A new breed of smaller, cheaper jet planes, powered by compact engines, could change the face of aviation. Or it might just be a dot-com with wings.
As the snowcapped peaks of the Colorado Rockies pirouette in the windshield, the g-forces begin to build. I am strapped into the left seat of an Adam A700, a snappy six-seat, twin-engine experimental jet, cranking it into a series of steep turns – left, right, left.
I’m no jet pilot. Far from it, in fact. I’ve logged 1 500 hours of flying time in small, single-engined prop planes, but that was some time ago. I wonder whether I’m up for an aircraft with 6 000-newton-thrust engines. The A700’s F-16-style sidestick control, however, feels comfortable in my hands.
Now for the acid test: landing. Adam demo pilot Dan Brand and I head back to Denver’s Centennial Airport and enter a left downwind for Runway One-Seven Left. As we turn final, flaps and gear down, Brand advises an “over-the-fence” speed of 100 knots (185 km/h). Although the digital airspeed indicator on the A700’s cockpit LCD flight display is a far cry from the old analogue “steam gauges” I’m accustomed to, I manage to keep the speed on target.
Approaching the end of the runway, I cut the power and gradually raise the nose. As we flare, the plane floats briefly, then plunks its wheels solidly on the asphalt. Not exactly a greaser, but, considering it’s my first jet landing, I’ll take it.
The Adam A700 is just one of a new breed of small, powerful – and, yes, easy to fly – civilian jet planes poised to take off. Very Light Jets (VLJs) are loosely defined as jets with a gross weight below about 5 000 kg. They typically carry three to four passengers (in addition to two pilots) and cost from $1,5 million to $3 million (R10 to R20 million), roughly half the price of current entry-level jets. Fuel and operating costs are also substantially lower. Yet these minijets don’t cut corners on performance: some reach speeds of up to 725 km/h at jetliner altitudes of 12 000 m.
The VLJs are expected to open up jet flight to a whole new tier of private pilots, small businesses, fractional-ownership groups and regional air-taxi services. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects to have some 5000 VLJs in the air by 2017. “This is a real game changer for our industry,” FAA chief Marion Blakey told an enthusiastic crowd of plane buffs at the Oshkosh air show in Wisconsin last year.
The Very Light Jet revolution, chronically hobbled by the lack of a suitable small jet engine, has been a long time coming. The seeds were sown in 1992, when maverick jet-engine manufacturer Williams International – renowned for the tiny turbofan engines it developed for the Tomahawk cruise missile – introduced its first commercial model, the 8 500-newton-thrust FJ44. About 25 per cent smaller than any previous commercial jet engine, the FJ44 was quickly adopted by Cessna to create the downsize CitationJet, the first of what came to be known in the aviation industry as Light Jets. At a mere R2 million in 1993 (about R30 million in today’s money), the Citation- Jet became the fastest-selling private jet in history.
That success spurred a Williams effort to reduce the jet engine another notch, from Light to Very Light. In 1996, the company partnered with Nasa on a R700 million project to develop an even smaller experimental jet engine, the FJX-2. With three exquisitely tiny compressors and a weight of just under 39 kg, the radical and complex little FJX-2 churned out an astounding 3 425 N of thrust in Nasa’s test cell. The unprecedented 9:1 thrustto- weight ratio was nearly double that of any commercial jet engine.
The FJX-2 caught the eye of Vern Raburn, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur and flying buff who had long nurtured a vision of a small, affordable jet plane. Partnering with Williams in 1998, Raburn’s company, Eclipse, started development of the Eclipse 500 – a five-seater to be powered by two FAA-certified commercial versions of the FJX-2. With a projected price tag of around R6 million, the Eclipse 500 had more than 2000 advance orders as it prepared for its first test flight in the summer of 2002. The dawn of the VLJ age appeared imminent.
