February 1, 2006
John W. Olcott
While the promise of relatively low-cost, high-performance jets remains unabated, much has changed since the abbreviation VLJ (for "very light jet") emerged several years ago as the label for turbofan aircraft weighing less than 10,000 pounds.
An early entrant, Safire Aircraft, has all but disappeared, with only the hope of converting intellectual property to hardware remaining in the thoughts of a few true believers. Avocet Aircraft lingers close to extinction, its continuation dependent upon yet-to-be-identified partners. On a positive note, South American aerospace giant Embraer entered the arena with its Phenom 100 last year, and aviation legend Linden Blue announced that the all-composite Spectrum 33 twin jet made its first flight on January 7 in Spanish Fork, Utah.
Adam Aircraft is flight-testing the A700 twin jet, a nearly identical-looking stablemate to the certified A500 in-line twin powered by turbocharged reciprocating engines. Cessna Aircraft has flown two Citation Mustangs, with a third one in the wings. Diamond Aircraft anticipated taking its single-engine D-Jet aloft as this article went to press. Eclipse Aviation expects certification of its Model 500 this summer. Honda continues experimenting with the HondaJet but is silent on development plans. And the ATG (Aviation Technology Group) Javelin, which looks like a scaled-down F-18, has flown successfully.
This may be the year when VLJ visionaries see their expectations tested in the reality of routine operations. With owner-pilots of the Eclipse taking initial deliveries and hopefully becoming operational before summer slips into fall, issues such as training and insurability will no longer be subjects of speculation. Within nine months, DayJet will launch a high-frequency, on-demand air-taxi service with the Eclipse 500, the first company likely to prove or disprove the viability of a transportation concept referred to as "sky cabs."
With five aircraft in flight testing and FAA certification anticipated by the end of June, the Eclipse 500 should be first to market. Flutter and structural tests have been completed. A fatigue life of 10,000 hours is expected at the time of certification, but additional testing should extend that number to 20,000 hours. Work is ongoing to refine low-speed characteristics and reduce the aircraft's targeted approach speed to 83 knots from its current VREF of about 87 knots. Aerodynamic cleanup continues, with attention directed to antenna design, wing-body fairings, and the intersection of the horizontal and vertical tails to reduce overall drag and thus achieve the aircraft's targeted high-speed cruise of 375 KTAS.
Of the approximately 2,400 orders placed for the Eclipse 500, about 800 reside with owner-pilots and nearly 1,400 with air-taxi companies; the remaining positions are spread among a variety of operators including a few flight departments. Current price for the aircraft is $1.41 million in 2005 dollars, but the next delivery position for a single-airplane order is not until the third quarter of 2008, at which time the selling price will be escalated by an index based on inflation. In addition to the lowest list price for a VLJ, Eclipse offers its Jet Complete program, which guarantees a cost of $209 per flight hour for maintenance for three years, including hot section inspections, provided the owner flies between 300 and 3,000 hours during that time period. A similar program, called Jet Complete Business, is designed for operators that expect to fly between 250 and 1,500 hours annually.
By late 2007, Eclipse anticipates ramping up to an annual production rate of 750 aircraft, which is about 200 more than the units needed to break even and about three times the number of Citations that Cessna Aircraft delivered last year. Considerable funds were spent on tooling and manufacturing processes to have unprecedented production volume and correspondingly low cost per unit. According to Eclipse founder Vern Raburn, about $450 million has been invested in his company.
"Starting an aircraft company is not easy," commented Raburn, "but we believe the 500 will appeal to all markets, just as the Twin Beech Model 18 did decades ago and the Cessna Caravan does today." The aircraft's extensive use of digital avionics (there are only two mechanical circuit breakers for the entire aircraft), Avidyne glass instrumentation, and Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofans position the Eclipse 500 to be competitive for many years.
Also scheduled for certification in 2006 is the Cessna Mustang, the smallest of the company's Citation line of aircraft. Powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F turbo-fans and featuring Garmin G1000 avionics, the aircraft has room for six seats and achieves a high-speed cruise of 340 knots.
