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If the turmoil felt in the still fledgling Very Light Jet segment beset an aircraft with comparably adverse weather- we’d likely be talking about the NTSB investigation right about now. It’s hard not to call this a ‘crash’. With several past players well past the point of making a 180 degree turn out of the mire- the VLJ segment today stands at a fraction of its size from its peak at the start of the century – and ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st January 2009
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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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The Personal and VLJ shake-up hit in 2008.

If the turmoil felt in the still fledgling Very Light Jet segment beset an aircraft with comparably adverse weather- we’d likely be talking about the NTSB investigation right about now. It’s hard not to call this a ‘crash’. With several past players well past the point of making a 180 degree turn out of the mire- the VLJ segment today stands at a fraction of its size from its peak at the start of the century – and that’s only eight years back!

In the 1990s- Visionaire promised to reinvent the light jet market with a composite single that today would be called a VLJ; a successor program dubbed it the Eviation EV-20 – and it again failed. That’s two attempts for the aircraft to go under in this decade – or is it just one big failure? No matter. We’ve got plenty of others to cite.

Let’s start with the clean-sheet launches: Adam Aircraft and the A700; Aviation Technology Group’s Javelin – the businessman’s fighter; Avocet’s ProJet; Century Aerospace’s CA-100 Century Jet; Safire Aircraft’s Safire Jet.

Then there’s the resurrections of old designs recast for a new market: AASI’s Stratocruizer – after failing as a turboprop; Alberta Aerospace’s Phoenix FanJet – except the old Promavia Jet Squalus didn’t actually rise from the ashes; and the already mentioned Eviation EV-20.

Going by this list- we’ve seen nine efforts fly into the field- flounder and ultimately fail. And as of this writing- VLJ pioneer Eclipse Aviation was operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection- its future not totally certain. In many ways- the VLJ field so far seems to epitomize the joke about making a small fortune in aviation by starting with a large one. In the past decade- something approaching $3 billion has flowed through the operations of failed and successful VLJ and PJ developers.

The revolutionary use concept that underpinned Eclipse’s wildly oversold prospects and under-delivered reality is- itself- suffering from a combination of uncontrolled factors – bad timing- among them. While the concept of high-volume- low-cost point-to-point per seat charters may yet succeed- it will do so outside the extremely ambitious model launched and crashed under the name ‘DayJet’.

DayJet- unfortunately in so many ways- was inextricably linked to Eclipse Aviation – arguably the pioneer company that convinced many investors and manufacturers alike of the validity of that Very Light Jet concept. Almost half the huge order book Eclipse touted came from that one customer. Eclipse’s break-even model depended on a production rate of 500 per year – and the company confidently claimed it would be building 1-000 annually. One third of that nearly-$3-billion went through the hands of that one company- according to Eclipse’s recent bankruptcy filing.

Yet the basic VLJ concept appears sound – the concept of a light- small- low cost jet for personal and general business use. Witness the 2009 production plans of arguably the market-leader post shake-out: Cessna and its diminutive Citation Mustang. The company plans to deliver 150 this year. In just about two years- Eclipse has delivered about 260 – in many different stages of compliance with the planned final configuration.

The VLJ market appears to be going the way of early aviation itself – an era beset with great ideas from ambitious entrepreneurs by the dozen… with the vast majority ultimately failing.

Cessna’s Citation Mustang business jet and the Eclipse 500 – as well as the entirety of the VLJ and emerging Personal Jet fields – exist solely because of advances in jet engine technology – advances downward in size- weight and costs. Williams International- and later Pratt & Whitney Canada- Rolls-Royce- Honda and GE- all fish from the VLJ pool for engine sales with turbofans a fraction of the weight- cost and complexity of predecessors.

For a disciplined few of these airframe companies- the VLJ and PJ concepts stand to add to both their bottom lines and their customer pipelines- an important supply line for later sales.

For other airframe makers with promise in reserve- their success in the VLJ segment opens new doors as aviation players. For Honda’s HondaJet- Piper’s PiperJet- Embraer’s Phenom 100- Diamond’s D-Jet and Spectrum Aeronautics’ Spectrum 33 Independence- the future actually looks solid – as it obviously does for Cessna and its Mustang.

Meanwhile- few expect Eclipse to vanish entirely- in the way that more than $1 billion has gone away as the company established itself. Assets up for auction include the design- certificate and tooling of the aircraft- a factory and more than 1-000 order holders whose deposits are now in doubt.

Falling into the realm of solidly uncertain is Epic Aircraft- a small maker of high-performance experimental kits attempting to transition to a certificated planemaker with its Elite and Victory twin- and single-engine jets. Although both jets benefit from having good concepts- competitive pricing and performance- of late there’s been little noticeable momentum- at least since the company was allowed to take its Elite prototype out of the Republic of Georgia following the short war with Russia.

