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Pilot's Delight

Bailey S. Barnard and Mary Grady

A number of highly anticipated personal aircraft appear to have survived the recession and are moving through their certification processes and toward production. Two personal jets (formerly known as very light jets), the HondaJet and the Eclipse 550, are almost ready to enter service. A third, Cirrus’ Vision SF50, has been revived by the company’s new Chinese owner. And as Southern California’s Icon Aircraft readies its A5, a towable recreational airplane with folding wings, across the country, in Massachusetts, another start-up company prepares to produce what has long been only a science-fiction fantasy: a flying car. 

HondaJet ✪The HondaJet is the shining hope of the personal-jet industry. It has been in the works since 1997, and with the backing of one of the world’s largest carmakers, the $4.5 million aircraft has steadily progressed through development, prototype production, and certification.

The plane’s manufacturer, Honda Aircraft Company, a subsidiary of the Japanese automotive giant, was founded in 2006—though Honda’s research and development into aerospace began as early as the mid 1980s. The company is headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., where it employs more than 800 workers. Honda has produced six FAA-conforming examples of the aircraft for the purpose of flight and structural testing. In May, the latest HondaJet, which is outfitted with the same cabin appointments as future production aircraft, completed its first flight.

About this time last year, Honda was expecting to begin deliveries as early as this fall. However, during recent 150-hour block endurance testing of the GE Honda HF120 turbofan engine that powers the aircraft, an unspecified issue occurred with a bolted joint within the engine’s accessory gearbox. The engine’s manufacturer, GE Honda Aero— a partnership between Honda and General Electric’s aviation branch—modified the engine slightly and successfully completed the 150-hour block endurance test in April. GE Honda Aero anticipates engine type certification by the end of this year. This setback will delay the aircraft’s FAA certification until late next year; deliveries are expected to follow shortly thereafter.

The HondaJet is equipped with two of the powerful GE Honda HF120 engines, which are mounted above the wings. (The jet has a nearly 40-foot wingspan.) Together, the engines produce 4,100 pounds of thrust that takes the aircraft to its 43,000-foot flight ceiling—2,000 feet higher than that of the Cessna Citation Mustang and Embraer Phenom 100 entry-level jets, and at a considerably faster climb rate. Honda says that the jet has 15 to 20 percent better fuel efficiency than other aircraft in the category. It cruises at 483 mph and has a range of approximately 1,350 miles.

In the standard configuration, the HondaJet seats four passengers in a cabin that is 5 feet wide, 4.8 feet tall, and 12.1 feet long; an optional side-facing seat can be added. The two-seat cockpit can be operated by a single pilot, thanks to the Garmin G3000 touchscreen avionics suite. Perhaps the most notable amenity of the jet’s interior is its standard lavatory, which has a sink, a vanity, and a solid pocket door, and can be serviced from outside the cabin.

While the jet’s certification process continues, Honda has begun building a $20 million customer-service facility at its headquarters at North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad International Airport. The company has received more than 100 orders for the aircraft.  —Bailey S. Barnard

Honda Aircraft Company, 336.662.0246, hondajet.honda.com

Eclipse 550 ✪Eclipse Aerospace plans to deliver the first Eclipse 550 this fall. The Albuquerque, N.M.–based manufacturer has spent the last several years servicing the fleet of 260 Eclipse 500 jets that were delivered before the original company, Eclipse Aviation, declared bankruptcy in 2008. The Eclipse 550 is an enhanced version of the 500. It features auto-throttle (which conserves fuel and reduces pilot workload), an iPad-compatible entertainment system for the cabin, more choices for avionics (including synthetic vision), and an extended three-year warranty. The 550 has a range of 1,300 miles while cruising at 430 mph and burning less than 60 gallons of fuel per hour. It seats as many as four passengers in the cabin and has two seats in the cockpit, including one for the pilot.

Eclipse Aerospace CEO Mason Holland, who brought the original company out of bankruptcy with a group of investors in 2009, says he expects to deliver 30 to 40 jets by the end of 2014. According to Holland, the Eclipse jets in service have proven popular with business owners, who use them for both work-related and personal travel.

