Don’t mention the VLJ

The term ‘VLJ’ has become tainted by association with excessive expectations and high-profile bankruptcies. Yet the concept may still prove sound

1st Sep 2010

The global financial meltdown hit general and business aviation harder than perhaps any other sector of the industry. And within those sectors, the worst-affected programmes were very-light jets (VLJs), which had been seen as having so much promise for much of the past decade.

VLJs, defined by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as having a maximum take-off weight of less than 10,000lb (4.540kg), were seen as a way for those rich enough to afford a personal aircraft to avoid airport hassles. At the same time, the public was excited by the idea of personal aircraft and aerospace enthusiasts were enthralled by the advanced engine technology.

The VLJs did have their opponents, however, who feared the consequences of a surge in the number of private owner-pilots as the entry-level price of the aircraft fell to about US$1 million. At the same time, environmentalists warned of the ecological consequences of a boom in private jet ownership.

The aircraft ranged in capacity between 4 and 10 seats, but most seated six people, including the pilot. The VLJ aircraft category was seen as easy to enter, and market forecasts from Honeywell suggested demand for more than 10,000 units over a decade.

But then the credit crunched, and the VLJ bubble burst. In late 2008, the sector’s poster-child Eclipse Aviation – a start-up manufacturer seen as the very cutting edge of an aviation revolution – went into bankruptcy protection. By March, the company ‘s assets were up for sale.

By the time the company collapsed, it had already sold 2,000 of its Eclipse 500 jets and delivered 260.

The aircraft had been favoured by many companies that wanted to operate it as an air taxi, with about two-thirds of orders coming from charter operators interested in the pay-per-segment taxi business model. Most of the customers – many in the USA and Western Europe, some in Asia – had paid a non-refundable deposit of US$100,000 per aircraft.

Hope remains

But hope remains for the programme. In September 2009, a group of Eclipse owners, former deposit holders and investors formed Eclipse Aerospace (EAI), which purchased the assets of the former Eclipse Aviation for US$20 million in cash and an additional US$20 million in notes. The new company’s goal was to restart production of the EA-500.

“To date, our efforts have met with great success,” said EAI Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mason Holland. “Eclipse jets are flying around the world and have accumulated over 42,000 safe flight hours. Our factory and factory-authorised service centres are supporting the fleet and our vendors are working with EAI as parts are now available to support the fleet of over 260 Eclipse jets.”

Holland added that the company is now offering a limited number of factory-reconditioned Total Eclipse 500 aircraft for sale.

Priced at US$2.15 million, the aircraft includes four major upgrades, allowing flight into known icing conditions, a 41,000ft ceiling, a 20,000-cycle airframe lifespan and additional new systems such as colour radar, Jeppesen eCharts and a moving map display.

No firm decision has yet been taken on restarting production of the VLJ, which will depend on the results of a fresh market analysis and the results of negotiations with suppliers.

EAI has been offering a guaranteed buy-back to a limited number of Total Eclipse customers – promising to allow the buyer to trade in the upgraded aircraft in part payment for a new-build aircraft once production is underway. Current EA-500 owners are also being offered US$1-1.7 million to trade their aircraft in for a Total Eclipse variant.

According to the manufacturer, the EA-500 can cruise at speeds of 370 knots (685kmh), travelling further than 1,100 nautical miles non-stop, while burning as little as 48 gallons of fuel per hour. The aircraft is powered by twin Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) PW610F turbofans.

‘Tainted’ name

Apart from the EA-500, only two VLJs are certificated and delivered to customers: the Cessna Citation Mustang and Embraer’s Phenom 100. Although the manufacturers prefer to even avoid referring to them as VLJs.

In the words of analyst and National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) member Brian Foley: “The term VLJ was at times tainted by ... unrealistic expectations and eve failure. The industry would do well to drop hyped words in order to improve credibility with users.”

True to this philosophy, both Cessna and Embraer use the term “entry-level” jet to describe their products.

Cessna’s Citation Mustang recently achieved a milestone in Asia, gaining certification from India’s Director General of Civil Aviation. Originally certificated by the FAA in 2006, the Mustang now has approval in more than 60 countries.

“The Mustang is well suited for operations in India, due to its range and performance,” said Trevor Esling, Cessna’s vice-president of international Citation sales.
Powered by two P&WC PW615F engines, the 4-5 passenger Mustang can cruise at 340 knots and offers a range of 1,167 nautical miles at its maximum take-off weight of 8,645lb. The aircraft has a service ceiling of 41,000ft and comes equipped with a Garmin G1000 flight-instrument system.

