Very Light Jetsby Philip Greenspun, ATP, MEI; created November 2007, updated October 2012
For the purposes of this article, a "very light jet" is one that weighs less than 10,000 lbs. and costs less than $5 million.
Take-off distance is 3120'; landing requires 2500'. The airplane has a higher service ceiling than other very light jets, capable of climbing to FL430.
The HondaJet is scheduled for delivery in late 2012 at a price of $4.5 million.
(The older version of this article read "Honda is a great company, but even great companies have been humbled by the challenges of aircraft certification. Problems usually translate to delays, cost overruns, and a creeping empty weight that reduces payload." So far at least the delay part has come true, with deliveries being pushed back from 2010 to 2012.)
In mid-2008, the Eclipse 500 was limping its way to full certification. The avionics were half-finished, very few airplanes were certified for flight into known icing conditions, and the tires needed to be replaced after every 25 landings. The company raised the price for new orders to $2.15 million.
A charter company in our helicopter hangar was operating four Eclipse jets. Most of the time at most one was in flyable condition. Due to the lack of antiskid brakes and the fragility of the tires, the plane could not be operated with confidence on a runway shorter than 5000', i.e., a runway long enough to land a Gulfstream. Real-world IFR range is closer to 700 n.m. than the originally promised 1800 n.m.
The Eclipse is advertised as being very quiet inside and operators report that it is, subjectively. However, the plane measures roughly 4 dB noisier than the Cessna Mustang or CJ3. With the ventilation fans on low in cruise at FL270, cabin and cockpit levels were both 82 dBA. This is about 6 dB quieter than the better piston-powered aircraft.
I have not managed to talk my way onto an Eclipse flight, but have sat in the aircraft. Exterior and interior finishes are excellent. The front seats are very comfortable for a 6' tall pilot (me). The rear portion of the cabin seems smaller than that of a Piper Malibu/Meridian and it was impossible to sit without my knees brushing up against the seat in front. If the plane had 1300 n.m. IFR range, were certified for known ice, and could land on short runways, it might have been a nice four-seat personal airplane. Pilot-owners sit in front, kids or another two adults sit in the back; dog and bags occupy the space that formerly held the middle seats.
In March 2006, I visited the Eclipse factory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The sales people and pencil pushers were remarkably arrogant, a startling contrast to their relatively humble counterparts at Cessna and Embraer. The employees on the shop floor were not smiling and having fun cooperating, as I've observed at the Diamond factories in London, Ontario and Austria.
The four-seat single-engine Eclipse 400 was announced in mid-2008 for delivery in "late 2011" at a price of 1.35 million June 2008 dollars. The design promised high fuel efficiency, possibly as little as one pound of jet fuel per nautical mile, or just under 10 mpg, a little better than an SUV if you consider that the jet flies point to point and does not sit in traffic jams.
The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November 2008. All assets were to be sold to a Russian-European group. Customers who had paid deposits of up to 60 percent but never received an airplane would be wiped out. Customers who took delivery of airplanes would have no warranty. That turned out to be an unrealistically rosy scenario. In fact, the company closed up shop in February 2009 and disappeared legally in March 2009. This left an orphaned fleet of 259 slightly broken airplanes until August 2009 when Eclipse Aerospace purchased the assets of the former company.
Eclipse Aerospace has made substantial progress in completing the avionics of the EA500 and forged an agreement with Sikorsky to distribute parts.
Cruise speed is 360 knots and range is guaranteed to be at least 1,300 n.m. Piper doesn't say if this is NBAA range, which includes a 100 n.m. flight to the alternative, so it might not be any longer range than the Eclipse, et al. Cabin size seems to be sensible; six seats plus an optional lav opposite the door (Pilatus-style).
The price will be 2.5 million 2010 dollars. Operating costs should be lower than a twin-engine plane. Piper's financial strength is questionable compared to the competition. Piper has not certified a new airplane since the Malibu in 1984 and has never built a jet. Deliveries are scheduled for 2014.
The D-Jet will cruise at 315 knots, carry a total of five people, and operate from 2500' runways. Gross weight is 5,110 lbs. Range, not specified as NBAA, is claimed to be 1,350 n.m., but only if you're willing to slow down to 240 knots. The air intakes are mounted at the inboard leading edges of the wing, which would appear to make them very susceptible to foreign object damage.
The price is $1.9 million (2009 dollars). Diamond isn't making any promises about completing certification or delivering airplanes. In March 2011 Diamond laid off 213 employees in Canada and in May 2011 the Canadian government turned down Diamond's request for financing towards the D-Jet's certification (source). In June 2011, however, Diamond announced that it had secured a new financing commitment for the program.
Wikipedia has a frequently updated page on the company's progress with this design.
The A700 had a large cabin, comparable to the HondaJet, and it might have been a nice plane if not for the fact that in February 2008 Adam filed for Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy. Its assets were purchased by Russian investors in April 2008 and they planned to revive the design, but have not been heard from since.
See Wikipedia for the latest on Adam, whose assets were acquired by Triton Aerospace in April 2011.
Their Epic Elite jet sounds even better: supposedly 1700 lbs. of payload can be carried 1600 nautical miles; cruise speed is 410 knots; pressurization of 8.5 psi (cabin altitude of 8,000' at 41,000').