Cessna's order book of about 230 aircraft reflects the company's belief that VLJs will not fundamentally alter the market for business and personal aviation. In fact, Cessna discourages the VLJ label for the Mustang, preferring instead to position the aircraft as an entry-level jet. Some air-taxi operators have interest in the Citation Mustang, but no fleet commitments have been placed by proponents of the sky-cab concept. Most orders are held by owner-pilots who wish to move up to a jet or by companies with a need for a smaller aircraft. Cessna reports a stronger-than-anticipated interest in the Mustang from European operators that want jet performance with a lighter aircraft since the continent's onerous user fees are predicated upon gross takeoff weight.
Roger Whyte, Cessna's senior vice president of marketing, believes that the demand for twin-engine jets weighing less than 10,000 pounds is more modest than the numbers espoused by VLJ visionaries such as those at Eclipse. His employer plans to produce about 60 aircraft during the first year of production, which reflects the company's rather conservative attitude toward the very-light-jet movement. Priced at $2.395 million in 2005 dollars, a Citation Mustang ordered today will not be available until 2009, but presumably production could be increased at Cessna's facility in Independence, Kansas, where the aircraft will be manufactured, should demand exceed Cessna's current projections.
Not only has Cessna delivered more business jets than any other manufacturer, but also the company introduced single-pilot operations for sophisticated turbines. Citations are popular with charter operators. Thus, Cessna's rather conservative attitude toward the VLJ movement, including sky cabs, demands respect.
Adam Aircraft, manufacturer of the all-composite A700 VLJ, expects certification in about 12 to 18 months and will be satisfied with the ability to begin deliveries during 2007. While significant commonality exists between the A700 twin jet, which is powered by Williams International FJ33-4 turbofans, and the certified A500 in-line twin powered by turbocharged recips, certification of a jet is a challenge subject to additional criteria not applicable to piston-powered products. Since its initial flight in July 2003, a nonconforming A700 prototype has accumulated more than 300 flight hours, flown to Flight Level 300, and achieved 310 KTAS. Two A700s that comply with FAA certification standards for the design are expected to be airborne this spring.
More than 285 orders have been placed for the A700, which is priced at $2.25 million in 2005 dollars. Individual owner-pilots have spoken for about 60, while 75 delivery positions have been ordered by Pogo, the start-up sky-cab company led by Robert Crandall, former chief executive officer of American Airlines. Various undisclosed operators of charter fleets hold the remaining delivery spots, according to Adam Aircraft President and Chief Operating Officer Joe Walker. An A700 ordered today could be delivered in the first quarter of 2008. A700 owners will be offered the Adam Support Aircraft Program, which sets the operating cost of the aircraft excluding fuel at $350 per hour for three years or 750 total hours, whichever comes first.
The ATG Javelin, a two-place aircraft constructed from composite materials and powered by a pair of Williams FJ33 turbofans, joined other VLJs that were airborne in 2005 when it lifted off Centennial Airport, near Denver, on September 30. Although not conforming structurally to the aircraft that is expected to receive FAA certification late in 2007 or early 2008, the flight-test aircraft is aerodynamically identical to the design that is expected to begin deliveries in 2008. First flight, with gear down and flaps fixed at 10 degrees, lasted 35 minutes and was limited to 165 knots. Maximum bank angle was 20 degrees, and sideslip was kept below 5 degrees. By flight number three, the Javelin's test envelope expanded to an altitude of 14,000 feet, bank angles up to 45 degrees, and an indicated speed of 185 knots.
ATG has targeted the military trainer market as well as the owner-pilot arena for the Javelin. Toward the end of last year, 106 owner-pilots had placed orders for the Mark 10 Javelin and three fleet purchasers had committed to a total of 17 trainer versions of the aircraft, the Mark 20, which employs a more powerful variant of the Williams FJ33 series. The vast majority of order holders for the Mark 10, which sells for $2.795 million in 2005 dollars, currently own and operate business jets, and many are ex-military aviators. ATG plans to deliver 60 Javelins in 2008 and 120 during 2009. Future production will be influenced greatly by the aircraft's acceptance as a replacement for the many aging military trainers currently in service worldwide. Israel Aircraft Industries is a minority shareholder in ATG, presumably to assist with penetrating the market for military trainers.
