I’m comfortably installed in the highest-tech cockpit I’ve ever sat in, with no fewer than 11 screens and touchscreens displaying a prodigious amount of data. Lined up on the runway of Hilton Head airport in Savannah, Georgia, I can read out exactly how much more tarmac is available than is required by this aircraft, as well as all the information I could possibly need about its state and that of the skies I’m shortly to hurl us into. The tower clears us for take-off; I push the throttles far forward and let the engines and electronics dish out 13,738kg of thrust – the kind of power that can get us to 41,000ft in 15 minutes and all the way to the other side of the American continent in three hours and 30 minutes.
This is the $46.5m Gulfstream G500. At 27.8m long, with a span across its rakishly swept wings of 26.3m, the G500 and its near-identical sibling, the G600 ($57.9m) – which is just about to enter service – are part of a new breed of private jets that are extremely fast and long-range, boasting equipment of unprecedented sophistication and providing their passengers with both ultrafast broadband to keep them in touch in the air and ultra-low cabin altitudes to make sure they are fit for action when they land.
For some time, Gulfstream’s – and private aviation’s – flag-bearer has been the super-long-range G650 (it even earned an aspirational namecheck in a hip-hop chart-topper, Like a G6), which entered service in 2012 and is currently priced at more than $69.5m. The plane introduced an unfussy interior design, reflecting a European aesthetic that was a crisp counterpoint to the browns and golds of traditional American private aircraft. Alongside its enormous, 7,000 nautical-mile range (nearly 13,000km) at 0.85 of the speed of sound – or about 900kph at altitude – it broke further new ground among private jets with its fly-by-wire controls and cutting-edge avionics.
The G500, which was announced in 2014 and entered service towards the end of last year, takes those strands of development even further – as does the G600, its longer-range but otherwise very similar sister model that was due for certification by aviation regulators around the middle of this year. At the heart of the aircraft are those impressive cabin interiors. Some owners will be pilots, but even among them the number who will turn left when they board and head for the cockpit to take the controls is likely to be small; so the passenger experience, from material to amenities, is paramount. Before I flew it myself, I rode in the back, where the design continues the relatively spare ethic of the G650. At 12.65m long by 2.3m wide, the cabin pretty well matches the standards set by French‑manufacturer Dassault with its range-topping Falcon 8X jet. It’s pleasingly airy, with a full 14 windows. And they are big: ensconced in what is usually the owner’s seat – facing forward, front‑right of the passenger cabin – I have excellent panoramic views out of a window at my right elbow that, compared with most other jets, is so large I almost feel like I could fall out. The G500 is highly customisable: seats can be specified for up to 19, converting into beds for eight. The galley can be positioned at the front, by the entrance door, or at the back. A display on the monitor in the cabin provides details of landmarks and buildings we are flying over, and it’s entertaining to try to spot them through the scattered white clouds.
In terms of performance, too, the G500 is a marked improvement on the G450, the machine in Gulfstream’s range it replaces. Using two Pratt & Whitney Canada turbofans, the 5,200m-range G500 is 30 knots faster and can fly 18 per cent further burning the same amount of fuel. At its top speed, in fact, it’s as fast as any current private jet. The ultra-speedy but discontinued Cessna Citation X+ can manage Mach 0.925. It can carry sufficient fuel to maintain 90 per cent of the speed of sound for long distances, such as London to Washington. And at its slower, more fuel-efficient long-range cruise speed of M 0.85 – which at over 280m per second is hardly snail-like – it will reach Los Angeles from London. That is considerably faster than commercial aircraft: depending on the wind, the G500 can fly from London’s Farnborough to Washington DC’s Dulles International in a little over six hours (compared with an eight-hour 30-minute commercial flight); and the journey from Farnborough to Los Angeles can be as short as nine hours 45 minutes (versus Heathrow-to-LAX airline hauls, which can take upwards of 11 hours 30 minutes).
And not only is on-board time cut, but an efficient pressurisation system delivers a cabin altitude of less than 5,000ft, with the air replaced every two minutes, at the G500’s ceiling of 51,000ft – far above the weather and airline traffic. With the maximum endurance of the G500 not far off 11 hours, that makes a real difference; fatigue for passengers and pilots alike is drastically reduced.
As the market for large-cabin, long-range jets has been the only serious growth area for private-jet sales for some while, all the manufacturers have been honing their offerings – which means the G500 has to be pretty sharp to stand out. Gulfstream has built in a number of ways to make turnarounds quicker and less reliant on specialist equipment. Servicing points for fuel, oxygen, water and waste are spread around the exterior, making it easier for different crews to work simultaneously; reservoirs for replenishing oil and hydraulic fluid in the tail are easily accessible without lifts or ladders.
Then there is flying the G500, which is a true joy. Its active sidesticks are a first in a civil aircraft, giving the feel of directly connected controls. The level of force-feedback is metered so finely as to leave me in no doubt about what the aircraft is doing, but the fly-by-wire technology gives a number of layers of protection against mishandling, and it’s much easier than with conventional controls to set it in a stable configuration, which helps with both efficiency and passenger comfort.
Touchscreens are another smart move. A two-step touch-and-release is required to minimise input errors in turbulence, which works well. And the G500’s screens are all upgradeable with mere software changes – a welcome evolution from past versions, when equipment upgrades required switching out hardware, adding hugely to cost and downtime. The increased automation also means the time taken to shut down and to start up the plane is minimised. A standard heads-up display, incorporating an enhanced-vision system, gives me the most important information in my line of sight as I concentrate on bringing 30 or so tonnes of airplane back to a specific point on the earth. Coming in to land, I ignore the size of the aircraft and, immediately before touchdown, apply mere pressure to the sidestick with my fingers. That is enough to slow the rate of descent so we transition gracefully from flying to rolling along the runway.
Those pilots who turn right most of the time may be missing out, I find myself thinking. The views through the passenger cabin’s enormous windows of cloud tops and the ground far below are impressive. But the one from the cockpit, of a world of which so much is within reach with the barest pressure of one’s hand on the controls, is better.