The Big Idea: Vertical Flight Sees an Electric Boost
This past year the groundswell of innovation in private aviation has gained real lift from financial investment, design and even city planning. Uber Elevate has partnered with eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) manufacturers such as Joby Aviation and Jaunt Air Mobility and plans to establish urban air-mobility networks in Melbourne, Australia; Los Angeles; and the Dallas–Fort Worth area, where its first test site was recently unveiled.
Vertical takeoff and landing aircraft got their start way back in 1947, when one of the early hybrid helicopters/airplanes, the Fairey Gyrodyne, took flight. Various models were dismissed as too loud, awkward and hard to fly, but basically they were too technologically complex for their time. Once the “e” preceded VTOL about a decade ago, the sky race really began. Electric craft can be lighter, emissions-free and up to 100 times quieter than conventional helicopters, and they include built-in safety redundancies if one engine fails. This past year, the race intensified. “We’ve catalogued 260 new designs in the last three years,” says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, a nonprofit supporting VTOL development. “We’re now getting at least one new design each week. We see electric power—behind piston and turbine—as the third revolution in aviation history.”
It’s certainly a gold rush. The major commercial aircraft manufacturers have all revealed eVTOL concepts, and the desire to get in on the action has fueled investment from automotive companies such as Hyundai and Toyota, as well as private-equity groups. Nielsen estimates the annual growth rate will be 15 percent over the next six years, with an estimated market value of $524 million by 2025.
“There are a thousand reasons why this won’t work—battery technology, infrastructure, regulations,” Hirschberg says. “The good news is that all are surmountable, and we have all this money coming in from nontraditional sources. We’ve always had a lot of great ideas in aviation, but never the money to do them. Now we do.”
Business Jet: Gulfstream G700
Every inch matters on a new business jet, especially if the number is larger than the prior generation or a competitor’s model. On the Gulfstream G700, private aviation’s largest business jet yet, the numbers also translate to innovations. The extra 10 feet of cabin space over the G650, Gulfstream’s previous largest, now means a bedroom with en suite for transoceanic travel. The 5 percent extra fuel efficiency comes from state-of-the-art Rolls-Royce Pearl 700 engines, developed specifically for this plane. The six-foot-three-inch cabin height and width of eight feet two inches offer more space for the aircraft’s separate zones. The 10-foot-long countertop in the galley may sound insignificant, but along with all the other equipment that makes for an authentic kitchen, this could be the first business jet where an owner can bring a chef to cook meals, rather than having them catered.
Behind the numbers are the intangibles, small but important details that elevate the quality of life on board. The 21-by-28-inch oval windows let in plenty of natural light or dim electronically with the smartphone app. The white-leather recliners, tested by Gulfstream’s design team at their desks for weeks, ensure the best ergonomics, down to the curve in the handle to adjust the seat. Recessed LED lights eliminate heat spots and can be dimmed to two watts, lower than those in any smart home. The entertainment area has a 43-inch screen that rises from a credenza, with realistic sound emanating not from speakers but from transducers behind the wall panels. Circadian light mimics time zones at a faster rate to ensure a better sleep after a night’s travel. The backbone of quality—the matching wood grains, the perfect stitching in the leather, the subtle curves of the cabin—makes this new aircraft more than the sum of its thoughtful parts. The first deliveries of the G700 are expected in 2022.
Super Mid-Size Jet: Embraer Praetor 600
Embraer’s Praetor 600 is not completely new in the clean-sheet definition of the word. It is, however, such a thorough nose-to-tail revamp of the Brazilian manufacturer’s Legacy 500 that it merits a Best of the Best award for the updated persona. Embraer made critical improvements where they counted most, and while its statement that the 600 is “the best-performing super-midsize jet ever developed” sounds overly confident, the new features support that claim.
he Praetor 600’s full fly-by-wire (FFBW) reduces pilot fatigue in the cockpit, and new, ergonomic sidestick controls create more room there. Most impressively, the jet’s FFBW system continuously and subtly shifts the aircraft to be as aerodynamic as possible, increasing fuel efficiency and minimizing in-flight turbulence.
Upgraded Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics include a first-of-its-kind vision guidance system, which serves as a set of electronic eyes for low-visibility situations. The 600’s Honeywell HTF7500E turbofan engines generate much more thrust than those on the Legacy 500, while the 600 carries 20 percent more fuel. This translates to the best range in its class: 4,018 miles. Add in the upgraded cabin, with its stone floor in the galley and beautifully stitched, lie-flat seats, and it’s fair to say the Praetor 600 does represent the state of the art for its category.
