Light Speed

  • Mary Grady

Finally—after years of design and R&D, missed deadlines, and revised timetables—very light jets (VLJs) soon will reach customers. More than a half-dozen companies are building these zippy aircraft, which feature efficient and reliable turbine engines, modern avionics, and prices that are roughly half those of the smallest jets currently available. They will fly from New York to Miami in about two and a half hours, and they will be able to operate from thousands of runways that are too small to serve larger jets—making it easier to avoid packed airports and to land closer to your destination. Deliveries of Eclipse Aviation’s Eclipse 500 are scheduled to begin before the end of this year, and the Cessna Citation Mustang and Adam Aircraft A700 are expected soon afterward. Several other companies are flying prototypes that should be ready for delivery in the next year or two. Altogether, more than 3,000 orders for VLJs already are on the books.

The debut of VLJs should answer many questions that arose during those years of development. Will the jets prove popular enough to keep manufacturers busy and profitable? Will passengers fall in love with the aircraft’s agile performance, or will they find them claustrophobic? Will pilots, eager to upgrade from their propeller-driven planes, soon weary of spending the extra time and effort needed to stay jet-proficient?

For frequent travelers, VLJs are likely to offer new options. With thousands of small airports able to accommodate the jets, fliers will be able to travel directly from point to point. Small businesses that cannot justify the expense of a corporate jet can use a smaller version to increase employee productivity. Corporations that already operate full-size jets for their executives can add VLJs for their support staff. Air-taxi operations with fleets of VLJs can operate on call or assemble groups of passengers to share a flight’s cost. And it will be easier for airplane owners who trundle along in propeller-driven craft to upgrade to a jet.

It is fitting that the Eclipse 500 will be the first to arrive, since it was Eclipse Aviation, founded by former Microsoft executive Vern Raburn, that launched this new aircraft segment. When Raburn announced about six years ago that his new company was going to produce a six-seat, twin-engine jet that would cost less than $1 million, he encountered considerable skepticism. But a number of emerging technologies supported his vision. Reaching the market were onboard computers, advanced flight controls, and satellite navigation systems, all of which made it more feasible to fly small aircraft in a variety of weather conditions. At the same time, lightweight, powerful jet engines, developed by the military for cruise missiles, were becoming available for civilian craft.

Raburn’s plans for his company’s Eclipse 500 incorporated these advances and improvements in high-volume manufacturing—along with financing from his contacts in the computer industry, including Bill Gates. His idea was to build a jet that a single pilot could fly safely in and out of just about any airport. And as it became clear that pilots, travelers, and nascent air-taxi companies were responding positively to the concept—at last count, Eclipse had received as many as 2,500 deposits for its aircraft—more companies decided to produce their own jets.

The Eclipse 500’s delivery date, once set for as early as 2003, has been pushed back repeatedly. A change in the choice of the Eclipse engine, problems with suppliers, and an excruciatingly slow pace of testing and certification all caused delays in the program. The delivery price rose steadily, past $1 million to about $1.5 million. But Raburn has persevered, and his customers have been patient.

As Eclipse has endured its growing pains, a handful of other VLJ projects have come and gone as financing has dried up or prototypes have failed to perform. The remaining companies have survived a long and arduous journey. Some of these innovators, including Eclipse and Adam Aircraft, have built entire companies from scratch. Their jets are incredibly complex machines to build, requiring engineers, production staff, electronics experts, and test pilots. The airplanes must undergo a long, detailed, and onerous inspection and flight-test program overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration. The engines, airframes, computer systems, and aerodynamics all must perform seamlessly. And finally, a service and support network must be in place, along with a sales force, insurance plans, and training for new pilots.

Having overcome these obstacles, Eclipse and its peers now face the beginning of the second heat. They will have to adhere to production schedules and remain profitable. They will have to meet customers’ needs for training, service, and maintenance support. And they will have to contend with a growing field of competitors.

In 2002, Cessna, one of the world’s oldest and largest manufacturers of private aircraft, entered the VLJ fray. The company unveiled its six-seat Mustang light jet, with a price tag of about $2.4 million, at the annual National Business Aviation Association conference in Florida, and its salesmen went home with 100 orders. Deliveries are expected to start early next year.

Cessna has a significant advantage over the VLJ start-ups. The Mustang is an entry-level business jet, the little brother in the company’s family of beefy Citation planes. The company already has a fully staffed production line and support network in place. Analysts believe that Cessna probably can make a comfortable profit building just 50 to 100 Mustangs per year, while Eclipse has said that it needs to manufacture 500 jets annually just to break even.

