Very light jet interiors challenge designers

 - December 19, 2007, 11:18 AM

With certification of the first of the very light jets (VLJs) somewhere on the horizon, manufacturers and interior designers are giving considerable attention to the challenge of creating a big-jet environment in a small-jet cabin.

Currently, about half a dozen companies are working on VLJs, all of them borrowing to some extent from the field of automotive design and fabrication.

Cessna’s v-p of interior design, engineering and development is Cindy Halsey, whose experience includes “a lot of time playing in the automotive sandbox.” She admits to drawing on that experience in the ongoing creation of the Citation Mustang interior. Part of that experience is using vinyl products that have the appearance of fine leather but are easier to maintain and far more durable.

“In a smaller space, soft goods get more wear, in particular inboard seat arms, where people place their hands as they move through the cabin, seat backs and the left-side seat just aft of the cabin door.”

The Eclipse 500 perhaps owes even more to the automotive design industry. Eclipse Aviation retained BMW of America’s Designworks- USA to create a cockpit with an aviation appearance and a high-end cabin with distinctive automotive styling. “I think BMW definitely hit a home run,” said Eclipse product marketing manager Clint Clouarte.

Some VLJ manufacturers are considering the “film dip” process used extensively in the automotive industry to replicate the look of wood in trim and cabinetry.

According to Les Jennings, president of Aero Graphic Finishes of Wichita, the high-gloss finish makes it indistinguishable from real wood veneers, “at a fraction of the cost and time involved and with none of the weight penalty.” The process, under exclusive license to Aero Graphic for use in the aviation industry, is relatively simple. The owner selects a “wood” from a library of more than 100 photographic wood-grain images, which are then printed on an ultra-thin, flexible layer of film. The film is laid, ink-side-up, on the surface of the water in a large dipping tank. The piece is then slowly immersed in the tank, and the ink permanently adheres to the surface, including curved and raised surfaces. The film dissolves and the piece is removed and any remaining residue rinsed off. After the ink dries, two clear coats and a final buffing finish the product.

According to Halsey, virtually every automobile manufacturer uses this process to create the “wood” panels and trims in its interiors. “It’s beautiful, it’s durable, and most people don’t even realize that it isn’t wood.”

Standard or Deluxe: Two Cabin Choices
Like manufacturers in the automotive industry, VLJ developers appear to be offering their products in two versions, standard and deluxe.

Eclipse Aviation, which plans certification of its Eclipse 500 in the first quarter of 2006, is well advanced with its interior cabin plans. The standard edition comes with highly durable Tedlar lower sidewalls, a combination of leather- and fabric-covered seats, a thermal/acoustic barrier, nylon carpet, a baggage compartment light, cockpit dome light, upper accent wash lighting and a work/dining table with cup holder.

The deluxe LX cabin is available for an additional $39,495. It includes wool carpeting and fabric-covered sidewalls. All leather passenger seats come with lumbar support and the cockpit seats have sheepskin inserts. The LX version also has a cockpit/cabin curtain divider, three work/dining tables, additional lower accent wash lighting, a more effective thermal/acoustic barrier and three AC power outlets (one of them in the cockpit).

Two-zone air conditioning, all LED (light-emitting diode) lighting and pleated window shades are standard equipment in both cabin versions. A choice of four basic color schemes and striping is also available in both cabins, as are individual reading lights.

The company offers two options in place of the left-side aft seat. One choice is a lavatory package with an electric-flushing, remove-to-service toilet and a cabinet for toiletry storage and a stowable privacy curtain. The toilet seat will not be certified for takeoff and landing. Clouatre said the aft placement was partially motivated by the feeling that a forward lavatory offered less privacy. For owners who want to retain some cabin capacity, Eclipse says the toilet package will be easily removable to make room for the full seat.

Also available for installation in this cabin position will be a refreshment center for storage of cold and hot beverages and snacks. An entertainment system will include CD changer and MP3 player with satellite radio receiver and accessories necessary for cabin as well as cockpit audio.

Eclipse does not plan to use the film dip process. “We looked at it,” said Clouatre, “but in talking with our customer base, it was clear they wanted real wood.”

Eclipse has selected C&D Aerospace to provide the interior cabinetry and other components. C&D will produce those components at its Huntington, Calif. facility and ship them to Eclipse Aviation’s Albuquerque center in kit form for installation during the aircraft assembly process. Eclipse has contracted Seamech International of Bellaire, Texas, to provide pilot and passenger seats for the 500.

