time.
Mock-up of interior of G600. (Gulfstream)
AEROSPACE: Gulfstream has made a name for itself in long-range, large-cabin aircraft. How do you see this market evolving in the future? What will customers ask for – even more range, faster onboard connectivity, more safety features?
MB: It’s difficult to know just what customers will ask for next. That’s why we make them part of our design process through our Customer Advisory Board and our Advanced Technology Customer Advisory Team. It was the feedback from those teams that helped us design the Gulfstream G650. Customers told us they wanted to go farther faster, and the G650 was born. We continue to work closely with them to ensure we’re incorporating their feedback into future designs.
AEROSPACE: What do you think makes Gulfstream stand-out from its other business aviation competitors?
MB: I think what differentiates Gulfstream is the commitment of our employees to delivering on our promises. All of our in-production aircraft entered service on time with capabilities that met or exceeded what we promised. The G650, for example, had 1,000nm more range than we promised (6,000nm vs 5,000). With the Gulfstream G550, we delivered the PlaneView flight deck with enhanced vision, an industry first. With the G280, we delivered 200nm more range. It’s important for us to create value for our customers by listening to what they want and ensuring we deliver it. Our people make this happen.
Interior of G550. (Gulfstream)
AEROSPACE: What would you say to those critical of business aviation as ‘rich boys toys’? Should the industry be doing more to change its image and explain its social and economic benefits to media and politicians?
MB: Those critical of business aviation do not understand the benefits of our products and services. It’s proven that companies using business aircraft grow faster and create more jobs. Safety, flexibility, reliability and performance are important whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure. I think we’ve worked hard with industry organisations to inform media and politicians about the strategic benefits of business aviation as well as its important role in the world economy. Gulfstream alone employs some 15,000 people around the world. General aviation as a whole employs more than 1.1 million and makes a total economic contribution of more than $219bn. Business aviation is a cornerstone of our worldwide economy.
AEROSPACE: Following on from that, aviation as a whole is facing a skills crisis and a shortage of young people entering this industry. What is Gulfstream doing to attract the next generation into aerospace and specifically business aviation?
MB: We have a number of programmes in place that we hope will get the next generation of bright young minds interested in aerospace and business aviation. We have a Youth Apprentice program that allows local high-school students to split their time between school and working at Gulfstream to gain real-world experience and hands-on mentoring. Right now, we have apprentices working in 37 different job functions, including quality control, accounting, aircraft maintenance operations and engineering.
We offer dual high school and technical college enrollment, which allows high school students with an interest in technical jobs to take courses at one of Georgia’s technical colleges to earn credits toward both a high-school diploma and a technical college degree.
We also collaborated with local business to launch a program of our own called the Student Leadership Program. In that program, we mentor high-school students, helping them develop life skills, explore available career paths and develop a post-graduation career plan. We started the program in Savannah, Georgia, which is home to our headquarters, and then expanded it to Brunswick, Georgia, and Appleton, Wisconsin.
We also have Job Shadow Programs at our facilities in Westfield, Massachusetts, and Dallas, Texas. Preparing the next-generation workforce is a priority for Gulfstream.
Gulfstream G280. (Gulfstream)
AEROSPACE: We are heading into EBACE in May. What aircraft will Gulfstream be taking there and what will the big message be?
MB: We will have the four-living-area Gulfstream G650ER, the Gulfstream G550 and the Gulfstream G280 on static display. If the testing schedule allows, we may bring a Gulfstream G500. Our focus will be on our flight-test programs, as we systematically march through key test points en route to customer deliveries at the end of 2017 for the G500 and 2018 for the G600.
AEROSPACE: Finally, what do you perceive as the biggest challenge facing business aviation today?
MB: The biggest challenge any business aviation company faces is to develop new products and services that customers need. In my almost 35 years in this industry, I have seen markets move up and down. To ensure success in any market conditions, you must have products and services that are high quality, reliable and innovative. I am confident the G650, G500 and G600 will be successful in today’s market.