In the fall of 2014, Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, one of the world’s most elite manufacturers of private jets, invited an audience of 3,000 employees, members of the media, financial planners, and potential buyers to a massive hangar at their headquarters in Savannah, Georgia.
The occasion was a “special launch ceremony” with the atmosphere of a high-end intergalactic nightclub: futuristic blue lights, trumpet-heavy music, a sci-fi jumbotron that read BOUNDLESS.
“This is another extraordinary day in the storied history of Gulfstream,” the company’s president, Larry Flynn, told the crowd. They were unveiling a “new family” of luxury aircraft: the Gulfstream GVII G500 and G600s, capable of going 5,984 miles and 7,595 miles, respectively, without refueling.
The planes had been in development for six years, under what the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association described as “strict, military-like secrecy.”
Designed from scratch, the new models could carry up to 19 passengers and had three to four “living areas,” 8 to 10 places to sleep, two state-of-the art bathrooms, stone floors and countertops, leather upholstery, a luxury entertainment system, and 14 of Gulfstream’s trademark oval windows—the biggest in the air—so large one reviewer compared them to “seeing a movie in IMAX after a lifetime of squinting at iPad screens.”
The jets wouldn’t be available for several years. But once they hit the market, Gulfstream’s executives promised, the models would offer “an optimal combination of speed, range, wide-cabin comfort and fuel burn.”
Those perks came with a hefty price tag. The first G500 sold in September of 2018 for $45.5 million. The G600, slightly larger and able to travel 1,300 nautical miles farther, went out the following August for $57.9 million. Even so, there was a near-immediate order backlog.
In 2014, Flexjet, a private plane leasing and fractional ownership company, reportedly purchased 50 Gulfstream planes, including six G500s. In 2019, Qatar Executive, the private jet offshoot of Qatar Airways, added five G500s to their fleet.
Approximately 180 of the new Gulfstreams in the U.S. and abroad are now registered to some of the richest people alive. Those .1-percenters have mostly shielded their purchases behind shell companies and anonymous-sounding L.L.C.’s, but several can be tied to some of America’s most voracious wealth hoarders, such as the Campbell Soup heir, Bennett Dorrance; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft; car dealer Herb Chambers; natural-gas exporter Michael S. Smith; heiress Gigi Pritzker; and big-budget-movie director Michael Bay.
But those billionaires have had some trouble getting back down to earth. According to a source familiar with Gulfstream aircraft, the G500s and G600s have a glitch in their computer software that can send these planes into a nosedive if their pilots try to land in winds stronger than 15 knots.
The new models have 14 oval windows so large one reviewer compared them to “seeing a movie in IMAX after a lifetime of squinting at iPad screens.”
That’s about 17.3 miles per hour, or the aviation equivalent of a gusty breeze. A private-jet consultant who represents several Gulfstream owners estimates the flaw could impact 75 percent of his clients’ trips. “So [let’s say], for example, you’ve just got this $55 million plane,” he tells me, “and you’re supposed to go on vacation to the South of France. But the wind is forecast to be in excess of 15 knots upon landing. Guess what? You can’t go.”
All the owners—whom the consultant, who requested not to be named for this story, called “the Who’s Who of the world”—are in “a freaking uproar.” Lawyers have started talking about class-action lawsuits. According to one source, some prospective owners have canceled orders until the problem gets solved.
“In 50 years of flying, I’ve never had anything like this,” says Dorrance. The glitch has not radically disrupted his plans, beyond having to move up his takeoff time to avoid wind. But “as G500 owners—supposedly the most luxurious make of aircraft in the world—we shouldn’t have those problems,” Dorrance said. “I mean, it’s totally unfair.”
Another owner, who requested anonymity, explained that he’s outraged not only because his private jet is unusable, but also because of the recurring fees and costs that have racked up while the plane has been grounded. “You pay $40-plus million for your aircraft. You employ pilots, you employ a mechanic. You have to pay for a hangar and all the other ancillary costs, which are fixed expenses,” he explained.
The owner estimates that the plane costs him $300,000 a month. “It’s a terrible situation. I’ve talked to the president of Gulfstream [to say], ‘basically, you’ve rendered these planes unreliable.’”
It’s unclear when the glitches started, or when Gulfstream first became aware of the problem. The first public clue was a nighttime flight on February 6, 2020, when it was reported that a G500 model sped into a “hard landing”—pilot jargon for a high-speed, heavy touchdown just short of a crash.
“As G500 owners—supposedly the most luxurious make of aircraft in the world—we shouldn’t have those problems.”
According to the F.A.A., the pilot lost control of the plane’s angle, sending it nose-first into an “unexpected high rate of descent” of about 900 feet per minute. (Federal flying guidelines recommend a target descent rate of 500, calling anything more than 1,000 “unacceptable.”) In this case, the passengers were only a few feet off the ground, but the landing was hard enough that it damaged the nearly-24-ton plane. (Gulfstream has not publicly disclosed the extent of the damage.)
It wasn’t a freak accident. The F.A.A. investigated the incident and determined that there was an “unsafe condition” in the plane’s engineering. An aviation expert summarized the glitch as the plane’s “software battling with the pilot” for control.
The mishaps are reminiscent of the Boeing 737 Max crashes, when faulty software caused two planes to nosedive. According to Bob Chrampanis, a pilot employed by a G500 owner, the two glitches are technically unrelated engineering issues. “The only similarity is it’s a situation where the software program gets to a point where the computer takes control of the airplane,” he explained.
After the G500 incident, the F.A.A. issued a regulation, called an “airworthiness directive,” barring pilots from, among other things, landing in winds of more than 22 knots. At first, that rule was only temporary. Regulators said Gulfstream was working on a fix, and they’d revisit the ban once it was approved. Two years later, a version of it is still in place.
In early April of this year, another G500 plane hurtled into a hard landing. The circumstances were nearly identical—the computer overrode the pilot, and the plane pitched forward, entered a fast descent, and hit the ground so hard it damaged the aircraft’s body.
Gulfstream notified owners with a letter later that month; two weeks after that, the F.A.A. issued a much longer directive, lowering the wind limit again.
“They waited until two terrible accidents happened … and then they decided to do something,” Dorrance says. “As soon as they had that problem after the first accident, they should have been working hard on software things.”
(A spokesperson for Gulfstream says the company has “proactively communicated with all G500 and G600 owners and remains available for any needed support.”)
As of now, the consultant says, the planes “literally can’t land” in anything other than optimal conditions. “You spent all of this money, and you’re stuck with it,” he says.
A spokesperson for the company said Gulfstream “has been working closely with the F.A.A. on a software update” which “has been completed and we anticipate F.A.A. approval and subsequent deployment later this year.” But that will likely be long after the vacations many of Gulfstream’s owners have likely planned.
The consultant said that several G500 and G600 owners are furious, in part due to the technical issues but also because of Gulfstream’s response. Owners expected a degree of obsequiousness that Gulfstream lacked. The company was “like, Oh, we’ll get this fixed, but it’s not going to be for a couple of months—relax,” the consultant explains. But “these people don’t relax.” In the meantime, some owners started chartering jets. Gulfstream doesn’t cover the expense.
“[Gulfstream is] owned by [the aerospace-and-defense company] General Dynamics, who make lovely things that kill people for defense contractors,” says the consultant. “They’re not used to a bunch of screaming billionaires.”
Tarpley Hitt writes for Gawker and is an editor for The Drift