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A look at the VLJ and Personal Jet markets. It seems that every advance in business and technology spawns a host of people and businesses - usually each with its own take on how to make a small fortune realizing that vision. Remember- however- the truth in the old aviation riddle- not all those aspirants make it to the finish line that is certification and serial production. Doubtless you’ve heard it said: “Do you know how to ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st March 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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VLJ/personal jet round-up 2008

The Downsizing Of Jets Continues:

A look at the VLJ and Personal Jet markets. It seems that every advance in business and technology spawns a host of people and businesses - usually each with its own take on how to make a small fortune realizing that vision. Remember- however- the truth in the old aviation riddle- not all those aspirants make it to the finish line that is certification and serial production. Doubtless you’ve heard it said: “Do you know how to make a small fortune in aviation? Start with a large one.”

The truth is that developing even a small- inexpensive business aircraft takes a lot of bucks ultimately - put up by people with as much faith as fortune in the project. For a few of those great ideas- there will either be too few bucks- for whatever reason- which ultimately results in too little faith. For others- the flight path to success will bring more turbulence than expected and hinder- if not halt- progress. Meanwhile- some of the stronger survive the shake-out and proceed to profit and sustainability. And so it is- that this review of the VLJ field is changed somewhat from our last in 2007. As of this writing- it also seems- the field could change again – shrink more- that is – not too long after publication. So bare in mind that this is a snapshot – a quick view of where two fields stand today- the VLJ field and its smaller sibling- the Personal Jets.

That’s an ‘on the one hand’ view; the ‘on the other hand’ view includes a picture of a new network of businesses sprouting up around these new jet options and the people who buy them. Of course- it’s worth noting that the forecast emergence of a new style of charter operations began but one of the ripples expanding from the splash of VLJ entry.

New VLJ-oriented management and fractional businesses also launched in the wake of early VLJ deliveries- and this is basically looking at a segment only a year into fulfilling its promised potential. As the years roll by- the impact of the VLJ will only continue to evolve.

In contrast- we’re still a few years out from seeing whether the upcoming Personal Jet segment delivers on the promise it holds to attract even more owner-pilots and smaller businesses to grabbing some of the benefits of flying on a small turbofan. But if the limited experience of the VLJ is even a slightly accurate indicator- the advent of the PJ will create its own ripple effect- both in terms of the operational side and in terms of companies interested in making a smaller “small fortune” in aviation- which brings new players to the supply side of the equation.

One thing seems above question: these two segments stand to alter the landscape in business and personal aviation. In the best of all worlds- those alterations will be for the better. More people flying in more private planes means a better foundation for all of aviation and for supporting the infrastructure needed to support the community. More small jets means more small businesses flying the smallest jets which in turn serves to strengthen the role of aviation in business and business aviation’s place at the table when public policy is in play – which is essentially every day.

How they weigh in…
Today’s multiplicity of categories and the attempts to sub-divide them does underscore the inventiveness and growth that’s come in the past several decades into business aviation. There’s neither a way nor a benefit to lumping together everything from a four-place- single-engine- single-pilot Personal Jet and an Ultra-large/Ultra-long-range behemoth.

It can be particularly challenging when the changes essentially lower the floor- if you will. You see- even though “light” was considered 6-000 to 20-000 pounds- little existed much below 10-000. So what once was a category of Light Jet that spanned 14-000 pounds now seems appropriately defined across a 10-000-pound range – from 10-000 to 20-000 pounds.

From 6-001 to 10-000 pounds seems to cover the VLJ segment; below 6-000 pounds – and closer to 5-000 pounds – appears where the Personal Jet segment is headed- with models as light as 4-000 pounds both conceivable and likely.

So this is how we split the fields of VLJs – a total of five to six seat aircraft with crew weighing a maximum of 10-000 pounds – and PJs- which we settled on as four to five total seats with maximum weights below 6-000. For now- at least- the PJ line is also exclusively single engine.