Mark Tate, who owns a law firm in Savannah, Ga., flies an Eclipse 500 jet from the original fleet and has placed an order for a new 550, which has a starting price of $2.9 million. “The Eclipse jet really was the absolute right jet for me and my law firm’s needs,” says Tate. “This plane makes it so I can be in south Florida, Washington, D.C., New York, or Chicago very rapidly.”

In addition to enjoying the convenience of flying on their own schedules, Tate and other Eclipse jet owner-operators have access to smaller airports that often are closer to their destinations than the larger airports that accommodate commercial flights. Tate says that wasting time on travel is wasting money, especially for a lawyer. “I think I’m far more efficient in terms of servicing our clients,” he says. “The Eclipse jet fits exactly what I need.” The 550’s upgrades and new warranty convinced Tate to trade up.

Holland says the Federal Aviation Administration recently upgraded the service life of the Eclipse 500’s engine to 20,000 cycles (a takeoff and landing is one cycle), giving it an average lifespan of 50 years. “That shows a lot of confidence in the structure of the aircraft,” notes Holland, whose company is building the new jets with a patented process called “friction stir welding,” which eliminates the use of rivets to fasten the components of the airframe and thus enhances the plane’s structural strength.  —Mary Grady

Eclipse Aerospace, 877.375.7978, www.eclipseaerospace.net

Cirrus Vision SF50 ✪For pilots, the leap from propeller airplanes to jets can be daunting. The single-engine Vision SF50, the debut jet from Cirrus Aircraft, is designed to make that move more manageable. “We designed the airplane to be a step up for our SR22 owners,” says Dale Klapmeier, Cirrus’ cofounder and CEO. “It goes faster, flies higher, flies farther, and carries more than our current airplane.”

The Vision SF50 seats five people including a pilot (two additional seats are available for children or small adults) and will cruise at about 345 mph for as far as 1,150 miles. The placement of the engine aft on top of the fuselage creates space for a large luggage compartment and a roomy cabin. The design also allows for engine noise to be carried back and away from the passenger area, making for a very quiet jet. 

“We didn’t try to compete with all the other jets out there,” says Klapmeier. “We wanted to create what will be the next airplane that our customers want.” The company has received more than 550 orders for the $2 million aircraft. Many of the orders have come from current Cirrus owners, and the first were received as early as 2006. “So they’ve [Cirrus owners] been patiently holding on to the dream,” says Klapmeier.

The aircraft’s progress stalled during the recession and did not resume in earnest until April, when CAIGA, the Chinese aviation company that acquired Cirrus in 2011, agreed to cover all the costs for the Vision jet through certification and initial production. Since then, Cirrus, which is based in Duluth, Minn., has been moving forward at a steady pace, setting up the production line and developing a training program for pilots. Klapmeier says he now expects to deliver the first Vision jets to customers by the end of 2015. 

One of those in line is Michael Marto, a business owner based in Atlanta who currently flies a fifth-generation SR22 up and down the East Coast for work. He owns a fractional share in the SR22, which is professionally managed, but he is looking forward to taking delivery of his own Vision jet sometime in 2016. Marto says that he considered other options, from turboprops to small twin-engine jets, but ultimately decided that the cost and performance of the Vision jet would best suit his needs. His long-term relationship with Cirrus also was an influence. “I love the culture at Cirrus. They’re passionate about aviation,” says Marto, also noting Cirrus’ record for innovation and safety. “I felt like they were the solid bet.”  —M.G.

Cirrus Aircraft, 800.279.4322, www.cirrusaircraft.com

Icon A5 ✪Icon Aircraft’s debut model is primed to jump-start a new segment of the recreational-aircraft industry. The 23-foot-long, 7.1-foot-tall amphibious light-sport aircraft (LSA)—a category that the Federal Aviation Administration created in 2004—features wings that tilt vertically and fold flat against the side of the fuselage, reducing the plane’s width from 34 feet to 8.5 feet. The aircraft can then be towed behind an SUV or a pickup truck on a specially designed towing trailer, much like those used to tow ski boats.

