It was the year of the jets at last month’s National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) convention.
Not just any jets, either. The big interest was in VLJs, the Very Light Jets just now starting deliveries to customers.
Oh, there were other airplanes at the convention and a lot of buzz surrounded them, but nothing to compare with the VLJ infatuation.
We counted 355 VLJ sales at the event, ranging from the as-yet-undefined Cirrus entry to mini-airliners from Embraer, and we suspect that we missed plenty. Total VLJ sales probably were closer to 400.
At prices ranging from those hovering around $1 million to more than $6 million, there were VLJs for a wide variety of bank accounts, not to mention purposes. Single-engine entries such as those from Piper, Diamond and Cirrus, attracted the eyes of private pilots planning to move up from sophisticated piston or turboprop aircraft, but also appealed to some of the air taxi start-ups. The twins racked up the larger number of sales, more going to air taxi entrepreneurs than for personal and business use, but reaching an astonishing total.
If you’re in the market, or just want to know what’s out there, here’s the basic information on the current crop of VLJs:
The Eclipse 500 is the revolutionary concept from which the entire Very Light Jet aircraft category has sprung in the 10 years since it was announced. It is a very advanced, very high-tech little jet at a price that is a lot more affordable than its larger predecessors, making practical, for the first time, “personal jet” ownership.
As if that weren’t enough, this little-airplane-that-could has led aviation into a fast-growing new business: point-to-point air taxis.
Full FAA type certification for the Eclipse 500 has been reached, clearing it for single pilot, day or night, VFR and IFR operations with Reduced Vertical Separation Minimums. The FAA also qualified the airplane at – actually below – Stage 4 noise limits. Eclipse is gearing up for full production, which it will need to fulfill the more than 2,500 orders on its books.
“Affordability meets high-tech with our jet,” says Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn. The current price is just $1.5 million in June 2006 dollars. Those dollars buy a lot of innovative manufacturing processes, digital technologies adapted from the data technology industry, and advanced systems from engines to controls to an entirely new fire-suppression system.
Like all of the VLJ manufacturers, Eclipse requires special training for pilots, whether owners or professionals. That includes hands-on upset training in a jet, in the air, not in a simulator. Pilots who don’t pass the course don’t fly the airplane, Raburn insists.
Though starting well behind the pack among the current crop of VLJs, Cessna’s Mustang was the first to be certified in September of this year in a tight race with the Eclipse 500, which might have won had it not have been for supplier problems. But as Jack Pelton, Cessna’s chairman, president and CEO remarked during a VLJ panel discussion at NBAA, the company had the advantage of decades of engineering, production, familiarity with FAA certification procedures, as well as tried and true suppliers. With only flight into known icing yet to be approved (expected to be completed before delivery to the first customer later this year), Cessna is already ramping up for full-scale production at its Independence, Kansas, plant and plans to deliver 40 Mustangs in 2007. The order book now stands at 250 with production sold out until mid-2009.
Transport Canada has certified the Pratt & Whitney PW 615F FADEC-controlled engines that power the Mustang, delivering 1,350 lbs of thrust each. The Garmin 1000-equipped aircraft is also approved for using the GPS Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) as well as RVSM operations. It is further expected that European Aviation Safety Association certification will be received before delivery to the first European customer in the third quarter of 2007. Notably, 60% of Mustang orders to date come from overseas.
The Mustang is considered by Pelton to be a downward extension of the Citation line rather than a VLJ, so owners will have the benefit of scores of long-established Citation Service Centers scattered around the U.S and the world. Mustang training will be provided by Flight Safety with level “D” simulators available in Wichita and Farnborough, England. Single pilot-certified, seating arrangements offered are 1+ 5 or 2+4 plus enclosed lavatory, with 24 aircraft currently on the production line.
The Adam A700 is a turbofan-powered jet with a large (for a VLJ) cabin that can be configured with six seats and a full lavatory, seven seats and a small lavatory or eight seats and no lavatory. The A700 currently is in the certification process with certification expected next year, when deliveries will start. The A500 piston twin from which the A700 was derived already is certified.
