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Beechcraft lands nearly $1.4 billion deal

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Newly reorganized Beechcraft Corp. said Thursday it's received a nearly $1.4 billion order -- believed to be the largest propeller aircraft order by value in general aviation history.

The Wichita-based plane maker won a contract to build up to 105 King Air 350i aircraft, valued at $788 million, from Wheels Up, a New York City-based private aviation membership company. Beechcraft was also named comprehensive maintenance provider for Wheels Up in North America and Western Europe, a contract worth $600 million.

The first 35 planes, built in Wichita, will be delivered between now and mid-2015, with nine scheduled for this year, Beechcraft said in a news release. The deal includes options for 70 more aircraft as Wheels Up expands over the next two to three years.

"It is the largest propeller aircraft order, by value, and it is quite exciting to see the restructured Beechcraft have such a win," said Jens Hennig, vice president for operations at General Aircraft Manufacturers Association, the industry's trade group.

Over the past year, the industry has seen "positive movement" in deliveries for all types of propeller aircraft, Hennig said.

"It seems like the propeller market has finally shook off this past recession and are producing positive results," he said.

The King Air 350i has standard seating for nine passengers and is touted by Beechcraft as one of the "greenest" business aircraft because of its fuel efficiency and low operating costs.

Wheels Up is a membership-based aviation program established by its former Marquis Jet founder Kenny Dichter and other investors. The company charges customers an initiation fee and annual dues, and then charges an hourly fee for private air travel.

"The Beechcraft King Air 350i is the perfect aircraft for Wheels Up due to its proven track record of tremendous flexibility and efficiency for regional travel," Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture said in a news release.

Beechcraft Corp., formerly Hawker Beechcraft, emerged in February from bankruptcy protection.

The company no longer builds business jets after shedding those unprofitable manufacturing operations in the bankruptcy, and is in talks with several interested parties in the sale of those assets. The reorganized company is focusing on special mission, trainer and light attack airplane markets for the military, while continuing its turboprop and piston airplane manufacturing.

While the value of the Beechcraft contract may be the largest single order for propeller aircraft, at least one other aircraft manufacturer has actually sold more planes. In 1997, Wichita-based Cessna Aircraft sold 300 single-engine aircraft to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Hennig and Cessna said.