Greg Herrick, an entrepreneur based in Minneapolis, is eagerly awaiting the delivery of his Mustang. He plans to fly it himself, for personal transportation and to support his publishing and nonprofit ventures. “Given the performance and sexiness of the airplanes, the speed and reliability of the jet engines, and a price point you’re not going to choke over, these VLJs have a lot of appeal,” he says. “And there’s no beating the utility of a general-aviation airplane for getting where you want to go.”

 

Herrick believes that VLJs will appeal to fliers, such as himself, who are ready to upgrade from a piston-driven or turboprop aircraft but cannot afford or do not need a full-size business jet. “These new jets are great solutions for people who would otherwise buy a high-performance, light, twin-engine airplane,” he says. He is prepared to upgrade his pilot certificate to fly the jet and to fly more often than he does now to maintain those skills. He understands that although the advanced systems in VLJs ease a pilot’s workload, everything happens quickly in a jet, and one must be ready to respond accordingly.

The VLJ manufacturers with planes nearing delivery have developed thorough pilot-training programs. A manufacturer’s training department generally will assess each pilot. You should have at least 500 hours of experience, an instrument rating, and a multiengine rating before you seek a jet type rating, which requires a flight test. Following this, you will fly with a mentor pilot for as long as is required for insurance purposes. Adam Aircraft estimates 20 hours of flight time for the type rating, plus an additional 50 to 125 hours with the mentor pilot. Each manufacturer will also provide computer-based training materials for you to study at home. In the case of the Adam A700, the company has devised a unique training program in which it starts you in its twin- engine A500 piston aircraft and then steps you up to the A700 VLJ. The planes’ cockpits and systems are similar, easing the transition.

Cessna, Eclipse, and Adam all offer extensive technical and maintenance support programs, and each of the planes is loaded with high-end features and performs impressively. In the end, therefore, you can choose the jet that best fits your needs and taste. The Eclipse 500, for example, has limited cargo space but efficient operating costs. Cessna maintains a large number of service centers, but the Mustang is pricier than many of its competitors. The Adam offers an onboard lavatory, which the Eclipse lacks. Adam’s twin-boom design lends it a futuristic look that appeals to some; the Eclipse appears sleek and inviting; and the Mustang projects power and authority.

As the VLJ concept has evolved over the past few years, the designs of new small jets have diversified. While the Eclipse, Adam, and Cessna models have plenty of eye appeal, they are essentially designed to be workhorses. But two Colorado companies are using the same technology to produce personal jets intended to be flown mostly for fun.

For an owner-pilot in search of an aircraft equivalent to a sports car, Aviation Technology Group (ATG) offers the Javelin Executive Jet. This two-seater has the appearance and performance of a fighter jet, and with its pointed nose and jaunty tail, it looks as though it is traveling fast even while sitting on the ground. ATG’s development program received a boost in 2004, when longtime aviation executive Charlie Johnson joined the company following his retirement from Cessna. He was named president soon afterward. “We had to negotiate over the pay,” he said dryly at last summer’s AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis. “How much would I pay them to let me work here?” The jet will climb to 20,000 feet in a little over two minutes and reach a maximum cruising speed of 575 mph. Deliveries are expected to start in 2008, at a beginning price of about $2.8 million.

 

Excel-Jet also is developing a sport-jet design, appropriately named the Sport-Jet, with a roomy four-seat cabin. The prototype crashed this summer in a takeoff accident, and the airplane was wrecked, but neither of the two occupants was seriously hurt. The company now is working on a second plane.

Manufacturers also are introducing aircraft that they are labeling “personal jets.” Designed to be simpler, smaller, and less expensive than planes such as the Eclipse 500 and Adam A700, these jets will have just one engine and will be certified to fly as high as only 25,000 feet. In contrast, the twin-engine Eclipse 500, Adam A700, and Citation Mustang can fly to 41,000 feet. However, at least one single-engine VLJ company executive questions whether it is wise to allow nonprofessional pilots to operate at such lofty altitudes. As an example of the potential hazards, Diamond Aircraft CEO Christian Dries points to the issue of pressurization. “At 25,000 feet, if your pressurization fails, you have about three minutes of consciousness, enough time to recognize the problem and react. At 40,000 feet, you have three seconds,” Dries noted last summer at AirVenture, where his company’s single-engine Diamond D-Jet VLJ prototype debuted.

