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Aviation Breakthroughs Oddities/Milestones: Personal Jets

Though many doubt the viability of such a concept, the idea of a small, single-pilot, practical jet-powered airplane has been around for a good long while.

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The idea of a small personal jet is an alluring one, and there have been some limited success stories, as you’ll read here. But the problem facing very small, very light jets is that turbine engines are most efficient at altitudes starting at 30,000 feet and up. Below that, their fuel burns are far greater, which is why you hear pilots of small and not-so-small jets pleading to be allowed to climb.

Still, the attraction of personal jets has kept them coming in wave after wave since the 1950s, culminating in three relatively successful designs beginning in the early part of this century. But even that wasn’t easy, and some of the stories are harrowing in just about every imaginable way.

Piper Jet

Piper Jet
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Piper Jet

When Very Light Jet (VLJ) fever struck the North American continent in the late ’90s, everyone wanted in on the act, and that included Piper, which thought a single-engine, single-pilot jet that offered good performance at a great price would be a natural. They soon learned, however, just how expensive it would be for them to bring such a jet to market and how difficult it would be to get the design just right. That product was the Piper Jet, an all-metal six-seater based on the PA-46 series of pressurized singles. Target price was right around $2 million.

A later, extensively redesigned version with a new airfoil was renamed the Altaire. Piper, under new ownership at the time and with the recession in full bloom, canceled the program long before certification. The defining feature of the plane is its tail-mounted engine. Tail-mounted engines are common on tri-jet planes, but they present problems when power settings are changed, as the moment of the engine is so great that pitch changes are amplified. Piper initially had an auto-trim system to address this but later worked with engine supplier Williams on a thrust vectoring solution to the problem that eliminated much of the complexity of auto trim. The Piper Jet/Altaire’s performance targets were impressive: a cruise speed of 360 knots, a range of 1,300 nm and a ceiling of 35,000 feet.

Photo By flickr user michel curi.

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