Diamond Aircraft predicts that its single-engine D-Jet, powered by the Williams FJ33-4, will be the "Bonanza of the future," according to Peter Mauer, president of the Austrian company's North American division. Components of the all-composite aircraft are fabricated in Austria for assembly at the company's Canadian facilities in London, Ontario. The five-seater is expected to sell for slightly more than $1 million in today's dollars. First flight for the D-Jet, which was anticipated nearly a year ago and which will take place in Ontario, was imminent as Pilot went to press. FAA certification is planned for the second half of 2007, with deliveries beginning in late 2007 or early 2008. Approximately 125 orders have been placed for the aircraft, which will feature Garmin G1000 avionics, a maximum ceiling of 25,000 feet, and possibly a ballistic-recovery parachute system. High-speed cruise is expected to be 315 knots.
The HondaJet, powered by the GE/Honda HF118 turbofan, rounds out the VLJ designs that have flown to date. In fact, with the exception of the Williams FJ22-powered Eclipse that flew only once, in 2002, it was the first of this new class of aircraft to go aloft when daylight appeared under its wheels on December 3, 2003. Since that time, Honda engineers have said only that development continues. No mention has been made concerning certification or production.
Designed to be larger than current VLJs, the HondaJet has specifications calling for a maximum takeoff weight of 9,200 pounds and a 420-knot cruise speed. The test aircraft, the only HondaJet known to exist, has flown more than 200 hours, reaching an altitude of FL430 and a true airspeed of 405 knots. Michimasa Fujino, Honda vice president in charge of the design program, says the HondaJet team "looks forward to the future."
In 2005 Embraer, the highly successful Brazilian manufacturer of commuter and regional aircraft, launched the Phenom 100, a six- to eight-place VLJ to sell for $2.75 million and be available in the 2008 time frame. Powered by Pratt & Whitney Canada PW617 turbofans and equipped with Garmin all-glass integrated avionics, the aircraft is designed for a takeoff field length of 3,400 feet, a maximum operating altitude of 41,000 feet, and a high-speed cruise of 380 knots. Possibly with an eye on the sky-cab market and flight departments, as well as owner-pilots, Embraer predicts it will be a strong competitor in?the hot VLJ market anticipated to exist during the coming decade and beyond.
Another famous name vying for a piece of the VLJ market is Linden Blue, currently vice chairman of General Atomic and chairman of Spectrum Aeronautical LLC, a start-up firm created to develop the Spectrum 33 VLJ. One of the pioneers in composite structures when serving as president of Learfan — a company established to build a single-engine pusher turboprop that was constructed from carbon-fiber materials — and known as the father of the all-composite Beech-craft Starship when he was president of Raytheon Aircraft, Blue is convinced that aircraft constructed from aluminum are passé.
"I wanted to make an aircraft that I can afford," asserted Blue. "We have three King Air 200s — great aircraft — but I wanted lower costs. To achieve those goals — lower initial cost plus lower cost per mile traveled — you must change the physics. Aircraft must be lighter, which led me to composites. Properly executed, composites can significantly lower an aircraft's empty weight, and they eliminate corrosion and extend fatigue life.
"But to achieve the promise of composites," he continued, "you must use them as unique materials, not as replacement material for aluminum. At Spectrum we take advantage of the intrinsic value of composites by employing an Isogrid design — similar to engineering used on the Wellington bomber — that eliminates the honeycomb core. We also plan to automate the manufacturing process and cure as many components as possible into one-piece structures rather than bonding separate parts. The results are impressive. The Spectrum 33 has an equipped empty weight of 3,620 pounds and a maximum gross weight of 7,300 pounds."
The company hopes to have FAA certification in late 2007 or in 2008. Two Williams FJ33-4A turbofans will power the eight- to 10-seat aircraft, which features a cabin length of 18 feet and a maximum ceiling height and width of 4.83 feet. Anticipated VFR range is 2,000 nautical miles and high-speed cruise is predicted to be 415 knots.
In addition to well-known manufacturers and start-up firms closely identified with the VLJ arena, new participants such as Epic Aircraft, Eviation Jets, and Excel-Jet have aircraft in development. Each of these designs involves non-U.S. partners or suppliers.
Epic Aircraft plans to coproduce its all-composite twin jet powered by Williams FJ33-4 turbofans in Bend, Oregon, for the U.S. and Western European markets. Tbilisi Aviation Machine (TAM), located in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the former Soviet Union, will manufacture the Epic Jet for Eastern Europe and Asia. Although first flight of the aircraft was delayed, Epic Aircraft anticipates certification by Brazilian authorities by early 2007, thereby bypassing the backlog of applications to the FAA, and then plans to seek reciprocal consent from U.S. authorities. Details for the aircraft, which is priced at about $2 million, remain sketchy.