From here- we’ll provide some snapshots of the planemakers still in operation delivering or developing VLJ and PJ designs.

The Adam A500 centerline-thrust piston twin might have helped Adam Aircraft build a solid foundation for the follow-on A700 jet- but in a move viewed with doubt- the company launched and started developing the jet before the piston twin was finished. Ultimately- the company closed its doors and the assets were rescued by a group of Russian investors and a seasoned U.S. general aviation executive in the form of AAI Acquisitions Inc.

With former Beech and Sino-Swearingen president Jack Braly at the controls- AAI Acquisitions Inc. reopened the factory doors in Colorado- began recalling workers and by October had taken steps to pick up the A700’s test program where it was left when Adam initially closed.

Then a few weeks after the NBAA convention in October- the doors were closed again- in part due to the global financial market meltdown. Currently- the company is offering its expertise in composites engineering and manufacturing- but development of the A700 is on indefinite hold. That’s something of a pity- given the A700’s competitive numbers. In asking analysts and observers how they rate the chances of Adam’s return- the consensus came in at around one in 10.

More information from www.a700jet.com

With operations suspended at the end of 2007- we’ve neither heard nor seen any activity to suggest the little two-place fighter-like jet will return.

Given the world’s state of economic affairs- it’s difficult to imagine this speedy little bird will be back until someone’s budget can support developing an airplane with strong potential as a light-attack military aircraft and trainer – paths bigger companies have tried and failed to navigate.

More information from www.avtechgroup.com

The Juggernaut that is Cessna did it again with the Mustang – as it has with its line of CJs and pretty much everything else so far up to- and including- the Citation X and Sovereign.

Cessna has more than 150 Mustangs that have flown nearly 23-000 flight hours- with another 150 expected to roll off the Independence- Kansas- assembly line this year. The Mustang recently won approval from Canada and Japan- raising the number of countries in which the little jet is certificated to 51.

The reason for the Mustang’s success traces back to Cessna’s track record for matching machine design to user wants. In the case of the Mustang- that means providing a simple- six-place VLJ design with an all-glass Garmin G1000 cockpit- simple systems and a flight-deck design optimized for single pilot operation.

Flying on the power of two diminutive Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F turbofans- Cessna’s Mustang can make cruise speeds as high as 340 knots- carry fuel sufficient to cover 1-150 nautical miles plus IFR reserves- and fly as high as FL410- or 11-000 to 15-000 feet higher than the typical turboprop or turbocharged piston.

More information from www.cessna.com

This company has had quite a year to put it mildly. You’ve no doubt heard most of the following- but a recap seems in order:

During a period in which the company was still working through changes to win all the capabilities promised customers – such as an integrated Avio NG panel with WAAS GPS- known icing approval and retrofitting more than a couple hundred delivered airplanes to final configuration- the company’s largest customer closed down- then folded; new investors who controlled the Eclipse boardroom ousted the founder and long-time boss- Vern Raburn in July; employees were sent home without pay in November until a small infusion of funds allowed the company to catch up on paychecks and keep building airplanes.

Customers have sued over the airplanes and unreturned deposits- efforts to raise the price to a profitable amount have been met with resistance by order holders. Finally- shortly after the pay interruption- the company hit the wall in November and filed for reorganization protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. And business goes on…

There’s plenty of potential in the little twin jet 500- and much to commend the program to the potential investors headed to the auction scheduled for this month. The Eclipse 500 delivers much of what was promised- with performance of up to 370 knots at cruise- the ability to fly 1-125 nautical miles- and the lowest direct operating costs of any twin jet flying.

But even those low DoCs didn’t help DayJet- the largest customer- to survive expanding its on-demand- per-seat charter service launched in Florida in October 2007. And with the liquidation of DayJet went about 1-200 orders- throwing out the window the volume needed to make profitable past price promises.

With Europe’s ERITC in the driver’s seat- Eclipse may well survive to compete on the basis of prices that should prove profitable. While the bankruptcy filing negates existing contracts with deposit-holders- refund requestors- suppliers and current customers under warranty- company head Roel Pieper has said publicly that Eclipse must work with all stakeholders.

The company plans to “honor and be fair to the customers in the best way possible- and we’re going to be very fair to the suppliers-” he told AIN Alerts. “We have to find a way to go forward together.”

The question ahead is whether the market will pay close to the cost of a Mustang for a smaller jet – particularly after a large number of customers face the new price and- possibly- a requirement to place another deposit after they’ve already waited years longer than promised. In short- this program is by no means out of the woods – even with a successful resolution of the reorganization.