In the end- though- both PJs and VLJs share in today’s most-coveted attributes: single-pilot- easy to fly- with excellent runway performance and speed capabilities nicely between the typical turboprop and the typical Mach 0.8 stuff of most larger jet categories.

The appeal?
The opportunity to move up into jets offered by the VLJs and Personal Jets didn’t previously exist; and the sum of the parts adds up to a business tool with numbers previously non-existent. Generically- the VLJ and PJ segments share in the technically-advanced cockpits common both to modern business jets and even the newest light-piston aircraft – including panels with solid-state primary flight instruments- graphical displays of instruments- navigation- weather and engine data- and sophisticated automation – up to and including digital flight-management equipment.

Next up there are the economics- and in terms of today’s business aircraft market- the economics hold tremendous appeal with prices ranging from a little more than $1 million to under $3 million – in step with many popular business propjets. Compare that to the nearly $5 million of what previously served as the entry-level opportunity. Also important are the operating costs- which are comparable to some cabin-class piston twins. Combine the economics with the jet-level performance and the typical mission – cruise speeds from just under 300 knots to 430 knots- at above-the-weather altitudes for up to 500 miles- an upper average for business flights – and you have a tool that can be deployed to produce a charter model unsupportable with the established Light Jet options.

When you can make speeds better than most turboprops for costs as low as a popular piston twin- for only slightly more money than said piston twin- it’s a given that a lot of new people will sit up- take notice and take out a checkbook. So pushing on- let’s look at the VLJ segment after its first full year and the PJ lineup as this segment moves toward reality.


Five years after the proof-of-concept first flew- Adam Aircraft’s A700 is arguably at its most challenged since that 2003 debut. The board replaced founder Rick Adam last year and installed management more experienced in production and delivery and added a program focused on completing FAA approval. The company also made important progress in the program during the prior year – flying three conformal airframes- completing some important tests and winning approval to start certification flights.

Nonetheless- the company in January announced a realignment of facilities and a cut of 300 employees. The company said it needed to preserve its financial assets to see through certification of the all-composite design – target- late this year – and to continue to show progress while negotiating two new infusions of cash. Then in February- a statement was posted on the company website reading- “In a difficult but necessary move- Adam Aircraft Industries suspended operations at its facilities in Colorado. This measure was required due to the inability of the company to come to terms with their lender for funding necessary to maintain business operations. The company is currently exploring all of its alternatives and will provide further guidance when decisions are made.”

None of these problems take away from the potential of the innovative VLJ- with its twin-boom tail- dual Williams FJ33 engines and advanced cockpit.
Flying on the two little turbofans the A700 offers impressive capabilities- including the ability to fly from runways as short as 2-520 feet on legs as long as 1-100 nautical at 340 knots and at altitudes as high as FL410. Thanks to its composite airframe and twin-tail-boom fuselage- the A700 also boasts one of the roomiest cabins in its class. The price for a ready-to-go-equipped A700 weighs in at about $2.3 million.

More information from www.adamaircraft.com

This little jet defied easy comparison in the VLJ field- but this issue may be moot. In mid-December- Aviation Technology Group announced it was suspending its work on the developmental Javelin Mk-10 and eliminating most of its 100 or so employees at its facilities in Englewood- Colorado.

Whether the project resumes- the company said at the time- depends on raising funds and concurrence with its strategic partner- Israeli Aircraft Industries. It’s a pity- because the Javelin stood as a significant departure from the VLJ pack.

First is its resemblance to a cross between the Boeing T-45 Goshawk trainer that the Air Force evolved out of the British Aerospace Hawk and Boeing’s F/A-18 fighter. First impression is- “This is a fighter- not a business jet.” Similarly- the Javelin differs in its seating capacity – two- in a tandem pressurized fighter-like cockpit. The 200-pound luggage capacity is sized and specified to handle the needs of two- as well. In terms of performance- the Javelin also defies its class- with an IFR range of about 1-300 nautical at about 500 knots – a speed that most business jets would envy- VLJ to Large Cabin- alike. Highly fuel efficient- the Javelin benefits from its small size- effective aerodynamics and the stinginess of its two FJ33 engines. A three-screen digital panel from OP Technologies helps keep the pilot in touch with his mission and the pressurized cockpit keeps the airplane shirt-sleeve comfortable.

