OEMs prepare for first flights this year

 - December 27, 2007, 10:26 AM

There are many new jets and a few new turboprops on designers’ drawing boards, but the volume of new aircraft making it to the entry-into-service point remains fairly low, considering all the projects in the hopper. Last year, only two new clean-sheet designs–the Quest Kodiak and Falcon 7X–joined the ranks of aircraft certified and beginning deliveries. A few derivative designs, which are basically upgrades of existing models, also entered service, including Bombardier’s Learjet 60XR and Challenger 605 and Hawker Beechcraft’s C90GTi and B200GT and 900XP.

The industry should see more new designs certified this year, if manufacturer projections remain on track, but ongoing problems with some new airplanes underscore the tremendous challenges aircraft manufacturers face. Sino Swearingen has managed to deliver just two SJ30s since certification in October 2005, despite having plenty of orders to fill. New investors have jumped in to help provide the money needed to ramp up the SJ30 production line, but no news about that deal having closed was available by press time.

As of press time Hawker Beechcraft has yet to deliver a Hawker 4000, the super-midsize jet that received FAA certification in November 2006, and the company has been silent about why the composite-fuselage airplane has taken so long to enter service.

Eclipse Aviation continues to have trouble achieving the high-volume production needed to satisfy its backlog, while at the same time trying to complete certification of the Model 500’s integrated avionics system, known icing and other features that have not been available on delivered airplanes.

Aviation Technology Group took a short hiatus early last month, asking employees to take mandatory vacations, but those employees are now seeking employment elsewhere as ATG announced that its search for a fresh injection of funds to bring the two-seat, military-style Javelin through to certification has not produced the desired results. “Due to circumstances beyond ATG’s control, it is unlikely that adequate funding can be secured in a timely manner. ATG has therefore decided to halt development of the Javelin at this time,” the company wrote on December 18.

This year, the first single-engine jet–the Diamond D-Jet–should achieve certification, just one of a number of new jets and one turboprop that are scheduled to get their papers this year. In addition to the D-Jet, that list includes the Adam A700, Cessna Citation XLS+, Falcon 2000DX, Embraer Lineage 1000, Embraer Phenom 100, Epic Dynasty (turboprop) and Grob SPn.

A number of first flights are also on tap, a good indication that plenty of people see opportunity in the aircraft manufacturing business. The Cessna CJ4, Embraer Phenom 300, Evektor EV-55 Outback, Excel-Jet Sport-Jet (second prototype), PiperJet, Spectrum S-40 Freedom, Utilicraft FF1080-200ER and Viking Air Twin Otter are scheduled for first flights this year.

We moved the Intracom GM-17 Viper and Sukhoi S-21 SSBJ to the On The Shelf list this year because neither company has indicated that there is any level
of activity on these programs. Sukhoi remains involved in European supersonic research but is focused now on its Superjet development program.

We remain skeptical about the prospect of a successful supersonic business jet, given the high price ($80 million) and design and certification challenges. Nevertheless, Aerion received letters of intent from buyers for 20 Aerion SSBJs, and the company hopes to sign a manufacturer to help build and certify its design later this year.

Overall, this year’s Crystal Ball chart summarizes something that is obvious to anyone who has been observing the aviation business for a few years.
Long-established manufacturers have a much greater likelihood of achieving new-aircraft goals, for the most part on schedule and as promised. This isn’t the case when a company switches to new technology, and it sometimes takes a few years to work out problems with designs that depart from previous design, construction or system methodologies. But it’s the inexperienced new manufacturers that have the most trouble making it successfully into the marketplace, and we will not be surprised to see these companies enduring certification and entry-into-service delays or some even dropping out of the marketplace.

One exception that we expect to see is the HondaJet, not just because a big-name company with deep pockets is behind the program, but because the Honda Aircraft team took a tack completely different from most new aircraft manufacturers. Instead of presenting a paper design and offering to sell positions in an unknown product then trying to build a certifiable aircraft that meets buyers’ expectations, Honda engineers spent almost 20 years studying the market, testing different designs, building their own turbofan engine, optimizing the design of what became the HondaJet, flying the jet for more than 200 hours, and only then announcing plans to market the jet four years before planned entry into service. It will be interesting to watch Honda’s patient approach to the business jet market and see if this translates into market success that teaches other new entrants a lesson or two.

Finally, last year was a dry year for new product announcements. Bombardier revealed the new clean-sheet Learjet NXT late in the year, and Epic Aircraft announced one new jet, the single-engine Victory. The only other announcements were of concept aircraft. Eclipse secretly built and then flew its V-tail single-engine Eclipse Concept Jet to Oshkosh but said that it was merely to test market waters. Embraer revealed two concept jet models at the NBAA Convention, but their future also depends on how well potential buyers respond to the Brazilian manufacturer’s overtures. Cessna is still working on the Large Cabin Concept, and a decision about its future is likely imminent.