The Hawker-Siddley125 range was around for so long that many corporate flight departments tend to overlook it in favour of new and far more expensive biz-jets. And then in 2013 Hawker stopped building it, so now only exceptionally smart operators know how good it is.
I was surprised when my friendly corporate jet pilot Larry Beamish told me he was trading in his company’s well-cared for Lear 45 for a HS.125-900XP, ZS-MIG. Why trade in the sleek Lear for a clumpy old British jet – designed at much the same time and by many of the same people as the disastrous Comet airliner?
The doughty Brits were the first to market with a jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet, which in the 1950s beat the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 into airline service by several years. But a series of in-flight airframe failures ended the Comet’s lead as a jet airliner.
The world learned important lessons about pressurisation and metal fatigue from the Comet – and its creators, De Havilland, learned the most. Building on the lessons of the Comet, the designers opted to be ultra conservative – with the net result that like the Douglas DC-3, they unexpectedly ended up creating a true classic.
The jet was initially designated as the DH.125 Jet Dragon, but entered production as the Hawker Siddeley HS.125. This name change and complicated type number was unfortunate as it was Bill Lear’s simply named Lear Jet which became the generic biz-jet and not the more awkward Hawker-Siddeley.
This is a jet aircraft that was in production for 50 years and has survived many ownership and designation changes. Hawker Siddeley bought de Havilland the year before the project started, but the legacy brand and “DH” designation was used throughout development. After the jet achieved full production, the name was changed to HS.125 – except for American exports which retained the DH.125 until it was replaced by BH.125 for Beechcraft-Hawker. When Hawker Siddeley Aircraft merged with the British Aircraft Corporation to form British Aerospace in 1977, the name changed to BAe 125. When British Aerospace sold its Business Jets Division to Raytheon in 1993, it became the Hawker Beechcraft HS.125. It was still largely built in England but from 1996 the assembled components were shipped to Wichita Kansas for final assembly and later, to Little Rock Arkansas.
Production stopped in 2013 due to the bankruptcy of Hawker Beechcraft, who suffered during the great recession of the late 2000s during which business jets became as popular as pigs in Palestine. In April 2013, the type certificate and support responsibility for all 125s was transferred to the reformed Beechcraft Corporation.
Given its Comet background, the DH.125 was designed to have an airframe that would never fail – and none has. It is approved for unpaved runways – something only the Pilatus PC-24 still claims – and Hawkers have survived both an air-launched missile strike from an Angolan MiG over Botswana, which blew-off an entire engine, and an impact on the nose with a high altitude glider. (Given this history with a MiG, it is perhaps ironic that our test aircraft is registered ZS-MIG).
The airframe’s strength is evident when you look below the skin. It is solidly built and thus perhaps a tad heavier then svelte recent designs, yet there is enough useful load to perform that rare feat of being able to fill the tanks and all the seats.
The 125’s systems are basic and robust. You don’t need electrics or even hydraulics to keep going in the Hawker. There are backups to be sure, but if the worst happens, the Hawker will get you back to a runway. Larry Beamish tells how, settled into a somewhat somnolent cruise in an older HS.125, the cockpit filled with jangling lights and shining alarms bells (you get what he means). Larry sat on his hands and then started a metaphorical stopwatch. “Don’t do anything” he instructed his co-pilot. “There are only two things we need worry about; fire and pressurisation. First rule those out and shut off the alarm and then we can carry on.” That’s how fundamentally simple and robust the 125 is.
The first versions of the 125 were powered by Rolls-Royce Viper turbojets. The Viper was reliable, but very loud and thirsty – and the oil consumption had co-pilots topping up the oil before every takeoff. It is not a co-pilots’ plane.
The first big change came in 1976, with the 125-700 which was equipped with Garrett TFE731 turbofans. The 731 engine in cruise burns about half the fuel of the Viper, and range jumped accordingly. In 1983 the 125 got a new wing with a longer span. And the big visual difference is that the windscreen lost its flat panes with a bulge on top for wrap-around compound curved screens that are quieter and far less draggy than the flat glass panes which would drown out almost all other sound above 250 knots indicated.
