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?

The Brazilian Embraer Phenom 100 is another example of an entry-level jet that's well outside the VLJ class. Priced at $4.1 million in 2013 dollars with P&W 1,615-pound thrust engines installed, the 10,400-pound gross EMB100 cruises at 360 knots with up to seven folks aboard. The Phenom 100 premiered in 2008.

Similarly, the Honda Jet HJ-420 is expected to be introduced to production ranks later this year, following a development program that only Honda's deep pockets could afford. Again, however, Honda's entry won't be very light in any parameter: weight, speed and certainly not price. With GE/Honda HF120 turbofan engines developing 2,050 pounds of thrust per side, the airplane will weigh more than 9,000 pounds, cruise at 420 knots and sell for at least $4.5 million. No one has yet agreed upon a common definition of a VLJ, but the Honda Jet isn't it.

And so, we're left to ask what happened to the great VLJ market we were told was the next big thing in the New Millennium? Some industry analysts claimed the sky would become black with very light jets, clogging the airways between FL250 and FL350. Even the FAA drank the Kool-Aid and predicted airspace pandemonium if the VLJ era became real.
Piper had great hopes for the Piper Jet, a design that owed little to any other Piper product. The airplane was later renamed the Altaire, but the Florida company pulled the plug on that airplane when costs skyrocketed.
My personal mentor, the late Roy LoPresti, predicted it would never happen. LoPresti was a former Grumman rocket scientist who worked on the lunar lander of the Apollo program, then redesigned the Grumman American Tiger and Cheetah, moved to Mooney and hatched the innovative 201 and 231, transitioned to Beech to help achieve certification on the Starship, and probably designed some other airplanes in his spare time.

LoPresti knew the general aviation market better than anyone I've ever known, and he was a realist, not a pessimist. LoPresti was convinced VLJs were a fad. We attended Vern Raburn's first Oshkosh press conference in 2000, and LoPresti just shook his head in disbelief at Raburn's wild enthusiasm and naïveté. LoPresti correctly predicted that the costs of development and certification on the Eclipse 500 would drive the price so high that few would even consider a mini-jet.

In other words, at this writing, you can count the certified models in the VLJ class on the thumbs of one hand. The Eclipse Aerospace 550 is the only real VLJ currently on the market, certified and in production. I flew the 500 last year and concluded there was very little wrong with the airplane from an engineering point of view. Management had been the problem.

If we're lucky, and Cirrus can certify its Vision jet and Diamond can once again resurrect the D-Jet, then we may have three VLJs to choose from by late this year. Then, there really will be a VLJ class.

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