In early March – and in celebration of the 250th Falcon 7X taking to the air – I was briefed by Dassault on the commercial, technical, operational and customer service status of their flagship aircraft.
To showcase the landing performance flexibility of the 7X into restricted, short field length airfields, I was invited to fly two approaches and then land at St Tropez (La Môle – LFTZ).
This evaluation was followed by observing Dassault pilots flying two approaches and landing at Gstaad (Saanen – LSGK) in Switzerland.
Dassault sees its main competition in the ultra-long-range, VIP business jet market as the Bombardier Global 6000 and the Gulfstream 550.
The approaches and landings I flew and observed aimed to highlight the operational and performance advantages the Falcon 7X enjoys – and which Dassault hopes the competition will be unable to match.
I have previously evaluated the Falcon 7X fly-by-wire (FBW) handling, the third-generation head-up display (HUD)/enhanced vision system (EVS) and the EASy II cockpit with the synthetic vision system (SVS).
I was hugely impressed with the aircraft and its systems on each evaluation. However, flying and safely operating an ultra-long-range business jet into and out of airfields with a runway landing distance available (LDA) of 1,100m (3,600ft) or less would be an astonishing demonstration of the aircraft’s factored runway distance operational capability – and of its customer appeal.
This challenge is coupled with a steep descent, severe terrain restrictions and offset final approaches.
The 7X’s maximum ceiling is 51,000ft and maximum operating speed is 370kt (685km/h).
Recent 7X operational upgrades include raising the take-off and landing crosswind limits to 30kt steady/40kt gusting. These limits were certificated during a recent testing campaign in Iceland, where the aircraft was demonstrated to be fully controllable when taking off and landing in crosswind gusts in excess of 40kt.
Dassault performance diagrams show the 7X (with three crew and six passengers) to be capable of directly reaching New York, Lagos in Nigeria or Dubai on take-off from London City.
From St Tropez La Môle in the same configuration, the 7X can directly reach Gander in Canada, Dubai or Novosibirsk, Russia. The Global 6000 and Gulfstream 550 are not presently certificated for either London City or La Môle, and neither are expected to achieve certification for Saanen or La Môle in the future.
From Eagle County Regional airport (EGE) in Colorado (elevation 6,500ft and with a take-off runway available of 9,000ft), the second segment climb gradient advantage of the 7X allows it to significantly out-range its competitors and fly direct to most European cities.
In the USA, Dassault has identified more than 500 austere or small airports where limited runway lengths dictate low take-off weights suitable for the 7X – but not, in Dassault’s view, for the G550, because of aircraft-limiting minimum control speeds.
The 7X cabin has been further refined with HD+ entertainment systems, in-flight connectivity, a full shower option and vacuum toilets. Reliability improvements are centred on the new Falcon Broadcast system, which automatically downloads actual or predicted in-flight unserviceabilities to ground stations via VHF broadcast, and is offered free of charge for the first nine months to all new customers.
Further upgrades for the pilots – beyond EASy II – come in the form of the new Falcon electronic flightbag for each pilot.
This EFB hosts “Falcon Sphere” – a Windows-based colour system that provides information on weight and balance. It also features “Falcon Perf” airfield performance data, airfield approach charts, weather, pilot manuals and maintenance alerts.
Now, with the EASy II displaying airfield approach charts as primary and the EFB displaying the same charts as secondary, the integrated printer-equipped 7X cockpit has been certificated as “paperless”.
My safety pilots for the evaluation were Fred Lascourrèges, chief test pilot, Dassault Business Aviation, and Philippe Micaud, chief pilot, Falcon Operational Support Group.
I would fly the landing evaluation to low overshoot from the left hand seat at St Tropez La Môle, having also completed the take-off and transit from Le Bourget. The final full stop landing would then be given over to both Dassault pilots.
I had visited the 7X Level D simulator at Le Bourget the day before, practising the flight.
La Môle is 59ft above mean sea level, and runway 24/06 is 1,150m in length and 30m in width. Runway 24 was designated as the landing runway and 06 as the take-off runway.
With a displaced threshold on runway 24, the quoted LDA is 1,080m.
The initial and final approach is fully visual. Runway 24 is offset by +9˚ from final approach, there is no approach aid or external visual guidance, and the required final approach path angle is approximately 4.7˚.
The runway 24 LDA of 1,080m must also be at least 1.67 times the actual landing distance of the aircraft, if an operator is to gain air operator certificate type commercial privilege.
This then equates to a certificated actual landing distance for the aircraft, at the planned landing weight, of 646m or less – as measured from 50ft above threshold at the correct speed, to full stop.
The evaluation aircraft was the Dassault customer demonstrator 7X with registration F-HGHF.