The latest version of the Garrett/Honeywell TFE731 is the 50R engine, which is notably less maintenance hungry. The primary maintenance intervals were stretched from 2,100 hours to 3,000 hours, and from 4,200 hours to 6,000 hours for overhaul. That is a 43 percent improvement in engine life, and it does great things to reduce the hourly cost of flying the -900XP.
It’s the wallet in the back who pays for a business jet and the HS.125 is one of the roomiest mid-size jets. The big cabin has one downside though – it makes the Hawker slower than its key competitors. But how much slower? Larry Beamish reports that compared to the ‘hotrod’ Lear 45, the Hawker is typically just 6 minutes slower Lanseria to Cape Town than the Lear and burns just 400 lbs more fuel. For almost every owner-operator this is a minimal price to pay for an almost stand up cabin and real ramp presence with that unmistakable cruciform tail.
Headroom is a comfortable 5 feet 9 inches – a vast improvement over the Lear’s cramped 4 feet 9 inches. The cabin is 6 feet wide, almost a foot wider than the Lear. The cabin floor has a recessed aisle and a typical cabin layout has five swivelling and reclining seats and a three-place divan.
The large potty in the aft cabin has an embarrassment avoiding solid door and upfront there is a roomy galley with cold storage and microwave. Over the years Hawker Beechcraft has raised the quality of the cabin materials and fit and finish at its completion centre to equal that of any jet anywhere, including top of the line Gulfstreams and Globals.
There is nothing old fashioned about the 900XP – it has the most modern avionics – and every light inside and outside the cabin is now an LED.
The thing critics love to knock Hawkers for is their lack of baggage space. There is no external baggage bay, just a storage area opposite the entrance door that makes first officers burst a blood vessel hauling passenger bags up the air stair door and into the cabin. The 900XP offers an optional six-place cabin seating layout that adds 10 cubic ft of baggage space. The big plus is that the contents of the luggage stay warm and pressurized in the cabin and are accessible by passengers in flight.
The design of the aircraft may be old, but the 900XP has every modern gadget to make a plutocrat – including the offspring – happy. Each seat has its own LCD screen to control lights, video and audio. An LCD-controlled cabin thermostat is positioned next to the boss’s seat at the front right of the cabin.
Despite ZS-MIG having been owned and operated since new by the Lebanese government the interior is immaculate and a testimony to the quality of the materials used. The cabin fit and finish and furnishings are top-notch, offering the space and comfort that has been key to keeping this jet in production for so many decades.
In The Cockpit
Turn left once up the stairs and the first thing you notice are the classic British rams horn yokes; but everything else is thoroughly modern. The prominent instrument glareshield is uniquely Hawker, reminding me of a mine dump. Sheltering beneath the large glareshield, the glass Collins Pro Line 21 uses a dual file server and dual cursor control panels that allow either pilot to pull up any approach or taxi charts in the electronic flight bag with zoom capability on either display. Both pilots get their own FMS data input screens.
The Ipeco pilot seats are comfortable and have countless positions, so almost anyone can find their comfort zone. Visibility out of the big curved windscreens is good.
For taxing the tiller under your left hand operates a hydraulic valve that meters pressure to the nose gear, making steering smooth and easy. The brakes are powerful but do not grab at taxi speed as many systems of more recent design tend to do.
Showing its British design roots, the Hawker cockpit retains several oddities. For example, a set of red levers aft of the throttles are labelled HP for high-pressure fuel cock and are used to introduce fuel for the start and then shut off fuel to shut down the engines. Another set of smaller levers are labelled LP for low-pressure shutoff cock and are used to stop fuel from entering the engine cowling in the event of a fire.
The HS.125-900XP is the culmination of years of breeding and development. It provides a significant step-up from its predecessor – the 850XP. Most usefully for African operators, the higher temperature limits on the Honeywell TFE731-50Rs mean the 900XP can climb to altitude much faster and will usually reach FL410 directly, yielding better fuel burns. This makes it popular in the USA where it can often manage New York to LA nonstop. For African operators it will reliably do Lanseria to Addis Ababa or Lusaka to Abidjan, making it a potential one stopper from Lusaka to Europe. Typical cruise speeds for the 900XP are about 446 KTAS in high-speed mode.
