Developers of very light jets say owner-fliers and air-taxi operators are ready to upgrade from pistons or turboprops. Are they right?

Very light jet developers are reaching a dynamic phase in which markets are being more exactly defined, orders are being announced and first flights have taken place. For some, however, progress has been hampered by funding shortfalls. Safire Aircraft, for example, has seen development of its six-seat Safire Jet slip yet again, following a funding crisis that led to a one-month temporary shutdown of the plant. The Miami-based company says it is now back on track following a fresh injection of funding.

Once referred to as microjets, very light jets are generally defined as those with a maximum take-off weight of less than 3,860kg (8,500lb) and a seating capacity of six to seven, including the pilot. Manufacturers appear to be targeting owner-fliers and air- taxi operators, with fleet operators accounting for most sales, according to Jack Olcott, the former National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) president who is now head of General Aero, a Morristown, New Jersey-based consulting firm.

"If the numbers [predicted by the manufacturers] are correct, there could be 5,000-10,000 very light jets flying by 2014," says Olcott. "About 60-75% are likely to be involved in some type of fleet operation, with about 25-40% owner-flown."

Manufacturers claim they are offering affordable jet ownership for the private pilot who wants to upgrade from single and twin pistons or turboprops, given the fact that most very light jets cost less than $3 million. But the relatively low acquisition and operating costs of these aircraft, say their proponents, will also make possible affordable air-taxi services to remote airports that, in most cases, have no airline service.

Denver-based Adam Aircraft Industries sprang a surprise in May by announcing an order for 75 of its seven-seat, twin-boom A700 AdamJets from a new air-taxi company headed by former AMR chairman Robert Crandall and Donald Burr, who founded low-fare airline People Express in the early 1980s.

Despite that, Adam Aircraft president Joe Walker says the company's business plan emphasises owner-operators. The prototype all-composite aircraft, equipped with an Avidyne FlightMax Entegra glass cockpit, and powered by two Williams International 1,200lb-thrust (5.3kN) FJ33 engines, made its debut at the July 2003 Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) show at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The show is a major venue for owner-flown aircraft.

"Since we will certificate it for single-pilot operation, the AdamJet is definitely for the pilot who wants to move up to a jet from pistons and turboprops," Walker says. "The air taxi market is the icing on the cake."

Government is another target for the AdamJet. "We are promoting the aircraft to the US government as a replacement for aircraft of equivalent size and capability," he says. For all markets, Walker predicts combined sales of about 50 aircraft a year.

To date, the prototype AdamJet has flown over 150 flight hours, with certification set for early 2005. The $2 million aircraft will be certificated to 41,000ft (12,500m) and an instrument flight rules (IFR) range of 2,000km (1,100nm), with four passengers. Cruise speed will be 340kt (630km/h) at 38,000ft.

Aerostar retrofit

Another very light jet heavily oriented to the owner-pilot is Aerostar Aircraft's Aerostar FJ90. Jim Christy, vice-president of the Hayden Lake, Idaho-based company, says the FJ90 will be a twinjet retrofit of some of the airframes, originally built as six-seat pressurised piston twins by Ted Smith (Piper) Aerostar between 1969 and 1976. Piper Aircraft - which acquired the programme from Smith - continued production between 1976 and 1984. The two companies together built a total of 591 units. Aerostar Aircraft supports, and has held the production rights to the aircraft since 1991.

Christy says the FJ90 will retain the six-seat interior, but an optional eight-seat FJ90XL version would be made available through the insertion of a fuselage plug forward of the wing.

Christy says Aerostar plans to certificate the FJ90 for single-pilot operation, with a choice of the FJ33 - with 1,200lb of thrust - or the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615, which is rated at 1,350lb. The FJ90 will be certificated to 28,000ft and offer an IFR range of 1,850km at a cruise speed of 319kt, with a pilot plus three passengers. At maximum payload, the aircraft will have a 1,300km range.

The first flight of the FJ90 with one of the two engine types is set for early 2005, with certification expected during 2006. Aerostar is considering one of two avionics suites - the Honeywell Apex, now in development, or the recently certificated Garmin G1000.

"Initially, we are offering the programme as an upgrade to existing Aerostar airframes, for about $1 million," says Christy. "About 99% of the 450 pressurised Aerostars in service are owner-flown and relatively low time, with a 2,000h average. I see a market for about 100 a year."

If funding becomes available, a new-production aircraft, the Aerostar FJ100, would offer eight seats as a standard interior and would continue to use the Aerostar's aluminum airframe. If built, the FJ100 model would be priced at under $2 million, be certificated for a single pilot and use the same engine types as the FJ90, albeit with a higher-thrust FJ33, producing 1,350lb. It would have a 415kt cruise speed and a 2,600km IFR range - including reserves - with a pilot, plus four passengers. With all eight seats occupied, the range would be 1,670km. The certificated ceiling is projected at 41,000ft.

