Recently, global superstore Wal-Mart announced that it would sell Eclipse 500s at select locations. Customers will make a deposit, get a demo ride, and if they like it, they’ll ink the deal right at the airport. Wal-Mart will even paint its yellow happy face on the tail. Now there’s a thought. All that will cost a mere $1.6 million or so.
This is only the latest indication that 2007, the year of the VLJ, is fast upon us. If starry-eyed industry soothsayers have it their way, we may soon get Chez Jet dealers on Rodeo Drive and a new ad slogan: “Let Hertz put you in the pilot’s seat.”
Okay, it won’t be that big a craze. But the prospect of thousands of owner-flown and air taxi-operated VLJs providing sexy, convenient travel from about 5,000 short-runway airports is, for many small-business pilots and fleet owners alike, as irresistible as a sizzling lamb chop to a hungry wolf.
Vee Ell What?
A very light jet is generally considered a single-pilot, under-10,000-pound, four- to six-passenger airplane with a 41,000-foot ceiling that’s capable of operating from 3,000-foot runways. Oh, and at a price that’s at least a million less than the cheapest bizjet now flying.
Doomsayers see in the VLJ the echoes of previous gen-av boom prophecies that never materialized. Even FAA studies can’t commit to a tighter range than 3,000 to 20,000 VLJs in flight by 2020.
It’s the Wild West all over again, so pull up a hay bale and let’s deal the cards. By the end of 2007, there may be a whole lotta shakin’ out going on, pardner. Then again, VLJs really could be the big boost to general aviation we’ve been promised for decades.
The VLJ Cometh
Some key factors challenge the notion of small owner-flown jets. Principally, the high costs of acquisition, operation, maintenance and insurance, not to mention a robust upgrade in training and recurrency skills needed to fly safely. (“We overflew our destination 20 minutes ago? Really?”)
The emergence of the VLJ takes a good whack at those challenges. So far, the Diamond D-Jet, targeted for a 2008 delivery, has the lowest price tag at around $1.38 million fully equipped. Most other models fall in the $1.5 to $3 million range. Current light bizjets are priced from $4 to $10 million and run $100,000 or more per year to operate, versus an anticipated $210 per hour or so (sans fuel costs) for the VLJ.
Very light jets are purposed with the intention of cutting costs across the board. They’re lighter, have smaller, fuel-sipping engines, and perhaps the key feature: they don’t need a flight crew. That’s one of the big brass rings manufacturers are waving.
Three prime evolutionary developments account for much of the VLJ gold rush:
1. advances in composite and traditional aircraft construction
2. sophisticated avionics, a prime key to the “one pilot” concept
3. the aggressively marketed Eclipse 500, which wraps those state-of-the-art evolutions into one economical, tasty package for a hungry market
Since Eclipse kicked off the boom, a flock of other VLJ designs has formed: the sexy twin-boomed A700 from Adam Aircraft; Diamond Aircraft’s single-engine D-Jet; Epic Aircraft’s EpicJet; Brazilian powerhouse Embraer’s Phenom 100; Honda and its innovative HondaJet; ATG’s Javelin, a two-seat look-alike of an F18 Hornet; and not to be outflanked, the Citation Mustang from industry backbone Cessna Aircraft.
Several more VLJs are in the pipeline, some flying, some still dots on a CAD/CAM screen. At Oshkosh 2006, “The Jet” was announced, in the words of Cirrus Design CEO Alan Klapmeier as “the lowest, slowest, shortest-range jet in the market.”
|Adam Aircraft’s Insurance Assurance Program is designed to ease a pilot’s transition from a piston aircraft to the A700.|
The Emperor’s New Jet
Klapmeier’s remarks were meant to be neither naive nor flippant. Cirrus isn’t the only thriving company to take a hard look at the VLJ frenzy and see a little—maybe a lot of—transparency in the VLJ mystique. For small biz fleets and Bonanza-, TBM- and King Air-style pilots flying for business and pleasure, Cirrus and Diamond are staking out their own subcategory of personal jet. It may not reach for the stars, but it may be the next Bonanza…in jet clothing.
Having raced to the finish line, neck and neck with the Eclipse 500, Cessna’s Mustang was granted full FAA type certification on September 8. Cessna, which has been developing its aircraft since 2002, used decades of successful experience in the bizjet market to cruise relatively unscathed through certification. Although Eclipse was the first out of the gate, the company incurred various setbacks along the way. Nonetheless, Eclipse boasts 2,500 orders—the lion’s share of the market to date—and has a few completed airplanes ready to roll out to customers once the FAA hands over final certification.