If the program returns and succeeds- about 150 deposit holders will be delighted at the prospect of having their own Javelin Mk-10. The owner who lusts to be the owner/pilot will need a pilot’s license- the instrument rating- multi-engine qualification and high-altitude training unless- that is- they plan to hire someone qualified to handle the flying for them. And what fun that would be!

More information from www.avtechgroup.com

CESSNA AIRCRAFT: Citation Mustang
Virtually no one in my experience ever questioned whether the Citation Mustang would achieve reality or whether its creators at Cessna believed in the concept. With the clout of an established jet-maker like Cessna- it’s pretty much a given that what is promised is what is delivered- and so it was for Cessna’s smallest jet after earning its wings in late 2006.

There was a hiccup of note with the Garmin G1000 system installed in the Mustang. But Garmin and Cessna were able to resolve the issue and keep the program largely on track and- in the process- lay the foundation for future Mustang deliveries. Priced at about $2.7 million today- the Mustang earned superlatives from the pilots lucky enough to fly one: Excellent handling- robust systems- speed- fuel efficiency and airport performance that should keep the little jet in demand for years to come. As one pilot told me after a cross-country demo trip totaling more than 700 miles- “It has pattern manners as good as a Skyhawk (Cessna 172)- but the speed and sound level of a real jet. We did the round trip with four on board- without refueling at the mid-point stop.”

That 700-mile demo is an excellent yardstick for the average business aircraft mission – and the Mustang clearly handles the mission with aplomb. Powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F turbofans- the Mustang can fuel for missions as long as 1-150 nautical miles- cruise at speeds up to 340 knots and soar along at FL410 – nearly three miles higher than the typical turboprop or turbocharged piston.

More information from www.cessna.com

From all appearances- the little company that arguably launched the VLJ movement is finally starting to hit its stride following a year in which latent issues continued to hamper the Albuquerque- New Mexico-based planemaker.

For example- late last year the company finally won approval for its Avio NG all-digital cockpit; with about 70 aircraft delivered with the original avionics suite to retrofit- the company was also well into integrating the new system into its production process. An airworthiness directive involving the Eclipse 500’s angle-off-attack probe served to limit the utility of those jets already delivered- until- that is- the company developed a fix to cure the problem.

By year’s end- the company had delivered 98 new Eclipse 500s- somewhat below plan of 400 – but with production accelerating to make 2008 closer to expectations. And to say expectations were high would be to undersell expectations. The stern statements of the company’s founder- Vern Raburn- in answer to each issue- served to remind people of the lofty promises made and upheld since the program’s launch. But there seems little question that in use the Eclipse 500 delivers its promised performance: 370 knots at cruise- a range of 1-125 nautical- and direct operating costs so low that DayJet is expanding its on-demand- per-seat charter service launched in Florida last fall.

With about 2-500 orders still on the books and the successful completion of a new round of funding- the Eclipse 500 appears ready to take its place as a successful pioneer.

More information from www.eclipseaviation.com

Although a little late getting off the ground - if you will - within the VLJ segment- Embraer is making up ground fast. With prototypes flying- a factory going up- and the certification program ready- Embraer is well along toward meeting its goal of delivering its first Phenom 100s by this time next year.

Highly competitive in performance and capabilities- the Phenom 100 boasts a top cruise speed of 380 knots- a range of 1-160 nautical miles- and the ability to cruise as high as FL410- the Phenom 100 suffers only in runway numbers at 3-400 feet for takeoff- somewhat inferior to some competitors.

Embraer is another VLJ maker to tap a 600-series Pratt & Whitney Canada engine- using a pair of PW617F powerplants. The panel reflects the current dominance of Garmin and the G1000. Expect to pay around $2.9 million for a Phenom 100.