At the 2002 NBAA convention in Orlando, Cessna announced its entry into the very light jet sweepstakes with the Citation Mustang. The six-seat metal and composite aircraft will be powered by two 1,350lb-thrust PW615F engines. Cessna has also selected Garmin's G1000 as the avionics suite. A single-pilot aircraft, it will have a ceiling of 41,000ft and a 2,400km range carrying a 270kg payload. Typical cruise speed will be 340kt at 35,000ft.

Bridge building

"The Citation Mustang is a bridge between single-engine pistons and [current production] jets," says Russ Meyer III, the aircraft's programme manager in Wichita. "This will allow us to offer a product to a segment of the market we have not tapped before."

Meyer says that, at $2.4 million, the Citation Mustang will be less expensive than the CJ1, Cessna's current entry-level, $4.2 million jet. Although its pricing appears to be high-end for very light jets, Meyer says the reputation of the builder will make the aircraft more than competitive, and he says the orderbook stands at 200 units. The first Citation Mustang flight is set for the second quarter of 2005, with certification by the third quarter of 2006.

Taking the owner-operated very light jet concept a step further is Englewood, Colorado-based Aviation Technology Group with its proposed Javelin. The aircraft's aluminum airframe and tandem two-seat cockpit give it the look of a fighter.

"We are tightly focused on the pilot who is more interested in speed, but at a reasonable operating cost," says George Bye, the company's president. "For the Javelin, we are projecting a direct operating cost of about $411 per hour, or about ¢77 per mile."

The Javelin was rolled out as a full-scale mock-up in July 2000 and introduced as a "very high performance aircraft for the business/pilot owner". The aircraft's twin FJ33 engines will deliver a 530kt cruise speed and a certificated ceiling of 45,000ft, with a range of 2,300km. The avionics suite is Avidyne's FlightMax Entegra.

Nearly 50% of the aircraft's projected market will be military customers, especially those in need of an advanced jet trainer, says Bye, claiming: "We expect to announce orders from military customers this year."

Funding permitting, the $2.5 million aircraft is set to fly for the first time this year, with certification expected in early 2007.

Diamond light

Not everyone believes that the owner-operator is looking for an exotic, high-performance aircraft, even in a jet. In January 2003, Austria's Diamond Aircraft announced that it would pursue the light-jet market with its five-seat, single-engined, single-pilot D-Jet.

According to Peter Maurer, president of Diamond Aircraft Canada, the D-Jet is the first of the new light jets to be single-engined, using an FJ33 powerplant. Maurer says the company plans to select the avionics suite - either the Garmin G1000 or the Honeywell Apex - by the end of the year. The aircraft's first flight will take place in mid-2005, with certification by late 2006.

"We didn't want to design something that would be a small version of an existing business jet," says Maurer. "That's why we set out to develop a jet with a 25,000ft certificated ceiling, and a lower Mach speed than the typical business jet."

The aircraft has a projected range of 2,440km, with IFR reserves, at a cruise speed of 240kt. The maximum speed will be 315kt. With a take-off runway requirement of under 730m, the D-Jet is designed for smaller airport use.

In addition to the owner-flown community, the D-Jet is generating considerable interest from flight schools, particularly as an introductory jet trainer, says Maurer.

The price of the all-composite aircraft will be under $1 million. Maurer projects that during its first year, about 100 D-Jets will be sold, with a production run of 100-200 units annually in subsequent years.

Sport Jet arrival

In January, a competitor emeged in the single-engined, owner-pilot jet market when Colorado Springs-based Excel-Jet unveiled its Sport Jet, a five-seat aircraft. According to company president Bob Bornhofen, the aircraft is being designed for what he calls "the typical general aviation pilot" looking to upgrade from a single or twin piston. Bornhofen claims the Sport Jet, which will be built at Denver's Front Range airport, will have a first flight by the end of this year, with certification 18 months later. The most likely engine is the PW615 or the FJ33. The vendor for the "full glass cockpit" has not been announced.

The Sport Jet will use a combination of aluminum and composite materials. The wing and aft fuselage will be aluminum, while the portion of the fuselage up to the engine face will be composite. The powerplant will be embedded in the fuselage.

"We are trying to keep the Sport Jet to a very simple design with a certificated ceiling of 25,000ft and a cruise speed of 340-370kt at maximum altitude," says Bornhofen. He adds that it will have a runway take-off length of between 760m and 855m, with a range of 1,665-1,850km (IFR reserves). The price will be about $900,000.

Later this year, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) could finalise plans to develop a single-pilot jet in a joint venture with US-based Avocet.

According to Gadi Cohen, general manager of IAI's commercial aircraft group in Tel Aviv, the two firms began the project a year ago with an eye toward both the owner-pilot and air-taxi operators. The companies, he says, are making the final decision phase on subsystem suppliers, with selections set for the third quarter. The airframe will probably be a mix of metal and composite materials, with final assembly in the USA.