Cessna also recently announced that it is offering a new ‘High Sierra Edition’ of the jet, which are fitted with luxury versions of the three currently offered interiors, a special paint scheme, a version of the G1000 with Synthetic Vision Technology, electronic charts, locking fuel caps and unique service and parts programmes.

“The special High Sierra Edition gives our customers more luxurious interior and exterior options to outfit their Mustang,” said Roger Whyte, Cessna’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing.

More than 300 Mustangs have been delivered since the first was handed over in April 2007, Cessna said.

Brazilian contender

Embraer’s Phenom 100 is designed to transport four to six passengers at speeds of up to 390 knots over a maximum range of 1,178 nautical miles. The aircraft, powered by P&WC PW617F-E engines, offers a maximum take-off weight of 10,472lb and a service ceiling of 41,000ft.

The aircraft is offered with Embraer’s Prodigy Flight Deck 100, based on the Garmin G1000 also found in Cessna’s Mustang.

By the end of the first quarter of 2010, the Brazilian manufacturer had delivered 115 of the jets – two in 2008, 97 in 2009 and 16 in the first quarter of this year.

Deliveries for the past two years fell short of Embraer’s expectations because of the crisis and some production issues in early 2009 – the company had originally planned to deliver 15 in 2008 and 120-150 last year, but trimmed its 2009 target to 110.

Now the manufacturer insists it is on track to meet its 2010 target of 120 Phenom-family aircraft. The number of deliveries in the first three months of this year seems small, but that was because the factory was emptied in December 2009 with 42 Phenom 100 deliveries in a month.

Deliveries were set to accelerate after the first quarter of this year. The company said it has more than 600 firm orders for the aircraft.

The type has proved to be a huge success in its home market. Since the first Phenom 100 was delivered to a Brazilian customer in June 2009, the domestic fleet has grown to 46 aircraft, making the VLJ Brazil’s most popular business jet.

Brazil accounts for about 30 percent of the Phenom market, second only to the USA. Local customers also account for about 15 percent of the manufacturer’s outstanding orders for the jet family.

Spectrum in limbo

Spectrum Aeronautical began test flying its S-33 Independence VLJ in 2006. However, the S-33’s certification has been delayed from 2009 without a clear explanation from the manufacturer, which seems to have shifted its focus to the larger S-40 Freedom mid-size jet.

The S-33 uses a carbon-fibre construction that makes the aircraft weight about two-thirds as much as a comparable aluminium structure. Designed to cruise at 415 knots at altitudes up to 45,000ft, with a range of up to 2,000 nautical miles, the aircraft is also supposed to burn about half as much fuel as its aluminium rivals.

The aircraft is intended to carry five to six passengers and offer a maximum take-off weight of 7.300lb, selling at a retail price of US$3.65 million. It is powered by twin Williams FJ33-4 turbofans.

The S-33 flight-test programme was marred by a crash in July 2006, which killed both test pilots on board and was caused by the control linkage having been incorrectly connected during maintenance after the previous flight, reversing the control output.

Diamond Aircraft Industries also began flying its VLJ competitor, the D-Jet in 2006, with a second prototype taking to the air in September 2007, followed by a third in April 2008.

Certification of the Williams FJ-33-4A-19-powered aircraft has been much delayed however, and is now unlikely to happen before 2012, according to unofficial reports. The hold-ups have arisen because of a combination of factors, including funding issues and changes in the engine and de-icing system.

The manufacturer itself has given no formal update on the programme since last year, when it announced a certification delay until 2011. The flight-test aircraft have logged about 700 flight hours to date.

Preparing for flight

North Carolina-based Honda Aircraft has said it is preparing to fly its HA-420 HondaJet for the first time in November, with the first flight-test aircraft having already completed power-on tests. The company said it is now focusing on avionics and electrical systems integration before the start of flight-testing.

Engine integration work is expected to begin in the third quarter of this year, once the first batch of GE Honda HF120 turbofans is received.

The aircraft is designed to accommodate five to six passengers, offering a maximum take-off weight of 9,200lb, a cruise speed of 420 knots and a range of 1,400 nautical miles. The service ceiling is 43,000ft and the aircraft is being offered with a Garmin G3000 glass cockpit.

Other programmes – such as the Cirrus Vision SF50 and the Piper Aircraft PiperJet – also remain in the pipeline.

Although the sector is now shying away from the VLJ name, it is possible that the concept may get a new lease of life. Demand was stifled by the worst recession in living memory, but only when the recovery is stable will manufacturers truly know how much of a market remains for these ‘entry-level’ jets.

Asian Aviation at a glance