Epic's ambitions would be laughable if not for the following:
Update: Wikipedia chronicles the company's Chapter 7 liquidation bankruptcy and purchase of the assets by some of the home-builders and a Chinese aircraft manufacturer.
ATG offers a two-seat $3 million military trainer-style jet with swept wings. Cruise speed is 500 knots with a claimed IFR range of 1,000 n.m. The company asked me to become an investor back around 2003. I asked who would buy a two-seat super high performance jet? "Real estate investors going to look at properties," was one reply. I asked how many real estate investors wanted to limit themselves to looking at properties that were near 10,000' runways (the claimed stall speed in landing configuration is 88 knots) and how many real estate investors were former fighter pilots.
What are the issues with becoming a civilian fighter pilot in an ATG Javelin? Runway length is a huge one. You won't have access to most U.S. airports, but only those designed for big or fast jets. The stall speed of the Javelin will likely result in landing speeds and runway length requirements close to those of a Boeing 737. Two-pilot airline crews regularly operate 737s from 6,000' runways, but you would have to ask yourself what your personal minimum should be. For anyone not fresh from the military or the airlines, insurance is unlikely to be available.
Alternative: overhauled L-39 Albatros with fresh avionics for $300,000. You see these Czech-built single-engine military trainers on a lot of ramps out West. Usually a few local rich guys have partnered up on one and they fly it without insurance. Specifications include a stall speed of 91 knots and a "range" of 971 nautical miles (plan on 700 maybe). According to Wikipedia, there were 257 flying in the U.S. in March 2006. You can buy the newer L-59 for under $1 million.
June 2008 update: ATG filed for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy, leaving behind debts of close to $100 million and wiping out investors who put in up to $50 million.
Preflighting and getting any jet out of a hangar is a much more involved process than firing up a piston-powered airplane such as a Cirrus SR20 or Beechcraft Bonanza. Rather than spend millions on a VLJ, why not buy a used light jet (of proven design) and hire a professional pilot to assist you with management and operation of the aircraft? The higher airspeeds of a plane such as the Beechcraft Premier I (about $2 million used) might be a little more challenging at first, but operating as a two-pilot crew in the Beechcraft will certainly be safer and less challenging than operating single-pilot in a VLJ.
Another interesting option is a proven airframe with modern avionics and engines. A lot of high quality business jets were manufactured from 1980 through 2000 and did not accumulate that many hours before falling into disfavor due to inefficient engines and non-glass avionics. Expect to see a lot of activity in the refurbishment of these designs. For example, Nextant Aerospace takes the popular Beechjet 400A/400XT and puts in the standard Collins Pro Line flight deck plus modern fuel-efficient engines. The result is a $4 million airplane with a more than 2000 nautical miles of NBAA IFR range. Due to a fast cruise speed of 440-460 knots, the operating cost per mile is lower than some of the very light jets. The interior of the modernized Beechjet is vast compared to any of the VLJs, with comfortable seating for seven passengers plus a belted lavatory (so it can carry 8 people in the back plus two pilots in the front).
Despite the challenges presented by the airplane, pilots with as little as 400 hours of experience have managed to operate them safely. How? By sitting next to a pilot with 1000+ hours of experience in the type and by dividing the work (one pilot flies, one pilot monitors (runs switches and radios); switching roles every leg).
From a safety perspective, it may make more sense to purchased a used standard-design jet and hire a captain/instructor to work with for a few years. Then transition downward to a simpler VLJ (this has the added advantage of giving the manufacturers of the new VLJ designs time to work out the bugs).
Hourly operating costs will be higher for a heavier airplane, but you'll realize significant insurance savings by having a lower hull value and operating as a two-pilot crew.
[Note: the author of this article flew the CRJ for a regional airline, successfully transitioning from the four-seat 3000 lb. Cirrus SR20 to the 54-seat 53,000 lb. CRJ with the help of some very patient captains.]
Among the VLJs, the HondaJet should have the most "ramp presence".
If they're ever certified, the single-engine VLJs should be cheaper to operate since the latest turbojet engines have many fewer parts than the venerable PT-6 turbines in the standard turboprop.
Having flown a few hundred hours in slow VLJs, I can confirm that vectors off airways and turns "for traffic" are common. Now that airliners are routinely operating in the high 30s and low 40s, exactly where VLJs need to be in order to achieve their maximum range, showing up in a 320-knot airplane throws a wrench into the works. Oftentimes the slow speed makes it difficult to get clearance to climb and one is stuck at a low fuel-wasting altitude. A fast airplane such as the HondaJet may end up having a real-world range advantage over the slower VLJs.
The VLJs that are limited to FL250 (e.g., Cirrus and Diamond), if certified, will not be in the way of airliners; the 20s are empty of all but Piper Malibus and the like (we once were cleared direct from Nebraska to Bedford, Massachusetts in the middle of a weekday at FL250).
Second, eventually the FAA will upgrade its software and systems to allow airplanes to fly great circle point-to-point routes. With point-to-point routing, there will be so little enroute congestion that some people have proposed letting the airliners' onboard TCAS systems resolve what few conflicts are likely. A 1996 New York Times article on this idea noted that "the F.A.A. [is] famous for missing deadlines" and, indeed, the agency does not seem to have set itself any deadline for eliminating the 1950s jet route system and accompanying software.
The FAA's last attempt to upgrade its software cost $9 billion, took 20 years, and was entirely scrapped. This is generally regarded as the most expensive civilian software project failure in history.