2007 looks bright for makers of entry-level bizjets

 - December 21, 2006, 11:19 AM

For this year’s look in the crystal ball, AIN added a number of aircraft to the list to reflect ongoing programs more accurately. While many of these aircraft are derivative and not original certifications, they are still new and deserve to be counted.

Keen readers of AIN’s annual crystal ball issue will see that our critical editorial evaluators have downgraded some programs and upgraded others. Avocet’s ProJet has moved to the On the Shelf chart after the company returned deposits to customers early last year and said that the project would not move forward.

Avocet reportedly was talking to Raytheon Aircraft about partnering on the program, which is ironic, because Raytheon Aircraft is for sale and negotiations with interested private-equity firms were under way as this issue went to press. Some believe that whoever buys Raytheon Aircraft will consider adding a very light jet to the company’s offerings, and the ProJet could have been a good fit and well along in development by now.

We downgraded three supersonic business jet (SSBJ) programs to one red dot, which means that we consider the chances of these airplanes coming to market to be less than 50 percent. Despite recent efforts from would-be SSBJ manufacturers, it seems clear that there is limited market interest in a jet that, while fast, could cost far more than something subsonic with similar cabin volume. If the market wants an SSBJ, the money will flow to Aerion, Sukhoi and Supersonic Aerospace. That we haven’t seen much in the way of further development is a strong indication of lack of interest. This could change, but we’re skeptical.

In a similar vein, we’re also cautious about the prospects of the Bell/Agusta BA609 tiltrotor. Even though the second prototype made its first flight on November 9 in Italy, we have given the model yellow dots, indicating that it’s still too soon to tell how this program will play out. The BA609, which first flew in 2003, has been in development for many years, and the pace of progress has been slow. Technological/operational issues surrounding flight-test accidents with the V-22 Osprey have not helped the prospects for a civil tiltrotor.

The company says it has orders for about 60 tiltrotors, so we have to wonder why development is taking so long. Certification is not expected until about 2010, many more years than is typical after the first flight of a new aircraft. The BA609 is much more complicated than a normal turboprop or helicopter and there must be new certification and training issues, but if the spigot of money from 60 orders is ready to be turned on, why wait to get this aircraft into the marketplace?

Skepticism also surrounds new airplanes such as Epic’s jet, Evektor’s EV-55, the EV-20 Vantage, Excel-Jet’s Sport-Jet, the Maverick Jets SmartJet, and the raised-from-the-dead Foxjet. We rated these programs with red dots because of lack of progress, unfulfilled promises and practically zero effort by the manufacturer to keep the press aware of significant developments. Add to that companies with very little certification experience, and we don’t see these airplanes as likely candidates for market success. We will, however, continue to follow these programs as, and if, they develop.

Last year was a dark time for prototype jet crashes, with three tragic accidents striking nascent programs.

The first accident happened to Excel-Jet, when its Sport-Jet’s left wing contacted the runway shortly after takeoff on June 22. The jet cartwheeled twice and was destroyed, injuring test pilot James Stewart. Excel-Jet has said that it plans to continue the program, but that depends on funding, and there has been no news from Excel-Jet since shortly after the accident.

On July 25, Spectrum Aeronautical’s S-33 Independence prototype crashed during takeoff, killing test pilots Glenn Maben and Nathan Forrest. A preliminary NTSB report revealed that the reason the jet entered a steep right roll after takeoff was that the roll controls had been connected in reverse during reassembly following redesign of the aileron upper torque-tube bracket. Spectrum is going ahead with the S-33 program and introduced the larger S-40 Freedom, which will be powered by GE Honda’s new HF120 turbofan, at the NBAA Convention.

Grob Aerospace lost a prototype SPn light jet on November 29, in a post-takeoff accident, killing test pilot Gérard Guillaumaud. Grob told AIN last month that it appeared the empennage failed before the airplane crashed. The company has committed to continuing the SPn program. During meetings held in early December, Grob officials were discussing possible revisions to the SPn development schedule and planned to release details once decisions had been made on how the accident will affect the program.

The Personal Jets Are Here
The most interesting development on this crystal ball list is the new single-engine jets from established manufacturers, and this year signals that the era of the single-engine owner-flown jet is upon us. While Cirrus Design has revealed few details about its new jet, we feel confident that Cirrus will accomplish what it sets out to do. Cirrus’s owners feel strongly that there is a market for a reasonably performing light single-engine jet that is easy to transition into from one of its piston singles, and the company doesn’t plan to go for envelope-busting altitude or speed performance.

Piper’s PiperJet is a natural addition to its fleet and a logical move up for turboprop Meridian and piston Mirage owners. There was speculation that Piper had to choose a single-engine jet so as not to run afoul of any agreements with Honda Aircraft. However, any agreement between the two companies relates only to sales and service outlets for the HondaJet, and we don’t feel that Piper was precluded from building a multi-engine jet and that the company selected the most likely avenue to build market share.

Diamond’s D-Jet also comes from an established manufacturer and looks to be another successful contender in this market.

The big news this year was Honda’s entry into the very light jet market. Given the strong support by Honda Aircraft’s parent company, we feel confident that there will be an FAA-certified HondaJet delivered to a customer as promised in 2010.
Reinforcing this confidence is the fact that Honda Aircraft built a prototype, did extensive ground testing and completed 240 hours of flight-testing before announcing that the program would move ahead as a commercial effort. Few other manufacturers have the resources to go to such lengths before announcing their programs, and the HondaJet appears to have an advantage in that regard.

The Eclipse 500 remains on the list this year because although it received full FAA type certification on September 30, the Eclipse team has many remaining tasks to complete for the jet to achieve full functionality. Despite delays in delivering the first airplane (which hadn’t happened as this issue went to press), we feel that, given the huge number of orders and continuing interest in the program, airports will start accommodating quite a few Eclipse 500s in the next few years.

Also, both the Eclipse 500 and Sino Swearingen SJ30 remain on this year’s list because, as of mid-December, they still had not earned their all-important production certificates, which help the manufacturer begin volume production with less FAA oversight.