Article by Graham Warwick in Washington, DC. Cutaway drawing by Tim Hall in San Antonio

It has been a long time coming, and there have been setbacks along the way, but Sino Swearingen's SJ30 light jet has arrived at last.We take a close look

Two decades in the making, the SJ30 is finally here, and Sino Swearingen Aircraft seems a little unprepared for the long-awaited arrival of its light jet. Most new business jets come to market with fully fledged sales campaigns, training programmes and support services. But then every business jet since the Learjet 23 has been the product of an established manufacturer.

San Antonio, Texas-based Sino Swearingen, despite having been around for more than a decade, is still a start-up. Following US type certification of the SJ30 in October last year, the Taiwan-backed company is now racing to put in place the infrastructure need to produce and support its new $6 million jet.

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The sleek SJ30 has big jet speed (above), which offsets the small jet cabin (below)
 SJ30 aircraft interior W445
 SJ30 Wing anhedral W445
Wing anhedral was among design changes that led to today's SJ30
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 Click here to enlarge the cutaway Cutaway SJ30 W445
All images © Sino Swearingen, arrangement and cutaway above  © Flight International

US certification is being finalised and the first delivery is planned for June, to a local customer. Sino Swearingen plans to lease the aircraft back for use as a demonstrator. The next aircraft will go to UK distributor Action Aviation. European certification is planned for mid- to late 2007, so initial deliveries will be N-registered, says Robert Kromer, vice-president, international sales and marketing.

Stevens Aviation has been selected to operate the first North American service centres for the SJ30, and other established service providers will be added to the support network, which could eventually include company-owned facilities. Training will be performed in Sino Swearingen’s demonstrator for the first year or so, but negotiations are under way to appoint a provider of factory-authorised simulator-based training.

Manufacture of wings, fuselages and tails is ramping up at Sino Swearingen’s plant in Martingsburg, West Virginia. Final assembly and completion is located in San Antonio. The company has refundable deposits on 300 orders and plans to deliver 10 aircraft this year, 30 next year, 68 in 2008, 84 in 2009 and 100 a year from 2010 onwards, says Kromer – a significant shift of gear for a company that has struggled mightily to bring a product to market.

Ed Swearingen, best known for the designing the Swearingen (later Fairchild) Metro turboprop, began working on a high-performance light jet, the SA-30, in 1982. When an agreement with Gulfstream to market the aircraft as the Gulfjet fell apart in 1989, San Antonio-based investor Doug Jaffe stepped in and it became the SJ30, but he withdrew before the prototype made its first flight in February 1991.

With funds in short supply, development progressed slowly. In 1994, US senator Jay Rockefeller brokered a deal between Swearingen and Taiwanese investors to create Sino Swearingen and build the SJ30 in West Virginia. By mid-1995, financing was finally in place, and later that year the stretched, higher-performance SJ30-2 was launched – initially as a second family member, but the original SJ30-1 was quickly shelved.

Design changes

Featuring uprated, 2,300lb-thrust (10.2kN) Williams-Rolls FJ44-2A turbofans, 1.05m fuselage stretch and increased fuel capacity, the prototype SJ30-2 first flew in November 1996, by which time certification – originally set for 1997 – had aleady begun to slip. And it would keep slipping as the company struggled with design changes, manufacturing delays and funding shortages.

Weight increases led Sino Swearingen to request that the SJ30 be certificated under Part 23 commuter category rules, until then reserved for heavier regional turboprops, and permission was granted by the US Federal Aviation Administration early in 1998. The exemption allowed payload to be increased, but combined with assembly delays it pushed certification into early 2000.

But it was November 2000 before the first conforming prototype finally took to the air, and talk of certification in 2002 was to prove optimistic. In mid-2001, Sino Swearingen replaced Spain’s Gamesa as wing and fuselage supplier, but a deal with US firm Aerostructures was never consummated, and in early 2002 the company acquired the tooling and began fabrication at its Martinsburg plant.

Early in 2001, after an unsuccessful search for $100 million extra funding, Sino Swearingen had secured a commitment from its Taiwanese investors to complete certification and begin production for the SJ30-2. With the programme stabilised, the second prototype flew in March 2003, but a month later the first aircraft crashed during high-speed flutter testing, killing the test pilot.