Card Membership: XO
When established charter operator XOJet merged with the upstart JetSmarter app last year to create XO, it injected an exciting new dynamic into private aviation. XO members can charter whole aircraft or individual seats while also having the ability to sell seats on their planes or participate in crowdsourced flights. The four levels of membership, Rise, Select Access, Signature Access and Elite Access, offer varying benefits, hours and rates for different types of fliers. The top two tiers, Signature and Elite, offer free spots on empty legs, dynamic pricing caps of $600 per hour per seat, seat choices on shared flights and the ability to book flights for non-members. The Elite segment also includes zero de-icing fees, a plus for can’t-miss business trips to or from fixed-base operators in colder regions. Clients can also review XO’s “Instant Booking” flights and compare prices against their jet cards’ rates, so they can choose the best option each time. XO also has a pay-as-you-go program at non-member rates. The platform provides access to 115 aircraft owned by parent company VistaJet, along with more than 2,100 other planes, from light and super-mid to long-range. Its “Fly by the Seat” promise, along with the booking app, adds transparency and speed to an industry that can be slow and murky. The upshot: Fliers will know the general category of aircraft they’re chartering before they book—not always a given in this industry.
Cockpit Technology: Garmin Autoland
Maybe it’s because Garmin’s leaders are pilots and aviation enthusiasts them- selves that they understand a cockpit’s needs deeply enough to create a game changer like Autoland and potentially launch a new era of autonomous flight. This automatic landing system, in development for nearly a decade, is available on the Piper M600 SLS, the Cirrus Vision Jet (where it’s marketed as Safe Return) and Daher’s TBM 940. Designed to take control of an aircraft if the pilot is incapacitated or a passenger pushes the emergency button, Autoland works with Garmin’s 3000 integrated flight deck, locating the nearest airport, navigating around hazardous terrain and weather, and communicating its position with the flight tower and passengers. After the air- craft lands itself, it stops on the runway to await emergency teams. Simple to operate, the system required tens of thousands of hours to engineer and test as well as five years of working with the FAA for certification. As part of Garmin’s Autonomi flight solutions, Autoland gives private aviation a critical safety tool, and it soon could expand into other aircraft, including light and midsize business jets.
Light Jet: Pilatus PC-24
Off-road prowess is not a traditional selling point for business-jet shoppers. But anyone looking for a plush, six-passenger aircraft capable of operating from a 2,930-foot-long dirt, snow or grass runway, and then flying 1,800 nautical miles at true airspeeds exceeding 500 mph, has just one option: the Pilatus PC-24.
In February, the PC-24 from the Swiss aircraft manufacturer became the first business jet to be designed, certified and standard-equipped to operate from paved, grass, dirt and snow runways. It passed the rough-field tests in widely varying conditions across multiple test sites. This milestone was welcome news to thousands of private fliers who must access airfields that are hundreds of miles from metropolitan or even local paved-runway airports. The PC-24’s impressive short-runway takeoff and landing capabilities also deliver another edge over traditional business jets: It can operate from nearly twice as many runways around the world.
As the faster, roomier twin-turbofan companion to the storied Pilatus PC-12 turboprop single, the PC-24 lives up to its billing as “combining the versatility of a turboprop with the cabin size of a medium-light jet.” Truly the Swiss-army knife of private planes, the PC-24, with its unmatched operational capabilities, well- designed cockpit and well-appointed cabin, presents a solid argument that it’s the one to beat in the light jet segment. It certainly wins our praise for reliable operation on the world’s most inhospitable runways.
Aircraft Interior: Yasava Solutions
Imagine crossing the Atlantic surrounded by a gentle, green forest and, instead of whirring engines, the sound of birdsong. Yasava Solutions’ new Zen interior combines the comfort of its high-tech seats with large-format OLED displays on all walls to create a customized, immersive experience. The Swiss design firm’s Aïana Wave “anti-gravitational support system”—or, as it used to be called, the seat—was engineered with medical-flight specialists to improve circulation, breathing and sleep during long flights. Beyond the immersive experience, Zen’s OLED walls project any interior layout you might want, from cozy and familiar to restful or keep-you-alert. “Others are experimenting with mood lighting. We’re taking it to the next level,” says Christopher Mbanefo, CEO of Yasava. “We can design wood veneers without actually using wood. An owner can change the design midflight from wood to, say, a stone inlay by pushing a button.”
Diving deeper into sustainability, the Zen could be the first carbon-neutral interior for a large business aircraft. It not only uses materials from verified sustainable sources but also employs a blockchain-based program called Oxï-Zen to offset its carbon footprint, says Mbanefo. “It will allow us to securely and verifiably have the entire carbon footprint accounted for, with satellite images outlining precisely where, when and how each metric ton of CO2 is sequestered.” Which should let eco-conscious owners achieve a next-gen state of Zen.
Helicopter: Airbus ACH130 Aston Martin Edition
Aston Martin has brought its look to motorcycles, home architecture and even submersibles, but the ACH130 Aston Martin Edition is the most sophisticated evolution yet of the carmaker’s DNA. The signature colors—Stirling Green, Jet Black and Skyfall Silver—on the ACH130’s fluid, aerodynamic exterior were so elegant and commanding that the new model quickly found an owner within weeks of being launched. The sports-car-style interior involved a year of collaboration between Aston Martin’s designers and the completions team at Airbus Helicopter headquarters in Oxford, England. The Oxford Tan leather seats mimic those in the DB11, while the rest of the interior is lined with black ultrasuede. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide exceptional views, and the chopper can reach a top speed of 154 mph. The new interior wasn’t simply rubber-stamped; the Aston Martin materials had to fit within the ACH130’s existing weight and safety criteria for flammability and crashworthiness, which differ from standards for autos. In the end the beautiful bird passed, as the saying goes, with flying colors.
