A jet in every garage is still a dream, but entry-level business aircraft are becoming more affordable

Over the years, a crop of start-up companies has sought to captivate the general aviation aircraft buyer with innovative personal jet designs. Few of those companies, however, have successfully crossed the threshold from drawing board to first delivery and those judged as failures have become industry fodder for the cynics and disbelievers alike.

Chuck Suma, president of established general aviation manufacturer New Piper Aircraft, accuses many of the defunct developers of not taking seriously the time and cost challenge of bringing a new aircraft to market. "These companies," he says, "have launched grandiose promotional campaigns without undertaking the real challenge of building a real and certifiable aircraft, only to fail their industry partners and customers".

While New Piper has put its own plans for a new small jet on hold until it has the financial muscle to complete the project, new companies continue to enter the fray, united in the belief that their aircraft designs will meet perfectly the transportation demands of the new millennium.

One of these hopefuls, Century Aerospace, believes that the fragile image of start-up manufacturers has and continues to be tarnished by the unrealistic expectations of a small number of companies. "There is so much snake oil and bull in this industry, which gives us [independent companies] a bad reputation," says president Bill Northrup.

He cites a number of aircraft programmes which have failed to produce certifiable models. "The list is endless. Remember Bede Jet and Derringer? They must have all set out with the intention of making an impact on the market with their aircraft designs and then, bang, they have gone."

Costly business

Northrup believes around $1billion was spent on such programmes and estimates a similar sum is being invested in the latest batch of start-up projects. "There are success stories of course - Bill Lear, Cirrus Design and Lancair to name a few - but this is a very, very costly business and definitely not one for the faint-hearted". Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Century has so far sunk more than $6 million into developing its CA-100 twin-engined small business jet, and is seeking a further $60 million to fund the programme through to certification.

Northrup, a pilot and entrepreneur, began work on a single-engined entry-level business jet in 1993. He says: "I have always believed that, when the new powerplant technology becomes available, the size of the entry-level aircraft market will be huge. Don't forget, the Williams FJ44 [turbofan] effectively drove development of the [Cessna] CitationJet and its new and smaller FJ33 is opening up a new market for light jets."

The original Century Jet was designed around a single FJ44, but when Century was offered the smaller and cheaper FJ33 in early 1998 it decided to make the design a twin, believing the aircraft would be more marketable. "Nobody is going to buy a single when they can buy a twin for the same price," says Northrup. To accommodate the two engines, a costly redesign was undertaken, which included lengthening the fuselage to increase stability and control as well as to boost cabin space; increasing wing area to provide added fuel and range; moving the wing to improve handling characteristics; and resizing and changing the horizontal stabiliser to a T-tail.

The CA-100 is priced at under $2.4 million to compete with Cessna's entry-level CitationJet. "Unlike the established manufacturers, like Cessna, Piper, Raytheon and Bombardier, every step we take with this programme is a learning curve, and we have to meet the challenges head on. One wrong move could ruin us," says Northrup.

Century believes the key to producing a successful aircraft is a combination of competitive pricing, performance and aftersales support. With direct operating costs expected to be about $0.60/km ($1.10/nm), the CA-100 will cost about the same to operate as many cabin-class piston twins. Century also hopes the aircraft will attract operators of small and medium turboprops as well as light jets, with its predicted 370kt (685km/h) cruise speed. The 3,200kg (7,000lb) aircraft offers a range of about 1,200km (650nm). Certification and first deliveries are set for 2002 and 2003, respectively.

To prosper in aircraft manufacturing, Northrup believes companies should endeavour to develop low cost, conventional aircraft designs and not become embroiled in unorthodox configurations like the Beech Starship. "These out-of-the-box designs look great on the drawing board, but building them is a different story. Stick with a straightforward, simple product - if it has never been done before, don't do it," he says.

While Northrup has the drive and flair for developing his twinjet, bringing the product to the marketplace and securing the remaining millions is a major battle. "The odds are stacked against us. Since 1993, we have been saying that the aircraft will be certificated in 20 months," he says. "We are out there banging on doors, asking people for money, but it is so hard tying to convince them that your product is worth investing in and that you are not another one of those aviation failures. You have to take rejection like nobody else in the world."

Harsh lesson

It is a lesson that VisionAire has learned the hard way. The Ames, Iowa-based company has already invested $60 million in its Vantage single-engined business jet and needs a further $140 million to fund the programme through certification. Reiterating Century's frustrations, VisionAire chairman and chief executive Jim Rice says: "It is tough raising capital as a start-up company. Those investors who know nothing about aviation are unlikely to put their money into new programmes as it's seen as too risky. We are having to compete with this new wave of Internet entrepreneurs which are attracting a lot of funding."