Type certification

Despite the crash, which was blamed on incomplete high-Mach design research, and resulting design changes to improve lateral stability, Sino Swearingen was by then back on track. FAA type certification was granted in October last year, nearly 15 years after the original SJ30’s first flight. What had begun as year-long, 1,400h certification test programme ended up taking almost five years and 2,500h.

The SJ30 was designed from the outset to provide performance not seen before in a light jet. “The heart and soul of the aircraft is the small, highly swept wing for high-speed cruise,” says Kromer, adding: “High-Mach cruise in a light jet is fairly revolutionary.” The aircraft’s maximum operating Mach number is 0.83, high-speed cruise 475kt (880km/h) and long-range cruise 436kt.

The 30°-swept wing is only 17.7m2 (191ft2) in area, but a high-lift system comprising leading-edge slats and large Fowler flaps provides approach and stall speeds that are “competitive with the fairly straight, fairly fat wings” on other light jets, says Kromer, who was previously senior manager of flight test and chief pilot.

“We touch down at 100kt, which is very competitive at maximum landing weight. This is not a hot ship – we have worked hard to tame the flying characteristics and make high speed easy, with the ability to slow down and enter the airport environment.” Wing-mounted speedbrakes can be deployed in flight and on the ground, but there are no thrust reversers. Long-stroke trailing-link gear provides for a smooth landing, he says.

Thanks to the high-lift system airport performance is also competitive with other light jets, Kromer says, despite the small wing. Take-off distance is 1,200m (3,940ft). At maximum take-off weight, the aircraft can climb direct to 43,000ft, reaching its 49,000ft ceiling an hour into the cruise. The fuselage is pressurised to 0.83bar (12lb/in2), maintaining a sea-level cabin altitude to 41,000ft and a comfortable 1,500ft at the 49,000ft ceiling.

Within its maximum take-off weight of 6,330kg (13,950lb), the SJ30 also carries a substantial maximum fuel load of 2,200kg. Combined with the fuel economy of the twin FJ44s – consumption in the cruise is 475-490litres/h (125-130USgal/h), Kromer says this gives the aircraft a “solid” range of 4,630km (2,500nm) with one pilot and two passengers. Indirect operating costs are estimated a $750/h.

Simple contracts

While the powerplants lack the dual-channel full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) system of the latest FJ44 variants, they are equipped with a electronic control unit (ECU).

The pilot puts the throttles into the take-off or maximum continuous detent and the ECUs automatically maintain the thrust setting. “It’s not full FADEC, it’s a simpler system, but it provides the same result,” says Kromer.

Sino Swearingen has updated the avionics suite once during development of the SJ30, switching to Honeywell’s Primus Epic control display system in 1998. This includes three 8 x 10in (205 x 255mm) flat-panel displays and an integrated avionics computer that includes autopilot and flight-management system (FMS). Traffic collision avoidance and terrain awareness warning systems are standard and the SJ30 has reduced vertical separation minimum approval, says Kromer.

Certification of a dual FMS is planned, and fold-out electronic flight bags will be offered to provide a paperless cockpit capability, but Kromer acknowledges Sino Swearingen will probably have to update the avionics sooner rather than later because of advances in technology.

Standard cabin

A fully equipped cabin comes as standard, Kromer says. This has four seats in a club layout. A fifth side-facing seat across from the cabin door doubles as the toilet and can be separated from the cabin by a solid divider. At 1.46m wide, 1.4m high and 3.81m long, the cabin is not the biggest among light jets, but Sino Swearingen argues the high cruise speed offsets this, and points out that the flight time for 1,850km range is less than 2.4h – the shortest of any light jet.

Certificated for single-pilot operation, the SJ30 is being targeted at owners and operators of other light jets and turboprops, but Sino Swearingen believes the aircraft has the potential to “disrupt” the market because it offers performance normally found in more costly business jets.

“Individuals could look at us as an alternative to very large, gas-guzzling aircraft. They could give up cabin size to fly one or two passengers and use half the fuel to fly the same range and speed,” says Kromer, who adds: “We think the SJ30 was worth the wait.”

Source: Flight International