Power for the jet comes from a pair of Williams FJ33-4A aft-mounted turbofans, which push it along at a respectable 340 knots at up to 41,000 feet.
As one would expect, the avionics suite includes a full glass cockpit, including a Multifunction Display providing all navigational and engine information. As in many other VLJs, flight control is by sidesticks.
Like its piston-powered sibling, the A700 is an eye-catcher. Its twin tail booms would assure that, if nothing else did, but its sleek, all-composite, Burt Rutan-designed lines hold an eye once caught and demand a thorough study.
For the past three years, Honda has been playing a coy game of hide-and-seek as to whether its HondaJet would enter the VLJ race, stolidly maintaining the aircraft was merely a test bed for the Honda and General Electric codeveloped HF118 engine, developing 1,670 lbs of thrust (subsequently replaced with the more fuel efficient GE/Honda HF120 powerplants at 1,880 lbs of thrust each).
At Air Venture 2006, however, the company announced plans to go for certification and made a huge splash at the NBAA convention in October, including speeches by Takeo Fukui, Honda Motor Co. president, and Michimaso Fujino, Honda Aircraft USA president, a beautiful demonstrator on the floor and tons of glitz. Approximately 800 people attended the press briefing.
Honda claims its jet will be 30-35% more fuel efficient than VLJs of comparable cabin size and have six inches more leg room than any competitor. The aircraft will be manufactured in the United States and will use four Piper distributorships initially as service centers, gradually adding locations until no HondaJet in the U.S. is more than a 90-minute flight from a service/maintenance base. Retail sales will be handled by the Piper distributors while charter and fractional sales will be factory-direct. Honda and Piper both assert that their respective jets will not compete with each other as their markets and pricing structure are different. (For the full story on the PiperJet, see the Nov. 3 issue).
The HondaJet cabin will accommodate five passengers in the standard version and six for air taxi. A refreshment center and fully-enclosed, flushing lavatory also are standard. Avionics are provided by Garmin, including the autopilot.
Notable about this aircraft is the way the engines are mounted on pylons above the trailing edges of the aluminum wings (the fuselage is composite), supported by specially strengthened wing ribs. Reminiscent of the 1960s-era, Sabreliner-sized, German-designed and built VFW-614, Honda took this road to enhance laminar flow characteristics of the wings and allow for a more spacious cabin. Since the engines are adjacent to the rear passenger cabin, it will be interesting to see if EASA and the FAA are satisfied with this arrangement in the case of thrown compressor blades or whether they will demand rotorburst requirements such as engine nacelle containment belts. Customer deliveries are scheduled for 2010.
Honda claims a flurry of orders following the HondaJet introduction, though actual numbers are not known.
EMBRAER PHENOM 100 and 300
Another latecomer to the VLJ/light jet market, this Brazilian manufacturer has every confidence its long history of turboprop and jet aircraft manufacturing will guarantee it a place at the VLJ table when the Phenom 100 is certified in 2008 and the larger 300 a year later. Embraer is already acknowledging more than 300 firm orders, according to Luis Carlos Affonso, executive vp.
The Phenoms will offer a plethora of innovations such as cruise control; automatic fuel, environmental, electrical and pressurization; brushless motors for longer wear; non-filament lighting for longevity; and fuel transfer pumps that may be exchanged without defueling. With an eye to the commuter market, the fuselage is being designed for at least 35,000 cycles based upon a typical utilization of at least 10 years. A central maintenance computer will be installed with datalink to monitor trend lines and diagnostics for various aircraft components, not the least of which will be the two Pratt & Whitney PW535E engines of 1,615 lbs thrust each (100) and 3,200 lbs each (300).
The whole thrust of the Phenom design philosophy is quick turnaround times, low maintenance and operating costs and decreased workload for the pilot. For example, instead of an approximate 14 items to be checked prior to takeoff, the Phenoms require only three — and the engines can be started simply with the push of a button.
Pilot training for the Phenoms will be provided by CAE, which has 22 training centers throughout the world, using laptops, web-based simulation and finally, full flight simulators.
