Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The VLJ Market—13 Years Late

It’s true that hindsight is nearly always 20/20, but was there ever a VLJ market to begin with?

New airplanes sell (or don't sell) for a variety of reasons. Not only does a manufacturer need to define a specific market for a new product, he has to worry about a hundred things most folks never think about.

It's not enough that a new model be an esthetic success, it needs to fulfill a specific, well-defined need; the build technology needs to be readily available; the economy should be healthy enough to provide buyers; long lead parts suppliers need to be reliable; a service network must be in place, etc. Sometimes, that last item alone, etcetera, can doom what everyone assumed was an innovative product.

No one has ever attempted to define a very light jet (VLJ), but some parameters are almost universally agreed upon.

1. The aircraft should be relatively inexpensive for a jet, base-priced under $2 million.
2. It should carry at least four folks and perhaps as many as six.
3. It should have a cruise speed of at least 340 knots and a range of 1,000 nm.
4. It should be capable of operating at heights between FL280 and FL350.

Contrary to popular belief, the first VLJ wasn't a 21st-century design. It was the Morane-Saulnier MS760, developed in the late 1950s. The MS760 was a four-seat variation of a French military reconnaissance aircraft, later introduced as the Paris Jet. The MS-760 cruised at about 350 knots and grossed 8,650 pounds, fairly close to today's definition of very light jets.

The modern definition of the VLJ is the Eclipse, introduced by company president Vern Raburn some 13 years ago. Following Raburn's announcement, it seemed practically everyone jumped on the VLJ bandwagon, apparently on the assumption that there would somehow magically be an explosion of new multimillionaires eager to snap up the coming mini-jets.

Eclipse's Raburn, a former Microsoft executive, initially promised his airplane at an initial $845,000, and even if most of the industry knew that was an impossibly low price (it finally premiered at just under twice that), initial acceptance of the Eclipse 500 seemed to suggest there might be a market for very light jets.


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