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We are sure that there is nobody here who can’t recall the childhood tale of the little engine that could. On that assumption- you should understand when someone says the FJ44 is the little engine that did. Sixteen years ago the certification of the Cessna CitationJet and Williams International’s FJ44-1 marked the first penetration of the jet-engine market by a new company in about 40 years. ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st June 2008
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Big Power In Small Packages:
A power-centric Interview with Williams International’s Matt Huff.

We are sure that there is nobody here who can’t recall the childhood tale of the little engine that could. On that assumption- you should understand when someone says the FJ44 is the little engine that did.

Sixteen years ago the certification of the Cessna CitationJet and Williams International’s FJ44-1 marked the first penetration of the jet-engine market by a new company in about 40 years. Williams achieved the milestone by first building on its legacy of pioneering economical- small turbine engines for unmanned roles. The company grew and advanced- maturing to the point at which it turned its focus on the engine that rewrote the boundaries of jet aircraft power. In the process- the FJ44 made possible a new stratum of light jets which essentially reinvented and reinvigorated the entry-level segment. Today- the smaller sibling to the FJ44- the even smaller FJ33- is doing the same for a whole new class of aircraft. That’s the way it’s always been in aviation: Designers- dreamers and schemers conceive a new kind of flying machine. But without a suitable engine- the only way these ideas fly is as paper airplanes. Without Charlie Taylor’s unique answer to the need for an engine to power their Flyer- the Wright Brothers craft could never have flown.

Fifty-two years after the Wrights’ first flights- an engineer in Detroit left a solid job at Chrysler to pursue a vision of small- inexpensive turbines fulfilling a variety of needs. Equipped with some ideas- some personal funds and that vision- company patriarch Dr. Sam Williams started Williams Research in 1955.

The name changed years later- but the ideas and vision of small- affordable- problem-solving turbines remains unchanged as the company developed and produced a series of inexpensive turbine engines for a variety of non-manned applications- such as maritime drones for training Navy gunners.

Many may know of Williams for a revolutionary small turbofan light enough and powerful enough to drive cruise missiles on the one-way flight to their targets. In the early 1980s- however- the company turned its focus to something all new – a light- compact- simple turbofan suitable for a family of new jets aviation dreamers had long forecast as the next horizon in personal flight.

“That’s what really motivated our company for a couple of decades-” explained Matt Huff- Williams’ vice president of business development and a 30-year veteran of the company. “We dreamed of a new family of small aircraft that could bring to more pilots the benefits of flying a jet- and we knew that smaller- cheaper- more-efficient engines were the key.”

So it came to pass that a legendary aircraft designer approached Williams in a quest for a powerplant for a new type of entry-level jet. That designer was Ed Swearingen- the airplane the SA30 – later the SJ30.

The FJ44 was- at the time- the only option available for the aircraft Swearingen envisioned – small- light- fast- and capable of making a transcontinental flight on a fuel load well below that required by existing engines. Those engines might have had the power- but they would have required more structure- added more weight- and left Swearingen with the task of compromising either range or payload. He wanted to compromise neither. The FJ44 required no compromises - Williams had its launch customer.

Shortly after Swearingen tapped the new engine for his jet- Cessna also opted for the engine for its reinvention of the original owner-pilot oriented Citation 500 entry-level jet- the ground-breaking CitationJet.

The convoluted path of the SA30 to the certificated SJ30 eliminated its market lead. But in 1992- Williams and Cessna both had fresh FAA type certification- Cessna for its new CitationJet- and Williams for its new FJ44. Noted Huff- “We already had 10 years of development work behind the FJ44 when we certified it. But we had been a long-time convincing customers that there was a real market for FJ44-powered light jets.”

Ed Swearingen and Russ Meyer at Cessna helped Williams on the road to convincing a skeptical world that this market was ‘real’. It’s been so real that Williams has certified seven variants of the FJ44 and is currently certifying three more. “Most variants have been launched in concert with a new or improved CJ model-” Huff noted. “Cessna’s CitationJet program has been very important for us and the relationship has been mutually good.”

