Microjets Are the Next Revolution for GA

 - October 8, 2007, 10:22 AM

Microjets, or whatever you wish to call the emerging new breed of very light jets (VLJ), are the subject of much buzz these days. At least eight manufacturers, ranging from GA giant Cessna to automobile manufacturer Honda, have serious designs.

Manufacturers project a strong demand for these new aircraft, which typically have five or six seats (including the pilot) and weigh slightly more than a cabin-class light twin but will be capable of speeds between 340 and 380 knots and certified for altitudes up to FL410. Further, they are expected to sell for significantly less than Cessna’s CJ1, which at $4.2 million fully equipped is the least expensive new business jet currently available. The five-place Eclipse, for example, will cost a little over $1 million. Cessna’s Mustang, the most expensive of the new VLJs, was introduced for about $2.3 million. Furthermore, these machines are expected to have direct operating costs of less than a dollar per mile, approximately 55 to 60 percent that of the CJ1.

Order books for the VLJs are fat. Eclipse has nearly 2,100 aircraft requested by customers, Safire claims orders for nearly 400 airplanes, and Cessna conservatively reports signatures, backed by serious money, for nearly 250 Mustangs. Adam has commitments for more than 50 A700s, the VLJ it plans to certify next year. The majority of microjet orders have been placed by companies that plan to offer on-demand charter, possibly woven into a network that provides a new dimension of air transportation fashioned after the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) being studied by NASA. (“Sky cab” is the generic name often used to identify this new service.)

If the manufacturers’ projections are accurate, there could be as many as 15,000 microjets in the National Airspace System by 2015. That is about twice the number of conventional business jets that are forecast to be sold during the next decade. The absolute number of this new class of aircraft depends upon whether or not the “sky cab” concept fulfills a demand for public transportation between airports not served by the airlines. If only half the orders for microjets materialize, however, the quantity of VLJs operating in the NAS will still be significant.

Experts in the trade of forecasting business-jet deliveries have widely differing opinions about the size of the microjet market. Some say the number of sales will be huge; others say this class of very light jet will be confined to a few hundred per year going mainly to owner-pilots. The fact that three very savvy engine manufacturers–General Electric/Honda, Pratt & Whitney Canada and Williams International–are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in developing turbofans in the 900- to 1,600-pound-thrust range suggests that the demand for microjets may well be quite large. Powerplant advances have always driven advances in aviation.

Even the most pessimistic forecasters believe that between 200 and 300 microjets will be sold per year. Most of the initial orders are held by non-professional pilots who expect to fly these jets by themselves. As early as next year, owner-pilots could be operating very light jets in the airspace next to airliners and GVs. Certainly by 2006 there will be several microjets certified to operate above FL290.

Do you believe that microjets flown by owner-pilots should be limited to airspace below FL290? Are you concerned that non-professionals will have difficulty transitioning to these small but high-performance aircraft? If your answer is yes, consider the following as I attempt to dissuade you of such concerns:
No group is more interested in owner- pilot proficiency than the microjet manufacturers. Training and nurturing the knowledge, skill and culture needed for safe and successful operations are their highest priorities. For example, Cessna is integrating training into its marketing and ongoing customer service program for the Mustang. Eclipse is developing a training curriculum that is an integral part of the ownership experience. Eclipse will not sell an airplane to anyone who cannot meet the standards Eclipse is establishing. Eclipse president Vern Raburn has made it clear that the buyer’s money will be fully refunded if he or she is unable to meet the company’s training and proficiency requirements.

Microjets will be equipped with the latest in advanced avionics. These aircraft will be highly automated, thereby reducing pilot workload. Training will emphasize how the aircraft’s flight management system and autopilot will be used to ensure proper operations, well within the approved flight envelope and in accordance with ATC tolerances.

Insurance companies are working closely with microjet manufacturers to require appropriate experience levels, including requirements for flight with an experienced aviator during the owner’s initial operating experience. Several specialized training companies, such as Mike Dwyer’s Guardian Jet and Ernie Sturm’s Aviation Management Solutions, offer programs for initial operating experience and ongoing mentoring for the jet owner-pilot.

Additionally, jets have a much lower likelihood of experiencing engine problems than a recip. Compared with a microjet, the owner-pilot faces significantly greater challenges in a piston twin, ranging from handling an engine failure shortly after takeoff to coping with weather at the low altitudes where they typically fly.

Microjets have the potential for significantly improving the safety record of owner-pilots, as well as advancing the acceptance of general aviation as a viable form of transportation for the entrepreneur. The aircraft, engines, avionics and training technologies are in place for microjets to be one of general aviation’s most successful developments.   

Jack Olcott, president of NBAA from 1992 to mid-2003, continues to advocate the advantages of business aviation as president of General Aero, located at Morristown Municipal Airport, N.J.