There are two kinds of investors, according to Rice - members of the local community, who may have personal links with the programme, and aviation enthusiasts. He concedes. "To attract investment you have to build credibility in the industry and get a good team of people behind you".

VisionAire's reputation suffered a blow in late 1998 when the company was forced to halt development of the Vantage to address concerns over the aircraft's handling and weight which arose during flight tests. "It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make, and fortunately it only led to a drop of 12 orders [the orderbook now totals 125 aircraft]," says Rice.

With the redesign complete, VisionAire believes the new Vantage is a "far superior" aircraft than its predecessor. The major changes include replacing the Pratt & Whitney Canada JT15D-5 engine with the more powerful -5D, to increase thrust; moving the engine aft and up to reduce inlet duct curvature, to avoid ice build-up and increase baggage space; switching to a monocoque fuselage structure to reduce weight; lowering the wing to improve ground handling and reducing forward sweep to improve control and stall behaviour; using a thinner aerofoil to reduce drag; and enlarging the vertical tail and moving the horizontal tail aft to improve handling.

At the same time, the price rose from $1.8 million to $2.175 million. "We did consider changing the design from a single to a twin like Century, but in the end the reliability and safety record of the JT15D convinced us not to," says Rice.

The revised Vantage will offer a maximum cruise speed of 350kt and a range of 1,850km. New windtunnel tests and the construction of additional test vehicles are planned by year end, with certification and first deliveries set for the fourth quarter of 2002, around two years later than planned.

Redesign dangers

A number of industry observers believed a redesign would sound the death knell for VisionAire and the Vantage. Rice concedes: "Many people thought we would not survive the redesign, but it has compounded our staying power. We have a duty to everyone who has worked on and invested in this programme to make it work - it's like a marriage."

Like Century, VisionAire believes the new class of personal jets, with their significantly lower price tags and operating costs, will open up a new class of buyer. Rice says: "The potential for this form of private air transport, particularly in the USA, is enormous. Eventually, we expect to sell around 300 Vantage jets a year."

The orderbook, VisionAire hopes, will be boosted by the introduction of a fractional ownership programme. Under the scheme, dubbed a "partnering programme", VisionAire will make the aircraft available to customers "under a sort of leasing arrangement". It will service an area within a 1,200km radius of the strategically located home base. VisionAire says: "The programme still requires considerable additional research, particularly the number of support facilities we could make available domestically and internationally and where they will be based, but we are confident that there will be a sizeable market when it is launched".

The vision of personal aircraft as a publicly accepted and cost-efficient form of transportation in the 21st century has driven Safire president Michael Margaritoff to design a six-seat, twin-engined, low-cost business aircraft, dubbed the S-26. "Within the next millennium, the perception of personal aircraft will change from that of a rich man's toy to both an essential and justified form of transportation," says Margaritoff. This theory, he notes, is supported by the US Government through its sponsorship of NASA's Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments (AGATE) programme. This incorporates the General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) programme, which focuses on the development of affordable engines for general aviation aircraft. The results of AGATE and GAP will fuel NASA's Small Aircraft Transportation System programme, which envisions the emergence of a new category of easy-to-fly private vertical and short take-off and landing aircraft over 25 years.

The value of the small personal aircraft will become more apparent, Margaritoff notes, as airline travel becomes increasingly unappealing to the regional traveller. "In the USA, there are 10 times more public airports available than are being serviced by the airlines. We have to properly utilise our urban and suburban transportation system, otherwise the major hubs will be gridlocked by 2004," he adds.

Safire cites 5,400 public airports and 12,000 private airports in the USA which could be used by the "emerging" category of small aircraft, thereby easing the congestion at the hubs. "The improvement in avionics and powerplant technology will drive up demand for these aircraft which will in turn incite local governments to spend money improving the infrastructure at these airports, for example installing an instrument landing system to enable the aircraft to land in all weather conditions," says Margaritoff.

With its $800,000 price tag, Safire's S-26 is intended to spearhead the entry-level small personal jet market, although the aircraft is still at the concept stage. The West Palm Beach, Florida-based company has already secured a substantial portion of the projected $150 million needed to fund the twinjet through to construction of the first prototype, from public offerings and private investment. "We are in a position to begin detailed drawing work [computer-aided design], which should be complete by the end of the year, when windtunnel testing can begin," says Margaritoff.

The maiden flight of the first of four prototypes - three flying and one static - is planned for 2002. Certification and first deliveries are planned the following year. "We will have the capacity to produce around 2,000 S-26s a year from our West Palm Beach factory, and I believe within the next 10 to 15 years there will be a demand for this number driven by a fundamental need for people to be transported quickly, efficiently and safely," says Margaritoff.

