Dassault unveils first assembled 7X trijet

 - February 1, 2007, 8:58 AM

Dassault last month spectacularly bridged the gap between virtual reality and reality when it unveiled the first assembled Falcon 7X business jet at its Bordeaux Mérignac factory in southwest France. The February 15 event highlighted the fully digital design and manufacturing processes (see page 50) of the 5,700-nm-range trijet. It also marked the beginning of the ground test phase, which will lead to the first flight in the second quarter of this year.

The French manufacturer now has firm orders for 51 copies of its new $37 million flagship. Although customers in 16 countries have placed orders for the 7X, some two-thirds of the airplanes ordered thus far are destined for U.S. operators. Europe accounts for about 60 percent of the non-U.S. orders placed to date. Deliveries of the airplanes ordered so far will run between late next year and late 2008.

Dassault Falcon Jet president and CEO John Rosanvallon said that firm orders for the 7X are each backed by a deposit of at least $1 million. He added that the manufacturer is in the advanced stages of negotiations with several other prospective buyers, which could push the tally of firm orders closer to 60 by the Paris Air Show in June. The 51 aircraft secured by orders to date are said to be the strongest demand ever for a new Falcon model before first flight.

Rosanvallon told a press conference that the order book for the 7X includes orders from existing Dassault clients and operators who currently fly other makes of business jet. And, in his view, “It is a natural dynamic of the market that customers will upgrade from the (Falcon) 900EX.”

The production rate is expected to be around 2.5 per month from the start. Should the pace of orders pick up, Dassault could increase the production rate “without difficulty,” according to Vincent Oldrati, Falcon 7X deputy program director. In fact, Rosanvallon subsequently noted that Dassault will need to make the decision “in the next few months”  whether or not to increase production to three aircraft a month.
By the middle of last month, assembly of the second airframe was almost complete. Subassemblies for the third aircraft were scheduled to enter Dassault’s Charles Lindbergh production facility this month. “Manufacturing is under way for fuselages S/N 6 and 7,” the deputy director added.

The current price for a fully completed 7X is $37.15 million (June 2003 dollars). Rosanvallon said there are currently no plans to increase the price, but added that could change in response to currency exchange-rate fluctuations.

As Europe’s sole manufacturer of business jets, Dassault is exposed to significant costs in the high-value euro currency, while deriving much of its income from the devalued U.S. dollar. That said, Rosanvallon indicated that any possible increase would be no more than 3 percent, so the 7X sticker price will remain below $40 million for the foreseeable future.

The 7X’s first ground test occurred on February 1. The flight-test program will involve three production-conforming development aircraft. They will perform 400 sorties and log 1,200 flight hours by the third quarter of next year. Dassault expects concurrent FAA/EASA certification to follow late next year. A fourth airframe is scheduled to begin static tests this month, with 0.7 and later 1.5 times the limit load. On the same airframe, fatigue tests will include 40,000 cycles, twice the life of the aircraft.

The registration letters of S/N 1, F-WFBW, were a strong reminder that the 7X is introducing fly-by-wire control technology to aircraft designed from the outset to be business jets (the fly-by-wire Airbus ACJ has airliner roots). “Three dual-channel computers are the primary ones; there are also three single-channel computers,” Philippe Deleume, Dassault’s chief pilot for civilian aircraft, told AIN.

System Redundancy
In the main computer, each channel “watches” its alter ego. Should the channels “disagree,” the system deactivates the computer and replaces the information it presents with inputs from another one. Should all three main computers fail, the secondary ones could take over. Two functioning secondary computers are the minimal configuration. The heart of the fly-by-wire system therefore has multiple layers of redundancy.

Dassault claims the 7X will save 5,000 pounds of fuel on a Paris-to-Los Angeles flight. “This is based on a comparison with current Gulfstream aircraft,” Oldrati told AIN. The 7X competes with the Gulfstream G500, and its range lies between those of the Bombardier Global 5000 and Global Express XRS.