More information from www.eclipseaviation.com


Like Cessna- Embraer has suffered no drama or disruption - instead enjoying well-run- well-structured success in its progress toward certificating the Phenom 100- the Brazilian planemaker’s appealing entry in the top-end VLJ/Light Jet category. Indeed- Brazilian certification was achieved during December.

A significant contender in capabilities and performance- Embraer’s little $3.18 million Phenom 100 offers a top cruise speed of 390 knots- a maximum cruise altitude of FL410- and a maximum range of 1-178 nautical miles. The Phenom 100 suffers only in runway numbers at 3-400 feet for takeoff- a longer run than most of its competitors.

Like Cessna and Eclipse- Embraer also opted for Pratt & Whitney Canada’s 600-series engine line- selecting the PW617F-E; and like the Mustang- the Phenom 100 sports a type-specific iteration of Garmin’s G1000 integrated flight-deck hardware. Deliveries have started already.

More information from www.embraerexecutivejets.com

A pioneer in technically advanced aircraft and the only planemaker so far to equip all of its designs with an emergency airframe parachute- Cirrus started talking about a Personal Jet several years ago.

Following the teases of the top founding bosses- Alan Klapmeier and his brother Dale- the company finally achieved first flight last year and brought the prototype to the EAA AirVenture 2008 event in Oshkosh- Wisconsin- for a brief visit.

As this story was going together in early December- Cirrus unveiled some new- key numbers for the Williams FJ33-4A-19-powered single.

With a maximum take-off weight of 6-000 pounds- the Vision can cruise at speeds up to 319 knots- carry fuel for 1-100 miles at 300 knots- cruise at FL300- and carry six. At full fuel- the Vision will offer a cabin payload of 400 pounds – a figure derived from customers’ request for longer range even at the sacrifice of payload.

The company is still refining the prototype and weighing system choices- such as what anti-ice system to employ for the known icing approval: the TKS liquid system already used on the company’s SR20 and SR22 piston aircraft- or something like pneumatic boots.

Whatever anti-ice system the company selects- one system is already set for inclusion: a new version of the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System from BRS Inc. That inclusion will make the SJ50 unique in jet aviation.

The price- well-equipped- currently stands at about $1.25 million- and the company is prioritizing development success over a calendar target – which means the SJ50 Vision may not reach the market until 2011- at best- or more likely 2012.

More information from www.the-jet.com

Now flying since April 2006- Diamond’s offering in the personal jet arena is closing in on its final form and certification. And the 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 also employs the obviously popular Garmin G1000 flight deck and a Williams FJ33-5A engine. With seating for five- the carbon-fiber aircraft weighs in at a svelte 3-450 pounds empty. After taking on its maximum 1-740 pounds of fuel- the D-Jet can carry 1-130 pounds in its cabin.

Diamond is tweaking the performance numbers after an engine upgrade and expects to better the previously published numbers: a maximum cruise speed of 315 knots- a maximum range of 1-351 nautical miles- a FL250 service ceiling and runway performance under 2-500 feet – opening up the vast majority of the world’s paved airports to the D-Jet. The current price isn’t bad either at around $1.4 million in 2006 economics- but with a price increase due shortly.

More information from www.diamondaircraft.com

You could put these two models as bookend for the VLJ and PJ segments- with the twin-engine Elite contending in the former segment and the Victory a competitor for the single-engine-dominant Personal Jet market from a company enjoying a bit of success providing kits for its high-performance single engine turboprops.

Epic’s design engineers started with a set of goals for size and speed and worked the composite airframe to meet those goals with the power of two Williams International FJ33-4A engines. Once again the panel is a version of the Garmin G1000. The resulting plane weighs in at 7-700 pounds- with a hot 412-knot top speed- a 1-400-nautical range- and a full-fuel payload of 1-330 pounds – the equivalent of seven passengers and 120 pounds of luggage.

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 – respectively- 5 feet and 4.8 feet.

Epic was targeting 2009 for certification but efforts to employ production and investment from Eastern Europe and Russia almost cost the company its prototype when it was caught briefly in Tbilisi- Republic of Georgia. Target price is about $2.5 million.

The Victory- Epic’s single- is smaller and lighter- sporting a single Pratt & Whitney PW617 engine- seating for four to five- a 320-knot max cruise- 1-200 mile range and a ceiling of FL280. The company was targeting a price under $1.5 million and certification in 2010. Both programs- however- appear to be behind the company’s original schedules.