The Mustang, rather than a response to the VLJ phenomenon, is “a natural downward extension of the Citation line,” says Doug Oliver, director of corporate communications. “It’s not really a VLJ, although it falls into the category. We spent a lot of time talking to our customers. They told us they wanted something at a price point around $2.5 million. We also heard the desire for single-pilot operations, for pilots transitioning up from propeller planes. Although,” Oliver adds, “we expect corporate flight departments will continue to use two pilots.”
Cessna will shunt its VLJ training through longtime partner Flight Safety. But one nagging question emerges to dog the VLJ concept: Do single, relatively low-hour, nonprofessional pilots need to fly a jet at 41,000 feet in the first place? And should they even be allowed to?
Cessna, Eclipse, Adam, Embraer and others are betting the answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Cirrus Design and Diamond see it another way entirely…more on that in a minute.
Sex And The Single Pilot Concept
“The single owner/operator,” continues Cessna’s Oliver, “was foremost in our minds as we designed the Mustang. Our integrated Garmin G1000 flight deck minimizes pilot workload. It’s easier to fly. Our Flight Safety training program will address a variety of incoming pilot skill levels. Pilots will need to earn a Mustang type certificate. Technological advancements allowing ease of workload and our training program should address a lot of the concerns of the insurance industry.”
Training emerges for all the builders as a huge crunch point for success, but how can you guarantee safely trained pilots for these high-tech superships? “That,” says Jeff Owen of Diamond Aircraft, “begs the entire question of high-altitude ops.” When Diamond CEO Christian Dries and his braintrust looked at the VLJ, the question came up: Are miniaturized versions of conventional business jets really suitable for the market they’re going after?
“We concluded,” says Owen emphatically, “‘No, they aren’t.’ Many of the VLJ airplanes have the same level of complexity as larger business jets. High-flight-level ops drive a lot of other things not necessarily conducive to an airplane operated by a nonprofessional single pilot. A large part of type training focuses on dealing with emergency procedures. The less critical the operating envelope and the simpler the systems, the easier it is to become and stay proficient.”
Dale Klapmeier of Cirrus Design concurs, although he predicts success for Eclipse, Cessna and other members of the eight-mile-high club. As he puts it, “There’s a market for personal jets and very light jets as well—a big market. Eclipse, Adam and Mustang should all do very well.”
|Designed to look and perform like an F18, the ATG Javelin has a service ceiling of 45,000 feet.|
Cirrus and Diamond drop out of the VLJ formation when they want to climb up toward FL410.
“When designing an aircraft, you are balancing cost, comfort (i.e., size) and performance,” says Diamond’s Owen. “To us, it makes little sense to optimize an aircraft for part of the operating envelope that, in reality, will rarely be used. Optimizing the D-Jet for lower flight levels and lower Mach numbers allowed us to offer a huge cabin with great comfort at reduced costs, which we feel is important to owner-pilots, as well as commercial operators. Once you operate above 30,000 feet, costs escalate dramatically, due to increased complexity—and this is not just reflected in acquisition, but also operating costs. Of course, safety is the other part of the equation for owner-pilots. There are currently not many nonprofessional single pilots flying at FL410. If you lose cabin pressure, you have just a few seconds of usable consciousness at FL 410. Climb and stall speeds converge as you go higher. You have to be on your game. Eclipse even considers it necessary for their customers to perform upset recovery training in a military jet.
“‘Pilot error’ is the most often cited cause of accidents,” continues Owen. “We agree with this statement, but we also consider the complexity of an aircraft to have a direct relation to the frequency of pilot errors. The fact is that many VLJ pilots will climb into their airplanes after a long business day to get back home, and they may not be as sharp or proficient as we’d like. That’s why we feel the concept of a personal jet, an aircraft with wide safety margins, is right for our target market.”
Cirrus’ Klapmeier weighs in. “I’m not an advocate of flight at 41,000 feet. It’s a very dangerous environment. There is no room for error up there. The time that it takes to come down to a safer altitude if you’ve got a problem is enormous.”
