2006: The year of the very light jet

 - January 30, 2007, 11:02 AM

Call them what you want–very light jets (VLJs), compact jets, minijets, microjets, personal jets or even Barbie jets–they’re no longer “paper” airplanes. First deliveries of certified VLJs are less than a year away, if Eclipse Aviation adheres to its plan to begin deliveries of its Model 500 next March. Two VLJ models–the Eclipse 500 and (as a nonconforming prototype) the Adam A700 AdamJet–are currently engaged in test flying, and four more (the Cessna Citation Mustang, Excel-Jet Sport-Jet, Tam-Air Epic Jet and Diamond D-Jet) are expected to ply the skies by year-end. Other possible contenders include the Avocet ProJet and Safire Jet.

The market for VLJs is largely an unknown. In its business aviation forecast published last fall, Rolls-Royce predicted that manufacturers will deliver some 8,000 “microjets” by 2023. Researcher Inflight Management Development Centre’s forecast shows that 847 VLJs will be produced between this year and 2013. Meanwhile, Forecast International foresees 3,476 of the small jets being manufactured by 2014.

But the VLJ manufacturers believe these forecasts are extremely conservative. Last month Cessna chairman, president and CEO Jack Pelton told investment analysts that the “step up” market for VLJs is huge–he claimed there are currently 14,000 owners and operators of piston twins and turboprop singles and twins who are potential customers for VLJs. Adam Aircraft places that number as high as 20,000.

These step-up customers are only one facet of the VLJ market. Eclipse president and CEO Vern Raburn envisions these small jets also being used for air-limo
and fractional operations, same-day cargo delivery, supplemental aircraft for flight departments and various other missions.

So it really is anyone’s guess as to how many VLJs will be delivered over the next 10 or 20 years and beyond. But one thing’s for sure–they’re being developed, built and flown right before our eyes. What follows below are program-by-program updates, in order of scheduled certification.

Eclipse 500
Eclipse had a false start when it first flew a Williams EJ22-powered Eclipse 500 (S/N 100) twinjet in August 2002. The company subsequently severed ties with Williams, and in February 2003 it chose the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F to power a slightly redesigned Model 500. S/N 100 was flown with interim engines in mid-2003 for aerodynamics and systems testing before the prototype logged 54 hours and was retired in October that year.

Last December 31, the first PW610F-powered Eclipse 500 (N503EA) took to the air. As of mid-March, N503EA had made 17 flights and logged 16.8 hours. Meanwhile, the other six test aircraft were nearing completion at press time, with five aircraft in final assembly positions.

Eclipse has also finalized all vertical fins and horizontal stabilizers for the flight-test fleet, including instrumentation and strain gauges. The upper and lower cabin assemblies for N505EA and N506EA were joined last month, while N502EA and N504EA neared completion in anticipation of starting flight testing this month. The company has also completed the fuselage for the static test airframe.

At press time, Eclipse had received both PW610F engines for N502EA and had completed engine installation checks and fitted the nacelles onto the aircraft. Engines for N504EA were expected to be delivered and installed this month.

Eclipse says it holds firm orders for 1,485 copies of the $1.175 million twinjet, in addition to options on another 715. A spokeswoman told AIN that several large fleet orders are pending. Certification and initial deliveries are slated for next March.

Adam A700 AdamJet
The A700 is a twinjet derivative of the Englewood, Colo. company’s A500 centerline-thrust piston twin; the piston airplane was slated to earn FAA approval this month. A non-conforming prototype A700 (S/N 001) has been flying since July 2003 and has logged more than 200 hours of flight time, reaching speeds of 300 knots at up to 25,000 feet.

Among the most recent A700 milestones, Adam began structural-loading analysis, is building the necessary static test articles at its Pueblo, Colo. facility and has completed preliminary rotor-burst analysis. Last month the company constructed a static-test wing and finished ground vibration testing of the A700 airframe for envelope expansion.

Additionally, Adam has fabricated a belly pod that can store 100 gallons of fuel and installed it on S/N 001. It has also finished design and subassembly of the A700 pressurization and environmental control test system.

Later this year, two conforming A700s are expected to join the test fleet. Adam told AIN that S/N 002, the aerodynamics and engine test aircraft, is scheduled to start flying in the third quarter, while S/N 003 (systems test aircraft) could join the test fleet in the fourth quarter. The first customer A700, S/N 004, is expected to roll off the production line early next year and will perform the necessary function and reliability testing.

Certification and first deliveries are planned for the second quarter next year. The price of the A700 has surpassed the $2 million mark, and the twinjet’s order backlog now sits at 115 aircraft–40 from individual owners and 75 from air-limo start-up Pogo. Last month, former American Airlines CEO and Pogo co-founder Robert Crandall said his company is “not committed” to the A700. Further, Pogo president Donald Burr made no mention of the A700 during his presentation at the FAA Forecast Conference two weeks ago; instead he referred to the Eclipse 500.

