Noem settles on roomy turboprop for new state airplane

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s purchase of an updated state airplane was completed Thursday, with the state opting for a bigger, faster and newer turboprop after some lawmakers questioned whether she was hoping to buy a jet.

The Department of Transportation completed the purchase of a 2015 Beechcraft King Air 350 for about $4.5 million, spokesman Ian Fury confirmed. The aircraft, which holds up to nine passengers, is marketed to business executives with pull-out work tables, a built-in refreshment center and onboard Wi-Fi.

Legislators were skeptical earlier this year when the governor requested a $5 million allocation to update the state’s plane fleet. Some believed she was angling to buy a jet, especially as she has become a regular fixture at conservative conferences nationwide.

Democrats also criticized her for using the state plane to attend 2019 events held by political organizations, even though state law bars using the state plane for political or personal trips. Noem defended those trips as part of her job as “an ambassador for the state.”

She also argued the state fleet needed an update, both for safety and savings on maintenance costs for the state’s three planes. All were built in the 1980s and 1990s. The plane that Noem usually uses, a 1988 King Air 200, features ashtrays, a leaky coffee dispenser and overhead panels that discharge face masks if touched too heavily.

South Dakota’s new plane will be one of the most luxurious state-owned planes in the region. North Dakota flies a pair of King Air 200s manufactured in 1995. Minnesota’s King Air 200 is a 1993 model. And Nebraska’s King Air C90 GTX, which it purchased straight from the factory in 2014 for $3.5 million, has a cabin roughly half the size of South Dakota’s new plane.

The state is selling its King Air 200 along with a 1995 King Air 90. The Department of Transportation estimated the two planes would need about $850,000 in maintenance in the next three years. The three planes in the state’s fleet were previously averaging an annual maintenance cost of $333,000.

The Department of Transportation paid an airplane sales consultant, Verity Jet Group, $195,000 to help navigate the purchase of the new plane and the sale of the old ones.

Fury said Noem and the DOT “trusted experts to identify the plane that made the most sense for South Dakota’s needs.”