With two crew and four passengers, the basic operating weight was 17,000kg (37,500lb).
Our start up fuel at Le Bourget was 3,500kg (7,700lb).
My two approaches to very low overshoot at La Môle were to be made at an all-up weight (AUW) of approximately 42,000lbs (19,100kg).
Conditions were day/visual meteorological conditions and weather dry, CAVOK, wind light and variable/2kt, outside temp +15˚C (58˚F).
I flew the complete evaluation using the HUD. Given the clear daytime conditions I did not use the EVS. The Falcon 7X HUD remains the best civilian HUD I have ever flown with and, once deployed, I literally never wanted to look “head in” for any other primary flight information.
The final approach to La Môle begins laterally just offset from the village of St Tropez, gear down, level at 2,500ft, slats/flaps 2, 140kt indicated airspeed (IAS), initial heading 234˚ along a valley leading away from the coast.
At approximately 3nm and with the runway threshold visually intercepting a point on the HUD pitch ladder 5˚ down marker, I started my final descent at slats/flaps 3, approach speed 111kt IAS for a reference speed of 108kt IAS. To put this into context, these speeds closely match those of twin-turboprop commuter-type standard – which at AUW of approx 14,000lb is just one third of the 7X’s for the same approach.
I visually held the lateral offset up to approximately 1nm and 600ft above ground level. At this point, a determined (30˚ max angle of bank) S-bend (left-right) was completed to line up, at 200ft above threshold, as a final “gate”.
This final manoeuvre was simple to control, easy to fly and I arrived precisely over the threshold at 50ft, at the correct approach speed and at an approach path of 4.7˚.
In the flare the pitch control power remained high, with rapid aircraft response to control input, but the body angle change to arrest the rate of descent was small. At approximately 20ft above the runway the “go around” was called, which was then flown fully manually. I configured back to SF1 gear up at 180kt IAS, in an S-bend to avoid close-in terrain, levelling at 2,500ft to repeat the approach.
The go-around could be flown “like a fighter”, because the aircraft was so responsive and the available thrust so high.
My impression of the second approach and go-around was the same as my first. The Falcon 7X inspired me with total pilot confidence on a demanding, steep visual offset approach, with surrounding terrain, on to a short, narrow runway I had never seen before – and which is usually the natural habitat of only general aviation.
On the final full-stop landing, I estimated that our actual landing distance was no greater than 550m. On shut down our only neighbours on the La Môle airfield apron were a Cessna Mustang and Pilatus PC-12.
After landing I reviewed the approach into La Môle and asked myself why it was so easy to fly – and why the aircraft inspired me with such confidence in demanding conditions.
Firstly, the target approach speed and speed over threshold are exceptionally low for this class of aircraft, closely matching those of much smaller twin-turboprop types.
These speeds directly translate into actual landing distance – which must then be factored – additionally aided by the aircraft’s efficient brakes, anti-skid and ground lift dumping.
These low reference speeds stem partly from the lower basic operating weight that is a hallmark of all Falcon designs, and partly from the sophistication of the 7X wing, including its slats and flaps.
Secondly, the use of the HUD and the flightpath vector gave me continued feedback of flightpath accuracy and predictability throughout the approach, and into the flare and touchdown.
Finally, the 7X FBW is wonderfully precise when making both small flightpath changes or large manoeuvres. The aircraft’s flightpath stability and speed stability are also very high.
Later that same day I observed Lascourrèges, as pilot flying, and Micaud, as pilot non-flying, fly a visual approach and full stop landing into Saanen airfield in Switzerland – runway 08 with a LDA of 1,098m.
Final approach speed was again around 110kt IAS, airbrake position 1 selected (certificated steep approach configuration), and a final approach path of 5.5˚ (estimated).
Collins (left) in control during approach to the 1,150m-long runway at St Tropez La Môle
Flown in the middle of the Alps in a narrow valley, it was without doubt the most impressive, incredible and demanding visual circuit and approach I have ever witnessed or have flown myself, in a civilian aircraft of any comparable type.
On shut-down at Saanen the only other aircraft on the apron was a Piper Cub – with skis on.
As I viewed both aircraft on the apron, the contrast was almost surreal. However, the 7X already has Swiss aviation authority certification for Saanen airfield operations – and that certification can only be gained by an aircraft that the authorities, like me, have total confidence in.
Flying with such ease and observing the approaches and full-stop landings in the 7X into such short runways was a revelation even to me, as an experienced test pilot.
That an aircraft can have such a range of performance capabilities and flexibility, allied to such sophistication and advanced systems, is truly impressive.
I fully understand why the 7X remains Dassault’s flagship aircraft, and why the aircraft’s popularity continues to increase.
As a complete “aviation package”, I continue to rate the Falcon 7X as the best business jet available in the world today.