More information from www.epicaircraft.com

Now well ensconced in its new home in North Carolina- Honda Aircraft and the shared GE/Honda engine firm are well along on development of the HondaJet with its distinctly unique wing-pylon-mounted GE/Honda HF120 small turbofans.

The engine mounts not only aid in the HondaJet’s clean aerodynamics- they also make the cabin unusually roomy for its overall dimensions- thanks to the elimination of any hardware associated with engines mounted on the aft fuselage as is common with the vast majority of business jets of all sizes and stripes. At 17.8 feet long- 4.9 feet high and 5.0 feet wide- the HondaJet is significantly larger than it looks from the outside.

Once again- the Garmin G1000 integrated flight deck system is the choice- and once again- the system will be tailored to the installation. In addition to its high cruise speed (420 knots) and substantial cabin size- the HondaJet promises fuel efficiency improved by 30 to 35 percent over comparable aircraft. Deliveries are expected next year- with the 2008 price coming in at about $3.7 million.

More information from http://hondajet.honda.com


The only single in a VLJ class dominated by twins- the distinctive PiperJet boasts a cabin size aided by the lack of engine mount carry-throughs and associated hardware thanks to the tail-mounting of the engine a la the #2 powerplant of the DC-10/MD-11 airliners.

Piper worked with Williams International for a 3-000-pound thrust variant of the FJ44 dubbed the FJ44-3AP to power the PiperJet. Flat rated to 2-400 pounds- the engine and owners should enjoy the benefits of lower maintenance and higher power at altitude and on hot-and-high operations days.

With its single engine driving the six-place PiperJet (with optional seventh seat or enclosed lav)- a cruise speed of 360 knots- a service ceiling of FL350- and range potential up to 1-300 nautical miles carrying 800 pounds of payload- not only are these competitive numbers for a twin- they’re outstanding for a single- with its lower DOCs.

While targeted at an owner-pilot market like the Mustang and Cirrus Vision- the PiperJet sports an oversize cabin door for utility applications and easy passenger egress. First flight occurred last July and certification and first deliveries are expected in the last half of 2011. The price is about $2.2 million.

More information from www.piper.com

Start-up company Spectrum International launched its existence with an entry in the crowded VLJ arena it dubbed the Spectrum S.33 Independence. Employing its own proprietary- carbon-fiber manufacturing technology- Spectrum offers a 430-knot speedster with a 2-000-mile maximum range- seating for eight – and operating costs closer to a much-smaller- considerably slower offering.

By upgrading to Williams International’s FJ33-4A-19 powerplants- the Independence gained about a 10-knot increase in cruise speed – a gain realized even after the designers 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 boasts the best speed and space in its class as well as the highest service ceiling at FL450- giving operators additional latitude in their flight planning. With the power of the two FJ33 engines- Spectrum promises a direct-to-service-ceiling climb time of a mere 22 minutes. The S.33 was moved back in line behind the company’s midsized jet model- the Spectrum S.40 Freedom. That means customers for the S.33 need to wait until the Freedom enters service to get their version of this $3.7million performer.

More information from www.spectrum.aero

At one point- the Air Transportation Association was so pumping up the prospects of skies blackened by Very Light Jets that members of Congress held hearings on the “threat” to the nation’s ATC system.

The ATA and others were reacting partly to the PR from Eclipse – 1-000 a year for years- the company once claimed – and partly to political expediency in an effort to get Congress to change the funding structure for the FAA’s Air Traffic Operation to one more burdensome for private aircraft operators – jet operators- specifically.

So far the ATA’s arguments have failed to gain much support in Congress- or anywhere else outside the airline industry. And as far as the theory of the sky being blackened by waves of VLJs goes- well…think again. If any of those wildly miscast ideas still have sway anywhere- recent news should help bring them down to ground level.

In November through early December- a number of forecasts were adjusted for the new reality of a U.S. recession- a global financial crisis and a moribund credit market. Across the board- forecasts see deliveries peaking in 2008- going flat in 2009- declining through the next two or three years – but not below 2005 levels – before starting to grow again.

For the VLJ segment- the news was particularly ugly: According to prognostications from PMI Media’s The Very Light Jet Market 2008-2017: ‘The impact of the global financial crisis’- the market will see about 23 percent fewer VLJs delivered in that time frame than previously forecast.

PMI’s progs say about 4-610 VLJs worth about $9.5 billion will be delivered in that period. By comparison- the firm’s October 2007 forecast for this segment expected just short of 6-000 VLJs to be shipped.

The firm also addressed the prospects of new entrants- with this note of interest: don’t expect more than a couple of new entrants outside established players to gain a solid hold in this market. If that’s accurate don’t be surprised if you see an even shorter list of VLJ and PJ players when we again visit the subject in 2010.

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