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.
Raburn couldn’t possibly have predicted the economic downturn of 2007-2009 and, in combination with other cost factors, the Eclipse had virtually no chance of success. The company went bankrupt in November 2008, chapter 11 at first, and finally full liquidation chapter 7 in early 2009.
Rick Adam of Adam Aircraft had Burt Rutan design the Adam A500, a centerline-thrust piston twin, and the A700, a twin-tail, twin-jet VLJ. A few A500s were produced, but the A700 never made it to production. The Maverick SmartJet was introduced, but again, never made it to certification. The Viper Jet and Bede BD-10 were two-seat homebuilt sporty variations on the VLJ theme, but neither was successful.
Piper had great hopes for the single-engine Piper Jet, a design that owed little to any other Piper product. The airplane was later reconfigured and renamed the Altaire, but the Florida company pulled the plug on that airplane when development costs began to skyrocket.
Finally, as everyone learned back in March of this year, Diamond Aircraft of Canada has suspended flight test/certification efforts on the D-Jet, the company’s single-engine five-seat mini-jet. That’s especially sad since the aircraft was about 80% complete on flight testing and paperwork for certification.
This leaves only the aforementioned Eclipse, revived by Mason Holland’s investment group and purchased out of bankruptcy for roughly $.04 on the dollar. Holland and company have finished what Raburn started, completing many of the initial 261 Eclipse 500s (under the name Total Eclipse) and launching into active production on the improved Eclipse 550. The later model is aerodynamically the same machine as the original, but the Avio avionics system is now complete, auto throttles are now installed and the new 550 is what the original should’ve been five years ago.
The single-engine seven-seat Cirrus Vision still under development, an airplane that shows great promise for introduction into the heretofore single-entry VLJ market, if at a lower altitude and with less performance. The Vision is targeted for flight no higher than FL280, below RVSM airspace. Projected cruise is a modest 300 knots with a single, 1,800-pound-thrust Williams FJ-33 engine installed.
In keeping with Cirrus policy, the Vision also will be fitted with a Cirrus Airframe Parachute. Stall speed is pegged in the mid-60 knot range, and the Vision is planned to be an exceptional short-field airplane for a jet. Takeoff runway requirement has been pegged at just over 1,600 feet. This will make the Vision competitive with the 400 series Cessnas of the 1980s.
Of course, the Cessna Citation Mustang 510 sailed right through certification and was introduced without nearly as much fanfare five years ago. It’s still selling well, but it’s a scaled-down Citation, hardly a VLJ in the accepted sense. Speed is 340 knots with six folks aboard, but the 2013 model is priced at $3.2 million, far above any reasonable VLJ parameter.
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.
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.