Hot-and-high runway performance is one of the 900XP’s great strengths. Depart Lanseria on an ISA +20 degree Celsius day and the 900XP can carry six passengers 2,000 nm. Amazingly the Hawker 900XP is not field-length-limited on even a 35-degree Celsius day when departing an airport at 5,000-foot pressure altitude.
I recently had the pleasure of flying with Larry on a Cape Town – Lanseria leg. No great challenge for the Hawker, but revealing in terms of time and costs. The flight planning for ZS-MIG provided for two thirds fuel, three passengers and baggage in the rear in addition to myself, Larry and co-joe Alan Geldenhuys. Basic operating weight on the aircraft was 16,000 pounds. With 1,500 pounds of payload, including 200 pounds of bags and 8,000 pounds of fuel, we weighed in at 25,500 pounds, well under the aircraft’s 28,000-pound max weight.
It was a cool evening takeoff from Cape Town. En-route winds seemed to have an unavoidable headwind component of around 20 knots at our chosen FL370. Larry loves his Garmin Pilot app on his iPad which continually updates winds aloft. The Collins Pro Line 21 calculates and then displays takeoff numbers: for our flight, a V1 of 113 knots, Vr 120 knots and V2 of 131 knots. It also informed us we would need 4,300 feet of Cape Town’s runway 19.
The dual nosewheels soften some of the bumps from runway joints and taxiing too accurately over the ‘cats eyes’. We were relatively light, so the Hawker made short work of accelerating to 120 knots and we were airborne with a smooth rotation. With the gear up and an unrestricted climb, we turned left onto heading for Lanseria 680 nm away.
A nice feature of the 900XP is that the APU is approved for use on takeoff to maintain cabin pressure. Previous Hawkers required the APU and the bleeds to be off for takeoff which meant there could be an ear popping pressure bump when the bleeds were turned back on, especially if the co-joe was a little slow on the switches.
Twenty two minutes after lift-off, we were level at FL390 and accelerating through Mach 0.7. After four minutes of straight and level the ASI settled at maximum cruise of Mach 0.776. The fuel flows were a tad over 700 lbs per hour per engine and the flight took one hour and 52 minutes from engine start to shutdown at Lanseria. During the flight, the 900XP burned 2,730 pounds of fuel and we landed with 3,340 pounds still in the tanks, or enough to turn around unrefuelled back to the Cape - or go on to Lubumbashi.
The Hawker’s ace in the hole is that it has an automatic power reserve (APR) that you arm for takeoff. If an engine fails during takeoff, the digital electronic engine computers (DEEC) will feed fuel into the operating engine to increase power. The extra power of APR is built into the calculation for every takeoff and requires no action from the crew.
The rudder bias system is so effective that if an engine fails, the pilot flying needs to add very little extra push on the rudder on the operating-engine side to keep the plane flying straight. The DEEC behaves like the full-authority digital engine computers (FADEC) now common on new jets but, like all things in this Hawker, are backed up by the big old-fashioned big red knob manual fuel controls, instead of multiple-channel electronics.
It is a great loss that, in 2013, after 50 continuous years of production, Hawker Beechcraft stopped building the wonderful 125, a late casualty of the 2008 global financial crisis. This is an aircraft that has stood the test of time, becoming at once a classic and yet staying up to date and offering an unbeatable combination of cabin comfort with range and load carrying ability and fuel efficiency.
Despite the last 125 having rolled off the production line six years ago, the jets are still well supported by Hawker Beechcraft and parts are readily available. As Larry Beamish has demonstrated, a pristine low time HS-125 900XP can be had for less than US$3 million, which makes it fantastic value compared to say Embraer’s Praetor 500 or Cessna’s Latitude, both for around US$18m.
Despite the continued development of other midsize cabin rivals, almost no other biz-jet can compete with the 900XP on cabin comfort and load carrying versus price and overall performance.
It is the smart buyers’ choice.