As the plane readies for takeoff, a controller’s voice comes over the headphones: “We’ve got an experimental on the runway. . . Whoa! Did you build that yourself?”
“About 51 percent,” replies Mike Hooper.
Having received the tower’s appreciation of his plane and its instructions for takeoff, Hooper, chief pilot for Epic Air, taxis behind a midsize jet. When it leaves the ground, he accelerates down the runway, climbs quickly to 5,000 feet, and passes the jet. Soon the experimental aircraft reaches 300 mph, and a fellow pilot, John Grantham, takes the controls.
“This,” Grantham says, “is like driving a muscle car.”
Called the Dynasty, and built by Epic Air of Bend, Ore., the aircraft is essentially a replica of the company’s Epic LT, a single-engine, six-seat, all-carbon-fiber turboprop that was introduced in 2003. Both planes can fly as far as 1,380 miles at a maximum speed of about 400 mph. Soon, however, Epic plans to take the Dynasty out of the experimental category.
Under FAA rules for experimental aircraft, at least 51 percent of each plane must be built by its owner, a process that Epic Air makes fairly easy by inviting customers to its manufacturing facility in Calgary, Alberta, where mechanics assist them. The experimental status allows pilots to fly the plane in the United States without FAA certification. Epic Air expects to receive certification from the Canadian government next year, at which point the Dynasty will not be subject to the 51 percent rule. And under an agreement between the FAA and Transport Canada (the FAA’s Canadian equivalent), Dynasty owners will be able to fly the plane in the United States.
Epic Air already has received more than 40 orders for the $1.95 million Dynasty, which it plans to begin delivering in 2009. Because the turboprop has a turbine jet engine, the company bills it as a very light jet (VLJ). Meanwhile, the manufacturer is developing a six- to eight-passenger twin-engine aircraft called the Elite that will have the profile of a traditional jet. Epic Air says the Elite will reach 470 mph and travel more than 1,840 miles with a payload of close to 1,700 pounds. The company hopes for certification by 2009.
As Epic Air stakes its position in the VLJ arena, other makers of light aircraft are preparing to do the same. Among them is Cirrus Design, which makes the SR20 and SR22 piston-driven planes. “Pilots no longer care where the power comes from,” says Cirrus cofounder Dale Klapmeier. “They want a jet for the same reasons they want any plane: for work, for vacation, for fun, for visiting the kids.” Details of the aircraft remain sketchy, but it appears that the Cirrus VLJ—called simply “the-jet”—will cruise at about 345 mph and have a range of 1,150 miles. Meanwhile, Piper Aircraft, the 70-year-old manufacturer of light planes, is developing a single-engine, six-seat craft that it calls the PiperJet. The plane probably will have a range of about 1,500 miles and reach a cruising speed of 415 mph.
Although both the Cirrus and Piper VLJs will have jet engines, neither will match the power and speed of Epic Air’s Elite—an aircraft that may tempt pilots to call it a muscle plane. —michael schulze & jessica taylor