 

Diamond says that it can offer its elegant little five-seater, which is surprisingly roomy, at a price of about $1.4 million and plans to start deliveries in 2008. It also notes that the D-Jet will be equipped with a built-in parachute—at this point, a feature unique among VLJs—that will lower the aircraft to the ground safely in case of an engine failure or other emergency. Executives at Piper Aircraft and Cirrus Aircraft say that they also plan to offer personal jets, although neither has revealed any specifics yet.

At the heavy end of the very light scale is Embraer’s Phenom 100, a large VLJ—or a smallish light jet—that will fly for the first time next year. And at Oshkosh this summer, a giant elephant entered the VLJ room: Honda Motor Co. Last year, Honda flew its twin-engine, six-seat HondaJet to AirVenture, claiming that it was just an experimental project. This summer, the corporation announced that it will create a new subsidiary, Honda Aircraft Co., based in the United States, to produce and sell the jet. The HondaJet probably will be the highest-priced of the VLJs.

Frequent fliers who do not want a jet of their own nonetheless should find their air-travel options expanding as VLJs become available. Air-taxi operators (see “Fares and Shares,”) are planning to offer swift jet service to thousands of small airports with on-demand scheduling, and other companies are developing VLJ fractional, jet-card, and lease programs. Corporate flight departments have placed orders as well. It has been estimated that as many as 10,000 VLJs will be delivered to customers over the next 15 years.

Plenty of ideas have come and gone in aviation’s short history, and many that seemed promising ultimately failed. At the moment, it is not difficult to find critics who argue that there are large numbers of customers for high-end jets and for commercial air travel, but few potential ones in the middle market for VLJs. They voice doubts about the safety of planes operated by single, nonprofessional pilots, and they question whether VLJ owners will have the dedication and discipline required to fly this new breed of plane. One can imagine arguments much like these being advanced during the early days of piston-powered planes, however. It seems that ultimately, if VLJs succeed in giving people more time, more freedom, and more options, they just might fly.

POISED FOR TAKEOFF

The VLJ category is a broad one, with members ranging from the compact, two-seat ATG Javelin Jet to the eight-seat Embraer Phenom 100, which some would argue is not very light but just light. Assuming that manufacturers meet their timetables, the following VLJs should arrive over the next few years. (Note: Range is calculated at a maximum cruising speed with a 45-minute fuel reserve.)

ADAM AIRCRAFT A700
As many as eight seats, twin engine Maximum cruising speed: 391 mph Ran*e: 1,266 miles Maximum altitude: 41,000 feet Projected first delivery: 2007 Beginning price: $2.25 million 866.232.6247, www.adamaircraft.com

AVIATION TECHNOLOGY GROUP (ATG) JAVELIN EXECUTIVE JET
Two seats, twin engine Maximum cruising speed: 575 mph Ran*e: 1,150 miles Maximum altitude: 45,000 feet Projected first delivery: late 2008 Beginning price: $2.8 million 303.799.4197, www.avtechgroup.com

CESSNA CITATION MUSTANG
Six seats, twin engine Maximum cruising speed: 391 mph Ran*e: 1,300 miles Maximum altitude: 41,000 feet Projected first delivery: early 2007 Beginning price: $2.7 million 800.423.7762, www.mustang.cessna.com

DIAMOND AIRCRAFT D-JET
Four or five seats, single engine Maximum cruising speed: 362 mph Ran*e: 1,391 miles Maximum altitude: 25,000 feet Projected first delivery: mid-2008 Beginning price: $1.38 million 519.457.4000, www.diamondair.com 

ECLIPSE AVIATION ECLIPSE 500
Six seats, twin engine Maximum cruising speed: 425 mph Ran*e: 1,472 miles Maximum altitude: 41,000 feet Projected first delivery: late 2006 Beginning price: $1.52 million 877.375.7978, www.eclipseaviation.com

EMBRAER PHENOM 100
Eight seats, twin engine Maximum cruising speed: 437 mph Ran*e: 1,519 miles Maximum altitude: 41,000 feet Projected first delivery: mid-2008 Beginning price: $2.85 million, www.embraerexecutivejets.com

EXCEL-JET SPORT-JET
Four seats, single engine Maximum cruising speed: 391 mph Ran*e: 1,000 miles Maximum altitude: 25,000 feet Projected first delivery: 2008 Beginning price: $1.2 million 719.495.7221, www.sport-jet.com

HONDAJET
Six to seven seats, twin engine Maximum cruising speed: 483 mph Ran*e: 1,266 miles Maximum altitude: 41,000 feet Projected first delivery date: 2010 Price: under $4 million 888.453.5937, world.honda.com/HondaJet

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