FARNBOROUGH, England -- It's tough to walk into the Hawker Beechcraft chalet here at the Farnborough International Airshow and not think about the first days of the U.S. Air Force's Liberty Program when engineers gutted extravagant King Air 350s to install high tech spy sensors and ship them to Iraq per former Defense Secretary Robert Gates' immediate request. Stories of engineers ripping out wine refrigerators to make room for signals intelligence sensors still resonate.
Much like the military demand for turbo props mounted with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors, Hawker Beechcraft has grown over the past five years. The King Air 350s are now a regular on Afghanistan flightlines as ground commanders keep requesting low profile, manned aircraft for ISR missions.
It's not only combat missions either. Federal agencies have seen the success the military has had and requested even more ISR turbo props for search and rescue missions and to combat pirates, drugs and illegal immigration.
"Looking only at the military market would be a narrow view," said Jay Gibson, Hawker Beechcraft's vice president for Special Missions. "This whole scene to include the commercial market is exploding."
With that popularity, though, has come the increase in competition. However, Gibson is confident Hawker Beechcraft's record will speak for itself as their planes have flown thousands of missions for the U.S. Air Force over Iraq and Afghanistan over the past three years.
One of the toughest parts of the ISR business is keeping up with the technology of the sensors, Gibson said. There is a constant demand for more amp power to run the sensors and sensor companies constantly want to change the location on the turbo props depending on the type and size of the sensor.
With the advance of technology, many of the sensors have shrunk meaning the turbo prop can sometimes carry more depending on the power requirements.
Gibson is not worried about the rise in dependence on unmanned aerial vehicles for ISR missions. He forsees the need for a mix of the manned and unmanned aircraft. Defense analysts have said air forces will have to revert back to manned aircraft in denied airspaces making Gibson's King Air's more valuable.
"Each have their role as each have their benefits and limitations," Gibson said. "I'm confident manned ISR will always be there."