More information from www.embraerexecutivejets.com

Working to size and speed goals- Epic Aircraft gave its Elite Jet a lightweight composite airframe- cutting-edge aerodynamics and the power of paired Williams FJ33-4A engines. The sum of the parts: a 7-700-pound- 412-knot speedster with long legs and a huge payload.

Thanks to an empty weight of 4-000 pounds- the Elite boasts a full-fuel- still-air range of about 1-400 nautical miles carrying as much as 1-330 pounds in the cabin – seven people and 120 pounds of gear. And that cabin is among the best in its class at a spacious 17-foot-long and able to seat up to eight with the relative comfort of a comparably large height and width – 5 feet and 4.8 feet respectively.

In addition to its great speed numbers- the Elite offers excellent climb numbers- needing only 17 minutes of unrestricted climb to reach its service ceiling at FL410. Epic expects to earn certification in 2010. Equipped with the Garmin G1000 panel- the Elite comes in under $2.5 million.

More information from www.epicaircraft.com

Meantime- progress continues in North Carolina where Honda Aircraft and GE/Honda are working two different programs aimed at a common outcome: certification of Honda’s first commercial venture in aviation- the HondaJet.

Uncharacteristically roomy thanks to distinctive wing-pylon engine mounts the all-metal HondaJet offers excellent speed. Those unusual engine mounts produce less drag than conventional tail-mounted engine installations- which helps the HondaJet make its 420-knot cruise speed. The new jet also promises improved fuel numbers thanks to innovations developed for the GE-Honda HF120 engine under development to power the HondaJet. The promised 30- to 35-percent improvement in fuel efficiency- in turn- contributes to the HondaJet’s 1-180-mile range.

The HondaJet appears to be too small for its eight-seat capacity. But it’s an optical elusion helped along by the use of those alternative engine mounts. In reality- the HondaJet’s cabin is a roomy 17.8 feet long- 4.9 feet tall and 5.0 feet wide. In addition to its cutting-edge powerplants- the HondaJet also sports the popular Garmin G1000 on the flight deck. Certification and first deliveries of the $3.7 million HondaJet are expected in 2010.

More information from www.hondajet.com

The sole single- in the group- Piper’s PiperJet serves as the logical follow-on to the company’s two high-performance- pressurized prop-driven singles – the long-running Malibu Mirage piston and its cousin- the propjet Meridian. While continuing the company’s tradition of appealing to owner/pilot operators- the PiperJet stands to break ground as the first turbofan single to win certification and enter production. A number of notable- logical single-engine turbofans have been proposed; at least one flew as a proof-of-concept prototype. But none survived the development process. The PiperJet promises to break that single-jet losing streak.

Piper opted for the proven Williams FJ33 to power the PiperJet- working with Williams to develop a new variant dubbed the FJ33-3AP. Thermodynamically capable of producing 3-000 pounds of thrust- the -3AP variant will be flat-rated to 2-400 pounds. The results expected from this move include reduced maintenance and better power margins for hot-and-high days.

Driving a six-seat airframe- this new engine should take the PiperJet to a cruise speed of 360 knots- a service ceiling of FL350- and legs as long as 1-300 nautical miles carrying 800 pounds in the cabin – all in all- respectable numbers for a twin- but even more impressive for a single. An oversize cabin door gives the PiperJet tremendous potential in utility applications.

First flight is expected this year- with certification and first deliveries in the first half of 2010. The price for the PiperJet is currently about $2.3 million.

More information from www.piper.com

SPECTRUM INTERNATIONAL: Spectrum 33 Independence
For its entry into the crowded VLJ arena- Spectrum International opted for a cutting-edge- proprietary carbon-fiber technology to build its Spectrum 33 Independence- which offers a 430-knot speed with 2-000-mile range- seating for eight – and operating costs closer to a much-smaller- considerably slower offering.

