Turbine Logbook

Light jet, heavy responsibility

March 1, 2012

March 2012
Turbine Pilot Contents

Lately, we’ve seen a new kind of jet owner we couldn’t have imagined when we started offering hourly cost maintenance programs more

than 20 years ago. For most of that time, Jet Support Services Inc. (JSSI) clients have been primarily flight departments operating one or more business jets, each flying hundreds of hours per year.

But the new crop of light jets has brought a new breed of owner/operator. We’re noticing more and more pilots who previously had owned only turboprops or even pistons. They might have flown them for business, personal use, or a combination of the two. Now, lower purchase prices and advanced avionics that make single-pilot operation safer have made it possible for them to own and fly jets such as the Phenom 100, Citation Mustang, and Eclipse 500. But, along with the advantages of owning these aircraft, owners are getting some surprises they hadn’t planned on.

Just as someone doesn’t jump out of a Baron into a Phenom and fly it without a lot of training, the same can be said of the difference between owning a piston and owning a turbine-powered aircraft. In some ways, it’s easier to make the transition in the cockpit than it is in the maintenance hangar. So, many of these new owners are turning to hourly cost maintenance programs to help manage and reduce the often-unexpected costs of owning a jet. It’s one thing to set aside $26 an hour to pay for a piston overhaul. It’s a whole different thing to have the discipline and financial wherewithal to budget $100 an hour per turbine engine—not to mention the occasional $150,000 electronic control unit that goes bad.

Louis C. Seno

If you’re used to prices such as $1,200 to replace a fuel pump on your Baron, you’re going to be in for a shock when you find that same repair is about $25,000 on your shiny new jet. Hourly cost maintenance programs allow you to budget for scheduled maintenance and even cover the cost of such unforeseen repairs.

The increase in cost is driven by the increased sophistication of systems, electronics, and the new engines found in light jets. Most pistons and turboprops are flying on type certificates issued decades ago. With the exception of avionics, those aircraft are still carrying forward the same tried-and-true technology with which they were originally certified. Over the years, common parts have been used on all the variations of that type certificate, bringing more suppliers into the market and lowering prices. The new light jets haven’t been around long enough to create a similar competitive environment. Owners must purchase components from the original equipment manufacturer and their few select vendors at a higher price.

Plus, the new jets come with an airframe full of expensive technology to save weight and produce more power while increasing fuel economy and lowering emissions. You can leave a King Air on the ramp for three or four weeks and it will start up without any issues. There are very few electronic-controlling systems on them. Without much exaggeration, a piston or turboprop engine will keep running as long as you put fuel and spark to it. But in a light jet, the metals are different. Designs are different. Equipment controlling the engines is more advanced and more sensitive to environment and operation.

And that brings us to, perhaps, the biggest difference between the piston or turboprop that a pilot is used to owning and the new jet he or she must maintain now. Jets are made to be flown. A lot. The average charter operation or corporate flight department flies hundreds of hours a year. Five hundred hours is normal. But a business executive who only flies his or her jet to meetings or to family vacations flies a fraction of that. Many light-jet owners fly fewer than 150 hours a year.

Anyone who has ever owned any airplane knows that the biggest enemy of parts and engines is inactivity. If a turbine engine has a TBO of 5,000 hours, the manufacturer assumes it will be flown enough to be overhauled every 10 years so that its internal components will be inspected to make sure they’re still airworthy. Metal corrodes with time because of trapped moisture. Wiring harnesses become brittle, connectors corroded. Those issues crop up whether the airplane is flown 5,000 hours or 50. That’s why some manufacturers require a low utilization inspection (LUI) to remain airworthy—something else unheard of in a piston or turboprop. This can be a simple borescope, a “turbine section” costing around $1,200 per engine—or a full teardown, running $200,000 and up.

Yes, there is a moral to this story, and it’s not, “Don’t buy a jet.” It’s simply, “Plan ahead.” And hourly cost maintenance programs can help you do that. The secret to successfully owning a jet, just like flying it, is to stay ahead of the airplane.

Louis C. Seno, chairman and CEO of JSSI, is a 6,000-hour pilot who has owned several single- and twin-engine piston aircraft.