Eclipse Aviation’s Director of Public Relations Andrew Broom counters by saying, “I think that people are missing the point when they say the twin-engine VLJs will operate at 41,000 feet. The Eclipse 500 is most efficient in the mid-30s and enjoys turboprop fuel efficiency at jet speeds in the 20s. But,” he adds, “with our FL410-ceiling capability, operators will have the option to go high over bad weather. Our order book of 2,500 is a testament to our customers’ willingness to pay a little more to have this ability as well as the safety that comes with two engines.” That’s a plus factor for the busy CEO faced with a must-attend meeting.
Pilots may find themselves moving up from their turboprops or twins and buying into the Eclipse/Mustang/Adam/Phenom 100 end of the spectrum (for Mach .70 cruising with the airliners). Or, perhaps, they’ll prefer the personal jet approach, zipping along at a still-respectable 315 knots at a friendlier 25,000 feet. Regardless, training, training and training remains the answer to the question: What three things will make the VLJ soar with owner/pilots?
VLJ makers are quick to show a sober side when it comes to turning over the keys to their airplanes. To whit: Adam Aircraft’s approach to transition training. “Our Aircraft Insurance Assurance Program is already well defined,” says Adam’s President Joe Walker.
Minimum pilot qualifications to greenlight an A700 purchase and participate in the Insurance Assistance Program are private, instrument and multi-engine ratings, 1,000 hours total time, 500 hours complex time and 200 hours Adam A500 time. “A700 customers are encouraged to purchase an A500 first if they don’t have turbine experience,” says Walker. “It’s a great trainer for the A700 jet: the cockpits have the same avionics suite. Takeoff and landing speeds and handling qualities are close because both aircraft have the same wing and tail.”
Owners can then trade in their A500 at a guaranteed price after 200 hours and take possession of the A700, which they’ll fly with a professional mentor pilot until sign-off. “We guarantee a successful transition, or they get their money back,” asserts Walker.
Dressed Up, No Place To Fly
It’s clear that nobody in the industry wants low-time pilots with Top Gun Maverick egos blasting smoking craters in Central Park. The Eclipse 500 curriculum will shuttle owners with instrument and multi ratings from preparatory transition training through the type rating, then on to mentor pilot and recurrent training. United Airlines will run the program. Hypoxia recognition and upset training in an L-39 Czech trainer jet are two bulwarks of the comprehensive syllabus.
Cessna Mustang buyers will go through a similarly structured regimen, handled by longtime partner Flight Safety International.
An Insurance Dilemma?
Again the topic of insurance rears its big head. Underwriters are expected to remain conservative until in-the-field numbers accumulate to bolster their risk-assignment confidence. Before the tech stock bust, low-hour, unqualified dot-com-boom pilots found out in a hurry that, even though they were rich enough to buy Meridians and Pilatuses by the Prada bag-full, underwriters refused to insure them.
Even so, hull premiums for well-trained, qualified pilots may prove surprisingly docile. Eclipse’s Broom anticipates rates “from the low $20s to the high $40s per year, depending on the pilot’s skill level.”
Industry analysts Conklin & de Decker see rates for the Adam A700 at nearly $42,000 based on its higher sticker price. For comparison, a typical Piper Meridian quote can be nearly $45,000 per year, while a PC-12 can top $50,000.
What’s this? Lower rates? That’s due in large part to the FAA’s insistence on high-level training. William Lovett, vice president of AIG Insurance, said recently, “Quality training will be a critical element to a successful future for VLJs.”
Still, industry observers expect fairly intense insurer scrutiny of VLJ owners on a one-by-one basis before they’ll sign the dotted risk line. Willis Global Aviation and AIG among others want more than just comprehensive training: good pilot skills and lots of experience will remain key factors as well.
When it all shakes out, VLJ owners will have to look sharp and stay sharp. Still, the siren call of “a jet in every hangar” may yet create a generation of pilots who will transition easily to personal jet flight.
Broom speaks to that new wave: “I’m a low-time pilot. I have 500 hours in Cessnas and Mooneys. I have flown the Eclipse 500 a couple of times, and was I surprised. It’s a very easy aircraft to fly. It feels very natural. Landing was just a little faster than a Cessna 172. That’s one of the real appeals: it’s in a flight regime familiar to piston pilots.”
Nobody knows yet whether Cessna, Embraer, Adam or Eclipse will become first VLJ King of the Hill. Or whether a lower/slower/friendlier Cirrus or Diamond personal jet will create a new, jet-powered Bonanza-style class. However it unfolds, watch for 2007 to be the year when general aviation changes forever.