Avocet ProJet is latest VLJ casualty

 - September 20, 2006, 7:09 AM

Avocet Aircraft last month joined the ranks of Safire Aircraft, Century Aerospace and plenty of other failed start-up aircraft manufacturers. The Westport, Conn. company has put its six-seat very light jet (VLJ), the $2 million ProJet, “on the shelf” and last month returned escrowed deposits–ranging any- where from $5,000 to $25,000 each–for some 100 aircraft.

“It just wasn’t the right time to be going forward with the program,” Avocet chairman and founder Carey Wolchok told AIN last month. “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it any differently.”

Avocet and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) publicly announced the ProJet, and their collaboration on the twinjet, in August 2003. Under the agreement, IAI would assume responsibility for the twinjet’s design, engineering, development, production and certification, while Avocet would handle marketing, sales, customer relations, training, delivery and product support. The program timetable at that time was to have the ProJet flying by last summer, with certification scheduled for later this year.

But IAI was said to be wary of Avocet’s ability to do the job, and in February 2004 the two companies jointly decided to seek a third party, “an established OEM,” to perform final assembly of the ProJet in the U.S and provide product support.

By Farnborough 2004, IAI and Avocet were reportedly in talks with Raytheon Aircraft to be the third partner for the VLJ program. At the time, IAI and Avocet said that the ProJet program would not move to the next step until the third partner was signed. Meanwhile, the program schedule began to slip, with first flight pushed into this year and certification to late next year.

IAI and Avocet maintained that a pending deal was soon to close with a third party, but by last summer it became apparent that no such deal was forthcoming. In fact, in October Raytheon Aircraft chairman and CEO Jim Schuster told AIN that his company had indeed looked at the Avocet design but eventually decided not to become involved in a VLJ program. Instead, the Wichita manufacturer opted to launch the King Air C90GT, a faster derivative of the C90, to compete with the VLJs.

Another nail in the coffin was Embraer’s decision last May to enter the VLJ race with a design that was strikingly similar to the ProJet’s, especially more so when the Brazilian manufacturer recently changed the cabin cross section of its small twinjet to a more oval design. According to industry sources, Embraer at one time considered joining the ProJet program but instead chose to launch its own homegrown design–the Phenom 100.

With no other established aircraft manufacturers willing to be the sought-after third party, IAI officials said late last year that the ProJet program was “in stagnation.” Things then started to unravel quickly for the ProJet, leading to Avocet’s and IAI’s recent decision to halt the program altogether.

Coincidentally, Avbase Aviation, the Cleveland-based charter firm that placed an order for 105 ProJets in October 2003, closed its doors in January. According to Wolchok, Avbase never secured the large order with a deposit, though it did provide some “quid pro quo charter flights for Avocet executives” in lieu of cash down. Avbase did not receive any deposit refund from Avocet.

Wolchok said he still owns the rights to the ProJet and “would consider selling the intellectual property.” He added that he liked working with IAI on the project and would work with the Israeli company again on another aircraft program, if the chance ever arises.

Preliminary specifications of the ProJet included a 365-knot cruise speed, 1,200-nm range, an mtow of 7,160 pounds and a max payload (including pilot) of 1,400 pounds. The ProJet would have been powered by two 1,300-pound-thrust engines–most likely the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615, Williams International FJ33 or GE-Honda HF118–and had an integrated glass cockpit. The company had not chosen engines or avionics for the VLJ.