With a range of 345 miles and room for 60 pounds of luggage, the two-seat A5 is ideal for weekend getaways. The 100 hp piston engine, which is mounted to the rear of the carbon-fiber airframe and faces backward, takes aviation or automotive fuel. The engine enables a top speed of 120 mph. Equipped with retractable landing gear, the A5 can operate from Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Flathead Lake, Mont.; and other bodies of water where seaplanes are allowed.

Icon has received nearly 1,000 orders for the A5, which has a base price of $139,000. Those orders have created a production backlog of about three years. To help with production, Icon, which is headquartered in Los Angeles, has partnered with Cirrus Aircraft, calling on its composite manufacturing expertise to produce the A5’s airframe components at Cirrus’ North Dakota factory. And in June, Icon announced that it had raised about $60 million in investment capital, which, according to the company, will take it through full-scale production.

The A5 is relatively easy to fly. The pilot seat and copilot seat are each equipped with a joystick that controls pitch and roll, and rudder pedals that control the yaw. Analog gauges on the uncluttered instrument panel in the pilot-side dash display airspeed, angle of attack, and fuel level, among other readings. The center dash houses a removable GPS display, digital displays for the radio and transponder, knobs for cabin heating, and switches for adjusting the trim, raising and lowering the landing gear, and other functions.

Obtaining the sport-pilot license required to operate the A5 takes only 20 hours of flight training compared to 40 hours for a private-pilot license. Sport pilots are limited to flying at sub-10,000-foot altitudes (or within 2,000 feet of the ground above 10,000 feet), during the day, in clear weather, and in uncongested airspace.

For safety, the A5 is available with an optional airframe parachute. Also for safety, the A5’s wing is designed with a cuffed leading edge and other aerodynamic features that can help the pilot maintain control of the plane during an unintentional engine stall and prevent the aircraft from entering a spin. This spin-resistant wing design is a recent alteration to the A5, and it increases the plane’s weight to 250 pounds over the FAA’s 1,430-pound limit for LSAs. Icon CEO Kirk Hawkins says he is confident that the FAA will grant the company’s request for a weight exception, but as of July, the agency had yet to respond. Consequently, though Icon has a plan in place for either outcome, deliveries of the aircraft have been delayed until at least spring of next year.  —B.S.B.

Icon Aircraft, 424.201.3500, www.iconaircraft.com

Terrafugia Transition ✪Like the jetpack, the flying car is part of a future that was supposed to have arrived already. At Terrafugia, that future is now. The company’s prototype Transition achieves 35 mpg on the road and flies with a cruising speed of about 100 mph and a range of about 400 miles. It is equipped with wings that unfold automatically and has a separate steering wheel and control stick.

Terrafugia, a company that was founded in 2006 and is based in Woburn, Mass., has been inching the vehicle through a double-certification process that requires it to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s aircraft regulations and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s motor vehicle safety standards. 

Terrafugia is currently test-flying the second Transition prototype and has begun designing a third. The company also has plans to build fuselage structures for NHTSA crash testing. CEO Carl Dietrich says that, depending on how the testing goes, deliveries of the Transition could begin as early as 2015.

Terrafugia has received more than 100 orders for the $279,000 Transition. Orders require a $10,000 refundable deposit. “As we’ve gotten further into the details of what’s required to bring this product to market, our customers have stuck with us, and so have our investors,” says Dietrich. “Despite the challenges we’ve had along the way, we really are getting close.”

Butch Weaver, of Pagosa Springs, Colo., has placed a deposit on a Transition, and he has invested in Terrafugia. “I have several aircraft, and what appeals to me about the Transition is the gee-whiz factor,” he says. “That idea of being able to both fly and drive is just completely fascinating to me.”

Weaver says he looks forward to using the airplane for weekend trips, to fly into small airports and then drive off to explore the local areas. For longer flights, he says, he looks forward to having the option of landing and driving if faced with bad weather, instead of having to land and wait out the storms. “I think that makes a huge safety difference,” he says.

Terrafugia recently released a design concept for its next- generation flying car, the TF-X, which, Dietrich says, will feature highly automated capabilities that could dramatically improve safety for personal aviation. “If we can say flying this airplane is safer than driving your car, that’s huge.” —M.G. 

Terrafugia, 781.491.0812, www.terrafugia.com

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