Gulfstream was sanguine about this claim. The manufacturer told AIN that a lower fuel burn is to be expected since the 7X is a smaller aircraft than the G500. However, a spokesman also added that it may be too early to be sure of the exact fuel burn differential between the rival types.

Challenged to provide specific fuel-burn projections, Dassault said that the 7X would burn 26,000 pounds of fuel on a Paris-to-Los Angeles flight, cruising at Mach 0.80 with eight passengers, three crew, NBAA reserves, zero wind and at a basic operating weight of 33,100 pounds.

Dassault says it has achieved anticipated fuel efficiency for the 7X through better aerodynamics and improved engines. For example, the wing’s lift-to-drag ratio has benefited from a double-digit improvement. Oldrati also told AIN that the new curved windshield design, which ousts the Falcon’s hallmark flat panes, helps to reduce drag on the upper fuselage.

The new business jet’s Pratt & Whitney Canada PW307A turbofans should be certified in the second quarter of this year. The 6,100-pound-thrust engine has already accumulated 3,500 test hours, including 450 flight hours. The engine maker hopes to avoid any unpleasant fuel-burn surprises through this extensive test regime. (Just such a surprise emerged during the development of the PW308, forcing Dassault to enlarge the Falcon 2000EX’s fuel tanks–a significant design change.)
In terms of trouble-free operations, Dassault has positioned the bar very high, with the goal for mission reliability set at 99.8 percent from day one. Similarly, maintenance costs should be 20 percent lower than those for the Falcon 900EX.

Cabin Improvements
Dassault’s technological efforts have also served cabin comfort, Oldrati noted. For example, noise level has been brought from an average of 56 decibels SIL (speech interference level) for all current Falcons down to 52 decibels SIL. “This unit of measurement takes into account voice frequency energy,” Oldrati said. This major gain in cabin quietness has not incurred any weight penalty, Oldrati said, since no foam or blanket material was added. With noise levels equal to those of the 900EX, the 7X would be 220 pounds lighter. The 4-decibel SIL noise reduction was the outcome of a seven-year research and development program.

Again with passenger and crew comfort in mind, Dassault has given the 7X enough pressurization differential to provide a cabin altitude of 6,000 feet at the certified ceiling of 51,000 feet, versus the 8,000-foot cabin altitude in current Falcons. Passengers should therefore feel less tired when arriving at their destination. “Honeywell people have reaped the fruits of the thorough tests they conducted on their new air management system,” Oldrati explained.

Asked about prospects for proceeding with the development of a new Falcon to replace the aging Falcon 20, Rosanvallon insisted that Dassault’s focus today is entirely on the 7X. However, Dassault chief executive Charles Edelstenne, has been quoted as saying that the group could decide on a new model by year-end and launch the program next year. He added that Dassault has taken discussion of the case for replacing the Falcon 20 “very seriously.”

Falcon Sales Bolster Dassault

Dassault Aviation last year posted a 5-percent increase in its consolidated revenues to $4.5 billion (U3.46 billion). Falcon business jets accounted for 61 percent of this total at $2.756 billion (U2.12 billion).

The French group’s $603 million (U464 million) operating profit last year accounted for 13.4 percent of sales. Its net profit last year was $400.4 million (U308 million)–just over a 4-percent improvement over 2003’s.

Dassault’s order backlog was $12.64 billion (U9.72 billion) at the end of last year, representing a slight improvement over 2003’s backlog. Falcon orders constituted 36 percent of this amount.

Dassault delivered 63 Falcons last year, up from 49 in 2003 and slightly down from the 66 delivered in 2002. Last year, orders for 69 Falcons worth $2.82 billion (U2.17 billion) accounted for 54 percent of last year’s consolidated orders. That compared favorably with the 40 Falcons ordered in 2003, but was three fewer than the 72 sold in 2002.