But early prototypes of the EJ22, the commercial version of the FJX-2, proved troublesome. It took Eclipse six weeks to get two of them running at the same time, and the engines could not achieve their expected thrust without overheating. After one anaemic flight, Eclipse reluctantly concluded that the EJ22 wasn’t going to hack it. It hurriedly signed a deal with Pratt & Whitney to develop a smaller version of a more conventional engine. The reborn Eclipse 500 flew with 4 000-N PW610Fs in 2004; the FAA certified the design in September 2006. After frustrating delays because of persistent glitches with the plane’s complex avionics, as well as startup manufacturing problems, the first Eclipse 500 was finally delivered to a customer in December 2006. The price tag has now grown to R10,5 million – still only a third of the price of a new CitationJet.
Eclipse’s bulging order book spurred a number of other manufacturers to build Very Light Jet prototypes. Cessna delivered the first of its 625 km/h six-seat Mustangs in February 2007. Nine other VLJs, including the Adam A700, are currently undergoing FAA certification testing.
The largest customer for the Eclipse 500 is DayJet, a startup “per-seat, ondemand” air-taxi service that will initially link five medium-size cities in the southeaster US state of Florida. DayJet founder Ed Iacobucci, another tech-industry veteran, ran into Vern Raburn at a technology conference in 2001, and the two hit it off. Iacobucci has ordered 239 Eclipse 500s.
The economic key to the DayJet service is a complex suite of flight-optimisation software called Astro. When a customer makes a reservation, Astro calculates the most cost-efficient routing for one of 10 Eclipse 500s shuttling among the five cities. In a flexible-fare system that Iacobucci calls “time arbitrage”, Astro then offers a rate between R5 and R13 a km, depending on departure and arrival times. (By comparison, unrestricted coach fares for scheduled commercial flights within Florida typically run between R6 and R10 per kilometre. The restricted discount fares that most of us fly are typically 3 to 20 cents a kilometre.) DayJet hopes to fly 300 Eclipse 500s and to serve 40 regional airports in the Southeast by the end of 2008.
Other hopeful VLJ air-taxi services include Pogo Air (whose CEO is former American Airlines boss Robert Crandall) and Linear Air, which already operates in the Northeast with Cessna Caravan turboprops as stand-ins for its long-awaited Eclipse 500s. Nascent air-taxi businesses have placed more than half the Eclipse orders – some 1 500 in all. It remains to be seen how many of these startups will be able to raise their share of the R14 billion-plus required to pay for the planes they’ve ordered.
In fact, some doubters are calling the VLJ boom a “dot-com with wings”. Vaughn Cordle, the CEO of Airline Forecasts, an industry research and analysis firm, says, “I’m very sceptical of the numbers the VLJ upstarts and the FAA are throwing around.” He sees the VLJ/airtaxi business model, with its high operating costs (especially with two pilots) and low daily utilisation, as a financial house of cards.
His take on the Very Light Jet/air-taxi business for potential investors: It will be “a fun and exciting opportunity to lose money”. But even the skeptical Cordle sees a private-sector market for 300 to 400 VLJs a year, which would still make them the best-selling jet category ever.
If Very Light Jets live up to their hype, engine and airframe manufacturers may be tempted to raise the private-jet bar – by lowering the weight and cost – yet again. An Extremely Light Jet, powered by a theoretical 2 225-newton-thrust high-bypass turbofan engine, could carry two passengers at 400 km/h and get 10 litres/100 km. At only R2,5 million, it would reduce the cost of a civilian
jet to that of a brand-new Bentley. Now that’s a real game-changer.
ON THE WEB ///
To see video of Very Light Jets in action, visit the US site www.popularmechanics.com/verylightjets
Meet the VLJs
For the dozen-plus Very Light Jets that will be vying for buyers’ attention, the journey from brochure to full-scale production can be turbulent. The big hurdle is acquiring a type certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which confirms that the design meets FAA safety requirements. A production certificate, the FAA’s blessing of the manufacturing process, also can be a huge challenge for small startup companies with no track record. Here are the five jets that, along with the Adam A700, we judge most likely to complete the FAA certification gauntlet.
Many companies have a Very Light Jet in the works, including Adam Aircraft. Its turbofan-powered A700 (see image on p 1), with a twin-boom tail, weighs only 3 800 kg.
4 to 5
Smallest model from the world’s largest biz-jet manufacturer. First VLJ in mass production.
Simple, cheap, easy-to-fly “personal jet” capable of using short runways. Has single Williams FJ33 engine.
2 to 3