An upgrade to Williams’ FJ33-4A-19 engine helped give the Independence a 15-knot boost in cruise speed – a boost that came despite a design change that widened the 18-foot-long cabin interior a full two inches to 60 inches across nominally- and as much as seven inches more in the aft cabin. Its light 3-850-pound empty weight means plenty of payload flexibility within its 7-500-pound maximum take-off weight. The Independence not only boasts the best speed and space in its class- it also offers a service ceiling of FL450- giving the crew even more flexibility in choosing a cruise altitude. The crew should be able to work effectively in even the busiest air-traffic environments with its ability to climb directly to its maximum altitude in only 22 minutes.

But fans of the Independence will have to be a bit patient. Last fall Spectrum announced plans to advance its light-jet entry- the Spectrum 40 Freedom- ahead of the Independence in the development plan. So the 33 won’t be coming to market until 2010. The expected price ranks in the region of $3.7 million.

More information from www.spectrum.aero

The Personal Jets group is a bit smaller- but of no less energy in its effect on the market psyche- as the aviation community grapples with the implications of yet another new class of jets – this one even smaller and easier-to-own than the VLJ. So far- this class is dominated by single-engine designs and prices start at around $1 million.

While the final price remains unknown- there’s been plenty of support from the market for Cirrus’ The Jet – more than 400 prospects have made deposits of $100-000 toward the purchase of their own single-engine personal jet. A new space for the jet has been acquired on the same airport in Duluth- Minnesota- where the company already operates a highly successful business building the SR20 and SR22 composite piston singles.

Cirrus has also progressed the design and prototype work of the little jet with a distinctive upright V-tail. According to recent reports- Cirrus’ The Jet is a likely candidate to make at least a fly-by appearance at this year’s AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in in late July – which means the company expects to make its maiden flight sometime prior to that appearance.

The Jet employs the Williams FJ33-4A-19 fanjet powerplant to achieve a targeted cruise speed of about 300 knots- a maximum range of about 1-000 nautical miles- a service ceiling of FL250- and the flexibility to carry up to seven. Aside from its single engine and unusual V-tail design- Cirrus plans to deliver a distinctive first for any jet – an integrated airframe-recovery parachute system. While all new for a jet and unusual among general aviation aircraft in general- making standard equipment a recovery parachute system is a given for Cirrus. All of Cirrus’ piston models are so equipped.

More information from www.the-jet.com

Now flying for more than two years- the Diamond D-Jet offers a solid composite airframe from a manufacturer long experienced in working with advanced materials. The first in its class to fly- the D-Jet sports the popular Garmin G1000 flight deck- the Williams FJ33 engine and seating for five. The carbon-fiber aircraft weighs in at a svelte 2-870 pounds empty. After taking on its maximum 1-740 pounds of fuel- the D-Jet can carry 500 pounds in its cabin.

Performance is excellent for a single- with a maximum cruise speed of 315 knots- a maximum range of 1-351 nautical miles- and runway performance under 2-500 feet- which opens up a huge majority of the world’s airports to access by the D-Jet. At its service ceiling of FL250- the D-Jet provides occupants the comfort of a cabin pressurized to an altitude of 8-000 feet.

Since flying its proof-of-concept version- Diamond has built a second production prototype using production tooling- with a second due imminently and two more to follow and certification later this year. The price for this airplane is about $1.4 million.

More information from www.diamondair.com

Debuted at last year’s AirVenture Oshkosh fly-in- the Epic Victory got its name from the extraordinarily brief time spanning the start of its design to its first flight in July 2007 – a span of only 6.5 months.

The use of advanced carbon-fiber materials and techniques results in a four-to-five-seat airframe with an empty weight comparable to many piston singles at 2-700 pounds. The 5-500-pound gross weight is closer to some piston twins.

Though the prototype is powered by a single Williams FJ33- Epic announced at Oshkosh that the Victory would transition to the PW600 series for its permanent engine. But the combination of a lightweight- sleek airframe and the power and efficiency of the PW600 series produces some impressive performance numbers. Among those numbers- a cruise speed exceeding 320 knots- a service ceiling of FL280- and a full-cabin range of 1-200 nautical miles.

Though the prototype work was unusually rapid- certification and production will take longer- into 2010. In the interim- though- you can order a kit and build your own.

More information from www.epicaircraft.com

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