Mark Burns has been with Gulfstream almost four decades, seen just about everywhere and helped steer the company into the modern era of precision design and manufacturing. He spoke frankly to EVA about pride, performance and plans for the future
There are any number of astonishingly talented, visionary, pioneering, envelope-pushing individuals in business aviation. Some just are, some burst onto the scene and fade almost as quickly. But a rare breed combines those talents, nurtures them through years of experience and takes them to the highest levels in the business.
Among those rare breeds, Mark Burns was named President of Gulfstream Aerospace back in 2015, since when, the OEM has negotiated its way through tricky industrial challenges to bring the stunning G500 and G600 to market, further cementing its position among the greatest aircraft manufacturers ever.
EVA caught up with him in the broiling Orlando heat, out at Gulfstream’s NBAA static display. The conversation perhaps ought to have begun with Burns expounding the virtues of his latest product… “It’s a little hot,” he declares instead, a phrase perfectly suited to his Savannah drawl. “Why do we have to wear jackets at these shows? Whose rule is that?” We agree on a rebellion.
In that brief exchange I realise a peculiar truth about Burns’ career. Gulfstream is headquartered in Savannah, Georgia. Burns is from Savannah. Not only has he reached the industry’s pinnacle, but he’s done it working locally.
I remind him he’s been with the company 35 years. “That makes me feel old, although I started very young,” he quips. “I think I was about nine…” Joking aside, the aviation industry is typically quite fluid, with personnel regularly moving between companies. What’s kept Burns at Gulfstream his whole career?
“I’ll tell you. It’s the best job in the whole world. I’ve had so many opportunities that have made it exciting. I started in a very low level engineering position in draughting, working on the original GIV design. Very quickly I went to GIV flight test. I was a young kid, flight testing an airplane, so that was exciting.
“Then, as the airplanes went into service, my flight test job led to me travelling around the world helping customers who’d just taken their new GIV. I did that for maybe three years, and I think I saw every place on the planet. You get kind of hooked!
“Next I had the chance to work in manufacturing, completions and service. The people were just fantastic and don’t forget that when I started we were just 1,000; now we’re 18,000. It’s been a really quick, but very enjoyable ride. I couldn’t have asked for more. The company has always been very supportive of everything I’ve tried to do, it’s been easy to stay.”
Witnessing the Gulfstream leadership team perform in a press conference is akin to seeing a group of close friends discussing a shared passion. “We’ve known one another 20 years plus and everyone knows their role. I get the responsibility of being in the hot seat for certain things, but I absolutely rely on the entire team. We’re a very flat organisation, so there aren’t lots of layers from the people building the airplane to my office.
“So, I’m down on the floor, talking to people I’ve known for 25 years, who build, design and service the airplanes. It’s a very close-knit workforce and there’s an incredible amount of pride when we see the finished product and our customers appreciating and using it. There’s still a lot of us who’ve grown up with the company and seen it expand.”
Burns speaks of the pride Gulfstream’s people feel in their products and they ought quite rightly to be proud of their latest machines, the G500 and G600. Those aircraft are just beginning their careers, still too young to have accumulated any meaningful service beyond marketing hyperbole. Yet for Burns they represent years of work. What does the fruition of a new model mean to him?
“When I started out, airplanes were mostly hand drawn and hand built. The biggest change for me in these latest airplanes is the precision with which they’re produced. Our quality has improved so much.
“I had a customer who wanted to come in and watch us mate the airplane’s wings. Because of the precision, the whole experience of picking up the fuselage, sitting it on the wing and mating it took just 30 minutes. He came all the way from Europe to watch a 30-minute exercise. It would have taken a day in the past with lots of adjustment, and it just shows how precise airplane construction has become.
“I believe the 500 and 600 are the most technologically advanced, safest airplanes we’ve ever built. There are so many safety features and the technology is literally incredible. You can walk out to a G500, open the door and within eight minutes be ready to depart. It’s down to the time our people have put into it, the intuitive thinking it enables. It’s very humbling to see what we’ve created.”
Humbling and, indeed bang on time according to Gulfstream’s original predictions for first customer G500 delivery, with a September 2018 service entry. But at 2017’s EBACE show, Burns himself had suggested we ought to expect certification in time for that year’s NBAA gathering in October and delivery soon after. Instead, at NBAA Gulfstream announced that it had found additional range for both new platforms that would require additional flight test, pushing first G500 delivery to early 2018. In the event, that didn’t happen until September, still in keeping with the original timing, but confusingly not in accordance with dates set in between. What happened?
Burns’ response is predictably candid. “I’ll tell you the whole story. In October 2014 we said we’d deliver 500s in ’18 and 600s in ’19. Around 2016 I thought, based on everything I’d seen in the past, that we were ahead. We said publicly, unfortunately, and that’s my fault, that we would be done with certification by the end of ’17 and begin deliveries early in 2018. That was ahead of schedule.
“We got through the range piece, did all that flying, then got stuck with a dispute between NORDAM and Pratt & Whitney. It cost us some months – I’d say four or five. I hoped for the longest time that they’d settle their differences, but it became apparent to us that they weren’t going to be able to. So, we came up with a three-way solution that I think everybody’s happy with.
“I know I am. From financial and delivery perspectives, and looking forward to how quickly we can ramp our rate up. Because we’re in control of that manufacturing line now – and we’re really good at manufacturing structures, it goes all the way back to our Grumman origins – we’re recovering quickly.”