IAI expects to certificate the aircraft for operation up to 40,000ft, and with a 2,220km range with IFR reserves at 350kt with all six seats occupied. The first flight is set for two years after the programme's formal launch, with certification to follow a year later.

Of the current very light jet projects, perhaps the most notable is the Eclipse 500, which has been in development since March 2000 by Eclipse Aviation of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This programme has survived a powerplant change after a single flight in August 2002 with twin Williams International EJ22 engines, which company president and chief executive Vern Raburn says presented "many performance, reliability and technical issues". In February 2003, Eclipse selected the P&WC PW610F, delivering 900lb of thrust. The engine change required some airframe modifications, which included the flaps, wing, and some internal component relocations.

Eclipse is integrating the cockpit suite, which includes the Avidyne Entegra primary navigation and communications system; a Meggitt autopilot; Crossbow AHRS; and a Free Flight GPS.

As of late June, seven new airframes were under construction at the company's Albuquerque factory, of which five will enter the flight-test programme leading to certification, with the other two set for static and fatigue tests. Raburn says that the first flight of the P&WC-powered aircraft has been set for 31 December, leading to certification by 31 December 2006.

In its standard configuration, the aircraft will be a five-seat, single-pilot jet, certificated to a maximum ceiling of 41,000ft. The IFR range will be 2,370km, at a maximum cruise of 375kt, with four passengers. The take-off distance requirement is 660m.

There are four target markets for the Eclipse 500, which will have a $1.2 million price tag. "One is the owner-pilot operating high-performance piston aircraft, or even a small, older jet," says Raburn. "We have also targeted two segments of the business aviation market - the established flight department, which sees a requirement for a very small jet, and the first-time business aircraft operator. Then, there is the air-taxi business, with the fourth group a mix of traditional operations, including cargo, flight training, charter and air medevac." Raburn says the Eclipse 500 orderbook stands at 2,100, mostly from owner-operators. The company is building a production facility with a capacity of 1,000 units a year. "If our projections prove right, it's possible we could be building that many aircraft."

Some industry watchers are cautious about the market, however. "Our research indicates that microjets will have a total production run of 100-250 units a year," says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president for analysis at the Teal Group, based near Washington DC. "That's based on the [requirements of the] owner-flown market and the fact that some might find their way into charter, or fractional market. I don't see them being produced in the thousands a year." He is also sceptical about the air-taxi market. "The demand for this service - especially at remote locations - is not sizable."


Bill Dane, senior aviation analyst for Newtown, Connecticut-based Forecast International, shares this scepticism. He concedes that while the very-light jet concept has generated excitement, that has largely moderated over the last nine months - especially as air taxis.

"Air-taxi services will grow over the next 15 years, but that growth won't be explosive," Dane says. "There are airports where an air taxi would be viable, if people do their homework, but we don't believe the claims that this will open 4,000-5,000 airports in North America to on-demand transport. That's pie in the sky."

According to Dane "the large chunk of the very light jet market" will be the owner-flown segment, especially small business people who fly to destinations within 1,600km of each other. "There are a lot of operators like that who want to upgrade from twin turboprops, and if the microjets can meet their manufacturers' performance claims - and prices do not rise significantly - a lot of turboprop operators will want to trade up. On the other hand, for the same money, they could purchase a larger, more capable, used business jet."

One opportunity cited for very light jets is in fractional ownership programmes. According to Joe Moeggenberg, president of the Aviation Research Group/US and a long-time student of fractional programmes, very light jets have drawn "strong interest" from some fractional plans.

"The overwhelming interest seems to be coming from those fractional programmes that are more regional and involve owner-pilot single and twin pistons," says Moeggenberg. "There is also a slight amount of interest from the more traditional, national plans that use professional pilots. But I don't see the large fractionals getting involved with very light jets until they are a proven concept, and get a sense of the real market for those aircraft."

Airport issues specific to very light jets could also stir controversy on the community level. "It will take a major PR effort to address the naysayers who want to see operations at smaller airports curtailed, and especially do not want jets," says General Aero's Olcott. "When you do impose a jet on people that do not want to see airport traffic expand, you exacerbate the problem and the objections." Olcott says the impact of very light jets will not be felt until at least 2008-9, when deliveries begin to ramp up. Forecast International predicts that between 2006, when initial deliveries begin, and 2013 around 3,380 very light jets will have been delivered by the three or four manufacturers likely to be in business by that time, with annual deliveries reaching 640 aircraft by 2012-13.

In the final analysis, very light jets may simply be another product to fill established roles, according to Paul Class, vice-president of charter sales and flight co-ordination for TAG Aviation in White Plains, New York. "Very light jets will give a lot of people the opportunity to trade up to jets and pistons, and more likely find their place in the traditional charter market," he says.



Source: Flight International