Eviation Jets also plans to use the resources of the Brazilian aerospace industry to offer a twin-jet version of the VisionAire Vantage, replacing the original design's single and internally mounted PWC JT-15D with two aft-mounted Williams FJ44-1AP turbofans. Former Embraer Chief Engineer Guido Pessotti is leading the Brazilian component of the company. Targeted for a price between $2 million and $2.5 million and larger than the typical VLJ, the aircraft is expected to have a maximum gross weight of 9,250 pounds and have seating for eight to 10.
Excel-Jet is continuing development of its Sport-Jet, a five-place single weighing 4,800 pounds, powered by a Williams FJ33-4 turbofan, and possibly carrying a parachute recovery system. Completion of the Sport-Jet prototype was delayed because of late delivery of composite wings from the firm's Polish supplier, but first flight should occur soon. Certification for the aircraft, priced in the vicinity of $1 million in today's dollars, is slated to be accomplished within 24 months.
Players have changed, but enthusiasm for the VLJ concept remains strong. With so many companies striving to be part of the emerging VLJ phenomenon, the market continues to evolve with the subtlety of a volcano belching steam.
John W. Olcott, past president of NBAA, heads General Aero Co., consultants for the business aviation community.
Most owner-pilots holding orders for VLJs are new to the performance envelope of these vehicles, and many lack turbine experience. Thus, their insurability and safety are issues of overarching significance. How owner-pilots adapt to VLJs also affects the commercial viability of the aircraft for sky-cab and charter companies. Regardless of the owners' or pilots' qualifications, accidents involving VLJs will discourage the public's interest in using this-size aircraft for transportation.
Eclipse Aviation officials say they will not sell a Model 500 unless its buyer successfully completes a comprehensive training program involving full-motion simulation provided at the United Airlines Training Center in Denver. "We will offer a training syllabus and procedures just like the airlines," said Eclipse Chief Executive Officer Vern Raburn. "Based upon our program," he continued, "a qualified Eclipse pilot will be able to secure full hull coverage and liability insurance up to $10 million through AIG, and there will be no new-aircraft premium." Eclipse and AIG hope to publish rates early this year.
Adam Aircraft expects to finalize its training program as the A700 moves closer to certification. Because of the similarity between the two aircraft, Adam hopes to design training criteria linked to A500 experience and encourage insurability for A700 pilots who have flown the A500.
Cessna and FlightSafety International have agreed on a program that consists of four legs for training and initial operating experience with mentor pilots. Leg one entails counseling with the mentor prior to training to determine the owner-pilot's "Proficiency Index" based on experience, ratings, and currency. Leg two is also preparatory to simulator and flight training. Based on the results of leg one, the owner-pilot receives supplemental courses, via distant-learning techniques, during leg two to come up to speed on relevant subjects such as IFR regulations and procedures, high-altitude operations, weather issues, RVSM (reduced vertical separation minimums), crew resource management for the single pilot, and operation of Garmin G1000 avionics. Leg two also includes additional interviews to ensure that nothing has been overlooked.
Leg three involves earning the FAA type rating for the Citation Mustang, using full-motion simulation to prepare the Mustang owner for single-pilot, as well as crew, flight. Leg three activities also will address recurrent training to maintain pilot privileges.
Leg four is the heart of the Cessna mentoring program for Mustang pilots. Using the National Business Aviation Association's NBAA Training Guidelines: Single Pilot Operations of Very Light Jets and Technically Advanced Aircraft and criteria developed as part of the FAA/Industry Training Standards (FITS) program, the mentor will act as the owner-pilot's teacher, advisor, coach, counselor, and tutor during the supervised operating experience (SOE) and initial operating experience (IOE) phases of flight. At this stage of development, neither Cessna nor FlightSafety will say precisely when the mentoring process starts or ends. The objectives are safe and effective operations of the Mustang as well as owner-pilot insurability.
Cessna will provide each mentor pilot with 10 hours of training free of charge, and one training slot for the owner accompanies each aircraft sale. Mentor pilot standards, guidelines, and recurrent training are in development. — JWO
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