The line in question produces engine nacelles for the G500/600, but does it mean Gulfstream is now in the nacelle manufacturing business for other OEMs? “I don’t know that we’d have any intent to do that. And, you know, we’re building the wing for the 500/600 for the first time in our history. We decided to do it because on the 650 the supply base just couldn’t keep up with the pace we needed to go at. It became apparent there were certain things we needed to control a little closer The wing was something we believed we were good at – again, it’s structures – so it’s our wheelhouse. And we’ve done a tremendous job, it’s far exceeded our expectations.
“But we won’t vertically integrate too far. That way you put too much pressure on yourself. And we want to keep a strong supply base. The more we do the weaker they become and that’s not good for the industry. The nacelle business we control gives us a lot of latitude. We can continue to build it. We can outsource it. We can do what we think is best for the programme in the long run and right now I’m very happy to build nacelles.”
Need for Speed
Ignoring those few lost months, Gulfstream actually did live up to its 2018 delivery promise, with a clean-sheet design and in the face of FAA certification requirements rather different to those against which the G650ER was certified in October 2014. “The FAA requirements get ever more stringent. As they learn, they put more rulemaking in place. The G500 and 600 were designed to the highest level, with no derivative content. We got zero credit for anything we’d ever done before. People have asked, ‘Why did you have to fly 5,000 hours?’ Because everything was clean sheet.
“We’re very fortunate to have tremendous success with the G650 and so we were able to invest in two new airplanes. We did that because we believe the high-speed nature of travel is becoming more important. We already had a large-diameter cabin in the Mach-0.90 G650, and the new airplanes give us a different diameter fuselage in an airplane optimised for speed.”
By Burns admission, Gulfstream has realised the importance of speed. There’s every likelihood that Aerion will produce a supersonic bizjet. Will Gulfstream? “The success we’ve had with the G650 at .925 has proven that speed is valuable. Customers value their time. It reduces the cost of ownership. It reduces crew duty days. There’s a lot to be said for speed and we continue to look at what the future might be.
“My concerns near term are over the regulations involved and the environmental issues. How do you overcome all those obstacles? NASA aims to fly a quiet demonstrator in 2023 and supply information in 2025 that will hopefully address the supersonic-over-land issue. At that point I think people will need to think seriously. It has to be a flexible airplane that can fly fast everywhere, not just point to point. There are rules that need to be changed. We’re virtually half way around the world with range now, but people value speed. You can turn right, or turn left, it doesn’t really matter, so speed, as we go forward, is important.”
Right now, speed and range, indeed any flying, burn fossil fuels and no matter how efficient an aircraft, there are environmental concerns. Considering his products fly fast over great distances, Burns again surprises with his take. “I think we have to do better. We’re looking at different derivatives of renewable fuels and trying to be more efficient in current engine design. And we’re looking at opportunities in electrical propulsion, albeit I think that’s a little further out for an airplane our size. We have a very robust R&D effort looking at lots of design aspects, among which propulsion is a big one; we’ll never be in the engine-building business, but I can tell you the engine manufacturers are doing a lot of exciting stuff. It’ll take a few years to become commercially viable, but I believe propulsion will change from what we’re doing today.”
In the beginning, there was the Gulfstream I turboprop business aircraft, designed and manufactured by Grumman. Every Gulfstream from the GII onwards has been a pure jet and today Gulfstream is a manufacturer rather than simply a model, under General Dynamics ownership. Grumman made its name building carrierborne fighters for the US Navy and there’s still something of that heritage about every Gulfstream. Other OEMs are, of course, available, and they build beautiful, technologically advanced aircraft, yet ‘Gulfstream’ is still the name most regular folk would apply to a large bizjet.
Does Burns sprinkle a magical Gulfstream essence on every airframe? What does it contain? Disappointingly, there’s no elixir, but: “I think there are several things. The clean wing we designed is a distinguishing feature of our airplanes. The sleekness of the design. The iconic windows that have become our signature. These things are visually appealing, but I’ll tell you my personal belief.
“When I was a kid everything was Learjet. Didn’t matter what it was, it was a Learjet. Today, whether its movies, pop culture or whatever, it’s Gulfstream. I believe that’s because of our people and the pride they have in the quality of the product. The quality we have in our airframe and interior designs, I think that’s the differentiator.”
With the G500, G650, even G450 in mind, everything Burns says is true. But the NBAA static arrangement had the G280 parked more or less opposite the debuting Embraer Praetor. Depending on one’s point of view, the comparison wasn’t entirely favourable. Is there a market opportunity?
“The space from G280 up is where we want to compete. We’re investing R&D in that space and looking at every opportunity to be better than our competitors in those markets. There are lots of competitors at the G280 size and it would be foolish for us not to continue to try to improve and be able to compete better there. Halfway up the spectrum there are some gaps where it would be an interesting area to compete. And then we never want to relinquish the upper end.”
Mark Burns was present at the birth of every modern Gulfstream. He’s predictably a huge fan of the latest models and as I ask him which of all the types he’s seen is his favourite, I expect him to nominate the latest. Another surprise. “I started on the GIV and I’ll always have a fondness for it. It really started who we are, while the G650 really put us where we are today. The quality of these new airplanes is so high, there’s nothing else like them. But I grew up with the GIV and I’ll always love it.”