AVIATION TECHNOLOGY GROUP JAVELIN
In a startling departure from the VLJ concept of six to nine seats, the Javelin, which in many respects resembles the F-15 military trainer with its dual, angled tails, offers only two in tandem seating. ATG President and CEO George Bye calls it “the sports car” of the VLJs, purpose-built for the CEO who needs to get somewhere in a hurry for a meeting, taking along his CFO or legal counsel for backup.
The aircraft is being developed in a joint venture with Israeli Aircraft Industries. While the civilian market for this particular Ferrari of VLJs may be somewhat limited, Bye also has his eye firmly fixed on the military market as a lower cost and lower maintenance replacement for existing advanced jet trainers. He is already in discussion with 18 governments and reports favorable interest.
Powered by two Williams FJ-33-4A-18M engines of 1,800 lbs. of thrust each, the Javelin’s avionics suite consists of three-screen panels by Op Technologies.
Recent design changes have included replacing the side stick with a center stick and the canopy sills have been lowered four inches for better look-down capability. The stall speed has also been reduced by approximately 10 knots (to 90 kts) through the use of leading edge slats and Fowler flaps, as well as an increase in both the wing span and area.
Five aircraft are currently active in the test program with certification expected in 2008. The order book stands at 109 firm deposits.
Grob Aerospace AG, recently acquired by Zurich-based Executive Jet Investments, and in business since the 1970s, is no Johnny-come-lately to the world of aircraft manufacturing, having designed and built gliders, military trainers (such as the G115 and G120) and sport planes over the last three decades. The company arguably has the most experience in manufacturing composite aircraft.
Grob’s VLJ, the SPn, was introduced at the Paris Air Show last year. There are now two aircraft in certification flight testing, with EASA approval expected in September 2007, with FAA approval to follow soon after.
The SPn cabin is the largest among the VLJs, comprising 405 cu. ft. Standard configuration includes double club seating for eight passengers, plus a full lavatory forward. The six passenger executive version also includes a galley in the rear of the cabin. Both the cabin and cockpit layouts are designed by Porsche Design Studio to provide an opulent but modern appearance.
The avionics suite is the Honeywell Primus Apex system, including TCAS II, EGPWS and will be RVSM and flight into known icing approved. Powered by twin FADEC-controlled Williams FJ44-3A engines, thrust available for takeoff is 2,820 lbs. each.
Uncommon among small jets, a Honeywell RE-100 APU will be offered as an option for cabin ground pre-cooling, unassisted engine start, etc.
Grob officials expect to sell about 400 SPns over the next 10 years. So far, about 65 orders have been received.
If the point of owning a business jet is to get there as fast as possible, the SJ30-2 is the answer. Quite simply, it is the world’s fastest light business jet. Its high speed cruise is a shade above 0.83 Mach; indeed, its long range cruise speed is 0.78 Mach, faster than the high speed cruise of many rivals.
As the company likes to point out, you can’t get there fast if you have to stop for fuel along the way. With a range of 2,500 nautical miles, the SJ30-2 will make those long hauls such as San Francisco to Honolulu, or non-stop from any city in the continental United States to any other city in the continental United States. Fuel economy is impressive, too: less than 95 gallons per hour, total, at 45,000 feet and 0.78 Mach.
All that speed sacrifices nothing at the low end, however. The sharply-swept wing features big Fowler flaps and leading edge slats for surprising short-field performance. The company says its airplane can get in and out of 3,000 foot runways at light loads and 4,000 feet at its maximum takeoff weight of 13,950 pounds.
Sino-Swearingen calls its Honeywell Epic three-panel EFIS display a “Control Display System,” which seems appropriate. The flat panel setup works well for single pilot operations, for which the SJ30-2 is certified.
The SJ30-2 received its Type Certificate in October 2005, so why, you might ask, isn’t it considered the first certified VLJ? The answer is that the SJ30-2 isn’t really a VLJ. A typical VLJ takeoff weight is around half that of the SJ30-2. However, we include it here because it is being sold to the high end of the VLJ market and is appealing to a VLJ buyer who has more than $6 million to spend on “getting there as fast as possible.”