VTOL Concept: Transcend Air Vy 400
The majority of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) concepts will remain just that—an idea in the inventor’s mind. Transcend Air, which is preparing to open a funding round to build the first full-scale, manned Vy 400 aircraft, could eventually revolutionize the helicopter segment. The Vy 400 has a cruising speed of 405 mph, three times faster than a similar twin-engine executive helicopter and faster than almost any turboprop airplane. Transcend is taking a different track by using proven P&WC PT6 aircraft engines, rather than the experimental electric engines that its eVTOL competitors are developing. Not only might the conventional engines have a faster path to FAA certification, but they also give the Vy 400 a range of up to 450 miles, compared to the 60-mile distance other electric aircraft are targeting. That means the Transcend could fly from an owner’s Boston backyard—no runway needed—to New York in less than 40 minutes. The ability to land vertically turns skyscraper rooftops and harbor platforms into landing spots. Aimed at private owners, the first Vy 400R (R for reserved) will have a roomy, executive interior with seating for one pilot and five passengers. Bespoke interiors will be available from Huslig Collective. The company expects the Vy 400R to be certified by 2025, and it’ll ready owners by either training them to fly the aircraft or having pilots available.
Humanitarians: Wheels Up
Private-aviation firms are not typically known for fast, far-reaching acts of charity. Wheels Up, however, entered a new realm in 2020 with its Meals Up initiative, which raised the funds to provide 10 million meals to mitigate food scarcity during the Covid-19 crisis. The humanitarian initiative was started by CEO Kenny Dichter, along with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, a Wheels Up member. Dichter was inspired by Wilson and his wife, Ciara, who had donated funds for one million meals to Feeding America. Dichter decided to up the ante to 10 million, personally calling Wheels Up brand ambassadors Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez, Serena Williams, Tim Armstrong, J. J. Watt of the Houston Texans and others, while e-mailing its 8,000 members about the program. Their combined social-media blitz snowballed into contributions from the public. Feeding America provides meals for around 40 million people annually through its partnership with 200 food banks, helping supply 60,000 soup kitchens, church pantries and shelters across the country. Meals Up demonstrates how a small group of influential individuals can rally around a cause to make an instant impact. For that reason, the entire Wheels Up organization—executives and members—are named private aviation’s superlative humanitarians.
Fractional-Share Provider: NetJets
Even with many competitors attempting to chip away at its leadership position, NetJets has remained stalwart in its core missions: safety and reliability. The 56-year-old aviation pioneer has managed to retain its laser focus on clients, even with a larger fleet than many commercial airlines. Its numbers are impressive: more than 750 aircraft across four categories, 300,000 flights annually with access to 200 countries, $80 million in annual investments in crew training. Its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, resembles the operations center of a major commercial airline, with schedulers, dispatchers, owner-services teams and meteorologists reviewing hundreds of flights each day.
What impressed this year was NetJets’ refusal to rest on its laurels. It recycles its older planes, maintaining one of the youngest fleets in private aviation. It recently acquired new models such as the Citation Longitude, which will become integral to its super-midsize fleet, while Bombardier Global 7500’s are coming next year. Beyond the aircraft and infrastructure, NetJets has invested in consulting services to aid owners’ transitions in and out of aircraft ownership and security experts to offer clients elite protection on the ground and in the air. NetJets also implemented extra measures during the Covid-19 pandemic to safeguard clients. That non-negotiable dedication to well-being and safety sets the gold standard.
Innovator: Eric Allison, Head of Uber Elevate
The man leading the biggest revolution aviation has seen in a century is Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate. He already has experience on the cutting edge of aviation, having led Zee Aero, a pioneer in electrical vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. At Uber, his job is to transform cities by deploying fleets of battery-powered air taxis that will hover above the streets, or what Allison calls the “third dimension” of urban transport.
Uber won’t own any eVTOL manufacturers, which now include partners Joby and Jaunt Air Mobility, but will instead provide technology and infrastructure. “We see ourselves as the glue that holds this business model together,” says Allison. He’s given the manufacturers a directive for vehicles with a 60-mile range driven by current battery technology.
“Our vision doesn’t include magic bullets,” he says. “We’re working with government and industry stakeholders to create the world’s first aerial rideshare network.” He expects an Uber air ride to cost about the same as an UberBlack initially.
Three pilot projects—so to speak—are happening, in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia, and despite Covid-19 delays, Allison expects the first Uber Elevate network to launch in 2023, under all existing regulations. He’s also seeing the field expanding, with new eVTOL designs as well as investments from automakers and private-equity firms.
The Elevate vision will extend far into the future. “We’re providing a totally new form of transportation where we can seamlessly link ground trips to the air,” says Allison. “Ultimately, that will help the quality of life in urban centers by having clean, quiet air transport replacing congestion on the ground.”