British entrepreneur Richard Noble is hoping to emulate Safire's philosophy with a new aircraft project, the Farnborough F1, a five-seat, single-engined turboprop. Noble is not a stranger to new ventures, as his success in setting the world land speed record with the supersonic jet-powered ThrustSSC confirms.

Also, his brief flirtation with the general aviation market in the early 1980s resulted in the short-lived Air Recreational Vehicle (ARV) Super 2, of which only 37 were built. Noble concedes: "The Super2 was a real winner, but [due to technical hitches with the aircraft] the industry was sceptical, and the British disease spread to banks who decided they had wasted their money and that it was all Noble's fault."

Insurance policy

Through his experience with ARV, Noble claims to have learned a valuable lesson. "The Super2 is a leisure aircraft, which sells well in times of economic boom, but come a recession the first thing to go is the aircraft," he says, adding: "If we were ever to do this again, the product must be a commercial aircraft making serious money for its operators. That would mean it would sell in good times and bad and would be our insurance policy - our way of staying in business."

The $1.9 million F1 will be built entirely of composite materials and powered by a Pratt &Whitney Canada PT6A-60A turbine, driving a low-rpm propeller. It will be pressurised and have a 300kt maximum speed. Retractable "agricultural" undercarriage and large single-slotted Fowler flaps will give short take-off and landing capability. Noble expects prototypes to be ready in 2001, with the first flight planned for 2002.

The aircraft will be aimed at companies interested in creating networks of air taxis, allowing business travellers to bypass the increasingly congested commercial air transport system in Europe and the USA. "Thirty-eight European airports are forecast to run out of capacity by 2010. At the moment eight major airports are at maximum capacity for most of the operating day and another 14 airports are near capacity. We now have to change people's perceptions of travel," he adds.

A team of sponsors has been lined up and the company will do business entirely over the Internet, under the website Farnborough-Aircraft.com - a concept built on Noble's experience with ThrustSSC. "The Internet brings together large numbers of people who have the same interests and, like with the Thrust, see the new project being created into something that is worthwhile," adds Noble. Internet companies are also a rich source of investment for venture capitalists; a claim made by the many start-up companies striving for funding sources.

"The huge potential of the Internet now makes the most unthinkable business challenges possible and liberates us all from many of the traditional restrictions and discriminations," he says.

Noble acknowledges that the success of ThrustSSC has raised his profile and credibility in the industry, making the task of raising the necessary £11 million ($18 million) easier. He adds, however, that producing a successful aircraft is a tremendous challenge and with one mistake his reputation could be damaged. He concedes: "It is a very tough project, and its going to get much tougher as we push on hard and fast. Every stage depends on success and we have to get it right first time."

Fellow UK aircraft builder Europa emphasises the "risky" nature of general aviation manufacturing. "It is very hard to make money selling aircraft, you do it because you love it," says Europa's founder and managing director Ivan Shaw.

The company has sold more than 650 kit-built aircraft in its brief history and is hoping to emulate this success with a new aircraft under development at its Kirkbymoorside, North Yorkshire base. No technical details have been disclosed. For Shaw, the key to a successful business is economy. "My philosophy is 'keep it lean and mean'. I started this business from a small office next to a pie factory in Barnsley and my overheads were very low."

Shaw's dreams for Europa were hatched on his drawing board in this North Yorkshire town. "I knew I had designed a great product so once I had found the shareholders I felt I should watch their money carefully," he says. Shaw's "belt and braces" approach paid off, when the total bills for design, tooling and first flight of the Europa kitplane totalled only £100,000 ($160,000).

Improved transport

Shaw declares the toughest part of the manufacturing business is aftersales support. "This is when the hard work starts. Customers are like children. They are totally dependent on you for product support throughout the life of the aircraft, and you have an obligation to them for as long as they need it."

Although development costs for the factory-built aircraft will be significantly higher than for the kitplane, Shaw has gained sufficient credibility through the success of the Europa to force the hand of potential investors, and has secured the necessary finance to fund the programme through to certification. Shaw notes: "These investors would not have been interested in my new programme had I not sold more than 650 kit aircraft around the world - you have got to earn your credibility, otherwise it's very tough asking people for their money."

If the predictions of the general aviation community are realised, the next century will bear witness to a fundamentally improved air transport system. Small personal aircraft will play a vital role in reducing congestion at major hubs by offering a cost effective, reliable and speedy form of regional travel to the cornucopia of upgraded airfields.

It remains to be seen which, if any, of the current line-up of independently produced aircraft will form part this air transport Utopia. Shaw concludes: "Success is down to 90% hard work and dedication, 5% inspiration and 5% a good helping of lady luck - this is not a business for the faint hearted."

Source: Flight International