Breaking ground
The FJ44’s entry into the commercial aviation engine market represented the first time in 40 years that general aviation had a new player in the jet engine field. The FJ44 thrived beyond the expectations of the days when it was new and unproven. To date- Williams’ deliveries of the FJ44 line exceed 3-500- and the FJ44 fleet has exceeded a cumulative 3.5 million hours flying. This year the company will deliver roughly 500 engines - a figure destined to grow. Each of the past four years- that annual delivery figure has been higher than the prior year by double-digit percentages- Huff told World Aircraft Sales Magazine. “We have a substantial backlog too-” he added- “so growth looks good for years to come.”

Credit for a significant element in that growing backlog belongs to the smaller FJ33. This 1-900-pound-thrust-class engine powers the two top contenders in a spin-off niche of VLJs- the Personal Jets. These new four-to-five-seat single-engine jets mark the closest manifestation yet of the dream some hold for democratizing jet aviation by offering jet power at a price point that any pilot who can afford a new plane can realize.

“The Personal Jet market was a lot longer coming than we first thought-” Huff conceded- “but to see that dream materialize is very gratifying after all these years.” Aviation industry players edged near this bar before- back in the 1990s; but none crossed the threshold until Adam Aircraft gave the FJ33 a launch customer- and Williams warmed to the idea of a single-engine jet powered by one of its engines. Established- experienced airplane makers are now developing four-to-five-seat Personal Jets powered by one jet where two has long been the norm. Williams’ FJ33 currently owns the market for the upcoming Personal Jet field as the engine of choice for Cirrus Design’s the-jet and Diamond Aircraft’s D-Jet.

If other Personal Jet players emerge- Williams stands likely to capture the power spot on them- if past is prologue- because- since its landmark certification of the FJ44- Williams has dominated both the Light and Very Light Jet segments.

The Light Market and the FJ44
In the VLJ segment- competitor Pratt & Whitney Canada provides the power to the current major contenders- Cessna’s Citation Mustang and Eclipse’s 500. Outside these two- though- Williams dominates in the VLJ and PJ markets.

The FJ33- which covers the 1-000-1-900-pound-thrust range- has been tapped for Spectrum Aeronautics’ Independence Light Jet and the Epic Elite VLJ – in addition to the Cirrus the-jet and Diamond D-Jet Personal Jets noted previously.

Meantime- the FJ44 line offers four choices ranging from 1-900-2-100 pounds of thrust of the FJ44-1AP- the 2-300-to-2-400 pounds of thrust of the FJ44-2- the 3-000 pounds of push available from the FJ44-3- and the FJ44-4’s 3-600 pounds of thrust. FJ44-1 variants power Cessna’s CJ1 and CJ1+- and upgraded Saab SK60 trainers. FJ44-2 engines power Hawker Beechcraft’s Premier IA- Cessna’s CJ2 and the Sino-Swearingen SJ30. Additionally- the Sierra FJ44 Citation and Spirit Wing Learjet 25 upgrade programs both employ the FJ44-2. And the late Steve Fossett’s Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer set its flight records on a single FJ44-2.

Tapping the FJ44-3 are Cessna’s CJ2+ and CJ3- Grob’s spn- as well as Piper’s upcoming PiperJet in its first factory-aircraft single-engine role- while the FJ44-4 is the engine of choice for Cessna’s latest variant of the original CitationJet- the CJ4.

What sets Williams apart
Compared to most of its competitors- Williams is a small outfit- employing just over 1-000 people to design- engineer- test- produce and support all of the company’s products. The headquarters in Walled Lake- Michigan- employs about 450 handling Research & Development- Product Support and Administration. The remaining 550+ work at Williams’ manufacturing center in Ogden- Utah.

Williams benefits from its ownership structure and the underlying philosophy- as Huff explained it. “We are an engineering company – that’s what makes us go.” Williams is also privately held- which means “No shareholders to answer to on Wall St-” explains Huff. “I think that’s pretty rare in our business and it has certain advantages. They’ve certainly outweighed the disadvantages.”