Cessna Citation Mustang
Since the first Citation Mustang conforming prototype got its wings on February 3, workers at Cessna’s Pawnee facility in Wichita have been maintaining the program’s aggressive schedule. Fifty employees from the company’s Independence, Kan. and Columbus, Ga. facilities have temporarily relocated to Wichita to help build the first five Citation Mustangs. The Independence plant will assemble the very light jet, and the Columbus facility is manufacturing the airplane’s wing assembly and empennage.

The first Mustang is nearly complete and was standing on its own gear last month. “Power on” testing has begun and engine runs on the prototype took place at press time. Cessna said first flight of the Mustang is “this summer,” but the milestone could be achieved before the end of this month.

Five airframes–three flight-test aircraft and two ground articles–are in various stages of assembly at the Pawnee facility. The aircraft manufacturer has already been flight-testing the Mustang’s Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F engine on a CitationJet, and it continues to test the VLJ’s Garmin avionics and autopilot, landing gear, environmental system and flight controls.

Certification of the $2.4 million Mustang is slated for next year, with deliveries scheduled to start before year-end. Cessna said it has firm orders for more than 230 copies.

Excel-Jet Sport-Jet
Monument, Colo.-based Excel-Jet made rapid progress in constructing the single-engine Sport-Jet prototype over the past six months. However, the start-up manufacturer’s VLJ is in a holding pattern since its supplier in Poland is “severely behind schedule” in delivering a set of composite wings for the airplane.

Company president Bob Bornhofen–the designer behind the kit-built Maverick TwinJet–told AIN that he now expects the wing shipset to arrive this month, paving the way for first flight before June. A Williams FJ33 “interim” engine for the nonconforming Sport-Jet prototype is also expected to be at Excel-Jet’s Colorado Springs Airport production facility this month.

Last month the build team put the composite Sport-Jet (sans wings) on scales to ensure weight goals. The good news, Bornhofen said, is that the jet single might come in under the design empty weight of 2,800 pounds. Certification of the four-place, $1 million Sport-Jet is pegged for 20 to 24 months after first flight.

Tam-Air Epic Jet
Bend, Ore.-based Air Investor Resources (AIR)–the parent company of Epic Aircraft, which is test flying the Epic LT turboprop single–has partnered with Tbilisi Aerospace Manufacturing (TAM) of the Republic of Georgia to develop a $1.9 million very light twinjet derivative of the Epic LT. Dubbed the Epic Jet, the aircraft shares about 80 percent commonality with its composite turboprop sibling.

The six-seat jet will be powered by two 1,500-pound-thrust turbofans–either the GE Honda HF118, Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615 or Williams FJ33. On this note, company president Rick Schrameck told AIN that an engine selection announcement was imminent, with the first set of powerplants scheduled to arrive by the middle of this month.

He added that the Epic Jet design is frozen, and the production tooling is complete. To validate the tooling, workers were building a mockup of the twinjet, which was about 90 percent complete at press time. This mockup will become a static demo aircraft and will travel to various trade shows.

First flight of the $1.9 million twinjet, a nonconforming example, is expected in the late spring or early summer, according to Schrameck. A conforming aircraft is to fly early next year, with certification pegged for late 2006.

Diamond D-Jet
Diamond Aircraft, which manufactures composite single- and twin-engine piston aircraft, plans to enter the VLJ race by building a single-engine jet with 1,320-nm range. Diamond expects to sell the five-place, all-composite D-Jet for less than $1 million (up from earlier projections of $850,000).

Development of the Williams FJ33-powered jet single is being split between Diamond’s two locations in London, Ontario, and Wiener Neustadt, Austria. Diamond has yet to choose an avionics manufacturer, and the Garmin G1000 and Avidyne FlightMax Entegra systems are known to be in the running.

First flight has slid about one year to October, with first customer deliveries now slated to begin in early 2007. Diamond says it holds orders for 123 D-Jets, each backed by $20,000 deposits.

Avocet ProJet
Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) of Tel Aviv and Avocet Aircraft of Westport, Conn., are still partners in the development, certification and production of the proposed very light ProJet, according to Ofer Shifras of IAI’s civil aircraft group. He said “it would not be appropriate at this time” to comment on details of advanced negotiations with a third partner, an “established U.S. business aviation OEM,” that are under way for “product support and ProJet final assembly.” Shifras did indicate that the parties are very close to an agreement, which would be the first step toward officially launching the twinjet program.

The certification goal for the $2 million ProJet is mid-2007, and an engine selection for the twinjet has yet to be made.

Safire Jet
Before exhausting its funding last June, Safire was developing the Williams FJ33-4-powered Safire Jet, an all-aluminum twinjet. The company expected to fly the VLJ last September, but suppliers had barely started to cut metal for the Safire Jet before the start-up manufacturer closed its doors and laid off workers on June 6.

Safire Aircraft CEO Camilo Salomon said last year that two separate funding deals were imminent, only to have both fall through at the last minute. Ever the optimist, Salomon told AIN last month that another funding deal is in the works, with an announcement possible early this month. “Safire definitely will be a player in the very light jet market,” he insisted.

Currently there are no estimates for first flight of the very light jet (which last carried a price tag of $1.495 million) or for certification and deliveries.