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I’ve been fascinated by the trials and tribulations of Tesla, the electric car maker famous and infamous for its cars capabilities and limitations. A high-profile crash while one of its vehicles was being “driven” on autopilot in Florida raised concerns about the readiness of the auto-drive feature, and the recent production and delivery logistics problems for the company’s new Model 3 have vexed buyers of that new car who have been waiting for ages to get their high-tech wheels. The thing about Teslas’s woes wasn’t that I’d never seen anything like it before. It was that I’ve seen exactly those same challenges time and time again in the aviation world.
One of the coolest things in the history of aviation is the personal jet. So far there have been exactly two, arguably three of them that have had any kind of impact in aviation, and two out of the three were mixed bags—I wouldn’t argue hard if someone said all three were. These are the Cessna Citation Don’t Call Me a VLJ Mustang, the billion-dollar debacle that was and still kind of is the Eclipse EA 500, and the Cirrus SF-50 Vision Jet. I’ve flown all three of them and it’s not a stretch to say that I love them all even though they are very different planes. But thank goodness I didn’t have the optimism or the bank account to put a deposit down on one.
Well, to be fair, the Mustang was everything Cessna said it was going to be, unfortunately including being not that fast and not that powerful. With its gorgeous little Pratt & Whitney PW615-F turbofans of just under 1500-lbs of thrust each, the Mustang was an exercise in restraint and economy, and it showcased Cessna’s ability to build an airplane that was a lower price point than its previous entry-level turbofan, the CitationJet. The Mustang had even less performance, with a top cruise speed of around 340 knots, which is not that much faster than a TBM 850 of the day. The Mustang, which lasted almost ten years in production with 479 built, was also proof positive that it might be impossible to successfully scale down the twin-jet. The problem is, even for a really small jet, and the Mustang is pretty small, you still need every system you put on a bigger jet. And just because they’re smaller doesn’t mean they’re cheaper. And in the case of some things, smaller can mean much harder to successfully engineer.
Don’t get me wrong. Cessna certainly succeeded in the Mustang. It’s just that the end product wound up being something that was unprofitable to build and financially unsound for customers to buy, at least in terms of the performance it offered for the buck. Toward the end of the Mustang run, it was around a $3 million airplane that Cessna surely wished it could charge more for, and with its current entry-level CJ, the M2, going for just over $4 million while offering close to 70 knots better speed, a higher ceiling, better… well, faster and better everything, the case for the Mustang was hard to make. Cessna put the pony out to pasture and encouraged customers to ride an M2 instead.
Early Mustang adopters at least got what they were looking to get. As with just about every Cessna we can think of in the long history of the company (now a part of Textron Aviation along with Beechcraft) the Mustang met its performance targets. They just weren’t very lofty performance targets. And the Mustang—remember there are almost 500 of them out there flying around—remains a popular plane in the used market, because it really is a great starter jet, though in this case, getting to know the Mustang as one’s first jet will lead invariably to wanting a better, i.e., faster jet.
None of that was true for the Eclipse 500, which represents one of the biggest fiascos in general aviation history and which remains one of the coolest airplanes in GA history, as well. The EA 500 also has the Pratt 600-series engine, though, at just 900 pounds of thrust each, they’re even tinier versions than the Mustang. The Pratt wasn’t the first engine Eclipse eyed for its jet. The company had originally tabbed Williams International to supply it with a new, diminutive turbofan, but it didn’t work out. Eclipse abandoned the Williams mill and went with the Pratt, and if you know anything about jet programs, an engine swap mid-program might not be a death sentence, but if it’s not, death might have been preferable.
The Eclipse program, which had no end of problems to begin with, including its business model based on a future-world fantasy, that of skies filled to bursting with Eclipse jets taking excited passengers around the country on a per-seat model of a charter that never came close to being true. Their customers were a thorn in their side as they were negotiating their day to day. That customer base consisted of pilots passionate about a sub-million-dollar 370-knot mini-jet. Most of those customers paid their money but never saw their plane. And as time passed and the company accrued debt while struggled to certify and produce a plane, the outcome was plain to see, even as the company continued with its parties and marketing blitzes.
Cirrus Aircraft, which successfully certified and produced the SF-50 Vision Jet, breezed through the process. That is if 10 years of development, the departure of the company co-founder and a change in ownership is part of the breezing process. Buyers put down $100,000 deposits originally, and those first adopters finally started getting their jets a couple of years ago. Unlike with the Eclipse Jet, which got updates on the fly for years after its certification, the Vision Jet hit deliveries running and hitting its numbers.
So as I read about Tesla’s challenges and Elon Musk’s calm reassurances, I can’t help but think about the plight of the early adopter. Innovative companies sorely need their enthusiasm and their investment, but the people who get hardest when innovative companies run up against roadblocks are often those very same early adopters. And I can only hope they still have an old car to drive around in or, in the case of those folks who put down big deposits for planes they never saw, that they had plenty of extra money in reserve.