For one thing- deciding on tackling a project and implementing the development is wholly an inside decision – a decision based on Williams’ own view of the market and its own technologies. “Profits-” Huff said- “go on the list after technology. That’s one of the virtues of being privately owned.”

As a result- some of Williams’ engineers focus continually on ways to improve and advance both its engines and the manufacturing technologies behind them. You can see evidence of this successful approach in how Williams continuously improved and refined both the FJ44 and FJ33 lines to raise their power- reduce their fuel consumption and increase their reliability.

“We’ve progressively improved the aerodynamics inside our engines to bring about increases in power and improvements in efficiency-” Huff adds. “As a result- our engines are 16 percent more fuel efficient today than when we first certificated the FJ44.”

The power improvements also come through subtle changes in the components that handle airflow- from the single-piece fan to the compressor stages and power turbines. “And we feed that improvement back through earlier models-” Huff added. Another element in Williams’ success story is what Huff described as its ‘vertical integration’. “We are a very vertically integrated company-” he stressed. “We like to keep most of the manufacturing processes in-house- especially the proprietary processes.”

As a result- Williams does its own castings and machining- to the point of inventing new processes and new machine applications to fit its needs. When the engineers come up with an improvement in the engine it usually involves improving manufacturing processes to support the change. “We do all of that in-house – it’s more efficient and easier to manage-” Huff explains. “We want to keep a technical edge over our competitors and one way to do that is to keep our advances private.”

Williams’ approach is a very different philosophy- and is obviously very capital intensive- he noted. “But we’ve been successful at it and it works for us.” In fact- these approaches have been a hallmark of the company for decades. The company- for example- applied lessons learned in making smaller turbines for marine- drone and cruise-missile applications throughout its operation.

Huff points out that Williams engineers also worked at figuring out how to combine the functions of many parts into one part- then inventing new manufacturing processes and new ways to solve problems. This philosophy informed the whole company- and it shows in the low parts count and impressive reliability record built up by the FJ44 over its 3.5 million hours of operation and in the list of companies selecting Williams’ engines to power their aircraft.

Going forward by going smaller?
Despite the progress and success Williams has earned with the FJ44- the FJ33 was really closer to the founder’s original idea: A small turbofan so the everyman pilot could have a shot at flying a jet.

“That was the original target-” Huff recounted. “The original idea was to do a small turbofan that would make available affordable jet flight to a whole lot more pilots. That’s what really motivated our company for a couple of decades. The FJ33-size of engine is something we’ve been developing almost as long as the FJ44-” Huff explained. “The 33 was our original project but the market for the 44 arrived first.” Still- he noted- “The dream of smaller and smaller turbines is still alive. To go smaller and make it affordable- that is the hurdle. As the turbine gets smaller the cost of manufacturing doesn’t go down as fast as the thrust.” With costs dropping at a rate disproportionately small compared to the drop in size and thrust- the industry may be looking at the bottom of the market – at least with today’s technologies and processes.

Williams built and flew a couple of smaller turbofans in the 700-1-000-pound thrust range- one on a developmental aircraft built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites- another- the EJ22- on the early prototypes of the Eclipse 500.

For reasons Williams continues to dispute- Eclipse dropped the EJ22 for a significantly larger version of the PW600 family- a change which set off an airframe-design ripple effect that consumed a full two years.

And the engine is now more or less on the shelf. “Today- the smallest practical turbines are the Williams FJ33 and Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PW600 series-” Huff said. That said- he noted- Williams’ engineers continue to search for the path to the powerplant holy grail. “Who knows-” Huff conjectured- “that day may come.” And that makes it worth remembering: 20 years ago- the ‘nay-sayers’ predicted Williams would never certificate an engine. When the company did- the nay-saying turned to the impracticality of even smaller engines. Well- the FJ33 pretty much put that doubt to rest- too.

When so many said so often that it couldn’t be done- Williams is- after all- the little company that did.

More information from www.williams-int.com

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