Another composite aircraft - Raytheon Aircraft's new business jet

‘Stealth’ commercial planes on the horizon?

June 19, 2001 Posted: 1:41 PM EDT (1741 GMT)

Raytheon Aircraft’s new business jet, the Premier, is 30 percent lighter than aluminum

By Rick Lockridge

CNN Technology Correspondent

WICHITA, Kansas – The jets that you fly in tomorrow might be made of the same stuff some tennis racquets and golf clubs are made of today. That is, if a huge gamble by a Wichita airplane maker pays off.

You won’t find Rosie the Riveter on the assembly line for Raytheon Aircraft’s new business jet. The Premier has a molded carbon-fiber fuselage, 30 percent lighter than aluminum and 100 percent rivet-free.

A similar structure made of an aluminum process would require thousands of parts, said Raytheon’s Richard Danforth.

“Lots of parts. Lots of manpower. Lots of variability. There is no variability in this fuselage,” he said.

Composite airframes were first developed for military fighters. They absorb radar, making jets like the F-22 stealthy. Raytheon likes composites for a different reason: they save weight, add strength and don’t weaken over time.

“The characteristics of this composite are far more stable than an aluminum structure. This has essentially no fatigue life as compared to a very definite fatigue life with an aluminum structure,” Danforth said.

A mold called a mandrel gives the Premier its shape. A rubber bladder goes on first. Then a $6 million dollar machine called a Viper lays on 24 thin strips of carbon fiber tape, over and over.

Jigsaw-pieces of a tough Kevlar honeycomb go on next – a laser guide shows where. This layer protects against lightning strikes.

Then it goes into a high-temperature vacuum chamber until the shell is cured.

On the main assembly line, the wings go on. They are still made of aluminum, for now, so rivets and bolts are used here.

It takes about five days to put all the pieces together, wire the interior, and attach the engines. But the finished jet has fewer than half the parts of its predecessors and costs 25 percent less to make.

Competitors say it’s unproven, too costly

A Raytheon representative lifts part of the jet’s structure showing the lightweight material
The Horizon, a larger molded-body jet, is only weeks away from its maiden flight. Could passenger jets be next?

“There’s no reason we could not make that size airplane in a commuter category aircraft,” said Raytheon vice-president Jack Hulsey.

Test-pilot Charlie Volk said the first thing customers notice about the 6-passenger Premier is how much roomier it is than other corporate jets in the $5 million dollar price range.

“A lot of other corporate pilots will stick their head in the airplane and say, my gosh, it is big! And I know that’s important to the customers. And a lot of people commented on it who hadn’t seen it before,” he said.

But competitors, like Cessna and Gulfstream, said they have no plans to abandon metal airframes. They say carbon-fiber technology is still unproven and the tools too expensive.

Raytheon Aircraft is betting $500 million, and its own future, that the rest of the industry is wrong. It will be built in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the labor, according to the company.

So far the marketplace seems to approve. Customers have ordered 300 Premiers and $1 billion worth of the larger Horizons, enough work to keep this Kansas plant humming through 2006.

This was a very interesting article to read for me because it highlighted Raytheon’s departure from ‘conventional’ aluminum construction methods. I had a lengthy conversation at Sun-N-Fun this year with a Raytheon GA Sales guy regarding the Bonanza, which my partner and I were considering before we went for the SR22. I was curious to know if Raytheon had any plans for a composite single that would be in the same class as the SR22. He essentially said that they didn’t because Raytheon could derive far more revenue and profit with only a fraction of the liability exposure by concentrating on business jets flown by professional crews. He admitted that getting Raytheon to invest the millions needed to design a new single engine GA aircraft was probably not going to happen.

I then wandered over to the Cessna display and observed dozens of people drooling over the new 172 and 182. I started wondering if these people would get as excited if they went to the car dealer for their next automobile purchase and found 1956 Chevys with new interiors, paint jobs, and instruments. Now don’t get me wrong, I learned to fly in them and they are great machines, but the utilitarian capabilities stopped advancing decades ago. I am talking about moving X number of pounds at X airspeed. This is what really sells aircraft, apart from the pure pleasure.
The fact that both Cessna and Raytheon have recently announced more layoffs while we all complain about Cirrus not making planned production schedules bears this out.