All interior components for the Eclipse 500 will be designed within a modular concept, said Clouatre, so they can easily be replaced by an identical item. Eclipse believes its workers can install an interior in as little as one hour, a necessity if the company is to turn out the six aircraft a day required to meet the anticipated demand. This means interior components produced by C&D must arrive ready for installation with no “trim to fit” requirements.

Adam Aircraft’s A700 will come with a choice of either a standard interior package or a premium interior option at an additional $75,000. The first premium package, built and installed by independent interior shop McKinney Aerospace of McKinney, Texas, was in the A700 on display at the NBAA Convention last month.

“We worked hard to present a very upscale interior,” said Adam Aircraft president Joe Walker. The premier cabin on display at the show included 26-g seats of the company’s own design (including pilot seats), a composite interior shell also produced by Adam Aircraft, a curtain separating the cockpit from the cabin proper, customized wood veneer accents, high-end leathers, fabrics and carpeting, a hardwood bulkhead divider for the lavatory (enclosed, belted and standard on both cabin versions).

Adam Aircraft is also offering as standard up to four seating arrangements. Both seats in the center row, aft of the cockpit divider, can face forward or aft, either together or separately.

There are no plans for a refreshment center. “We expect flights to be typically about an hour in length and passengers would bring their own snacks or refreshments in a cooler.” On the other hand, storage and trash receptacles are a high priority. For example, said Walker, in the 25-sq-ft nose storage area there is enough room for four sets of golf clubs.

Like the other aircraft in this category, the A700 will be single-pilot certified. But with its larger cabin, the A700 is configured to carry six passengers, plus the pilot.

With a cabin profile more square than oval or round, the airplane, Walker says, affords passengers more shoulder and headroom. “It’s a very light jet, but with 90 percent of the cabin volume of a CitationJet.”

At this point, the plan is for A700s to roll off the assembly line green and then go to a completion shop at the company’s facilities at Centennial Airport in the Denver suburb of Inglewood.

To facilitate maintenance and replacement of damaged or worn cabin components, Walker said the interior components such as side panels will be of a pop-out, pop-in design.

Cessna plans to do interior completions for the Mustang at its Independence, Kan., plant, where the airplane will be assembled. According to Halsey, the company is still evaluating, as a cost-cutting measure, how much of the interior can be installed during the assembly process.

Some interior components will be outsourced. Others will be built in-house. The Citation Mustang, which drew much attention when it was introduced as a mockup at the NBAA Convention in 2002, is scheduled for certification in the fall of 2006.
“At this point,” said Halsey, “we want to deliver a high-end interior without a lot of optional menu items.” And she added, despite the option of “standard or deluxe” that seems to be in favor these days, “We haven’t decided yet whether to take that route.”

A forward lavatory on the right side, facing the cabin door and between the cockpit divider and cabin proper, will be standard. Privacy curtains will separate the lavatory from the cockpit and cabin area. The aircraft will seat four passengers in the back and one additional passenger in the cockpit. Also included will be a vertical refreshment center, a storage area and a fold-down hanging bar for clothing. A substantial, unpressurized baggage bay provides 45 cubic feet.

The Demands of High Utilization
VLJ developers anticipate two basic markets for their aircraft.

The first are individual customers who are moving up from turboprop singles and twins. These owners would typically put between 200 and 500 hours on the aircraft annually, and would be interested in a more personalized deluxe interior.

And there are air taxi operators that Walker said will likely “fly north of 1,000 hours a year” and are interested in a quality cabin with durability and easy maintenance.
Vern Raburn, founder and CEO of Eclipse Aviation, estimates utilization of the Eclipse 500 in an air-limo or air-taxi operation might be as high as 1,500 hours annually. As a result, he added, the entire airplane, including the interior, has been designed for reliability.

While the Eclipse 500, Adam A700 and Citation Mustang appear well on the way to certification and interior designs are in the latter stages, three other VLJs remain further from entering service.

The Avocet ProJet is a twin-engine VLJ in joint development by Israel Aircraft Industries and Wilton, Conn.-based Avocet aircraft. The airplane will be configured for one pilot and five passengers, with air taxi as its primary market. An Avocet spokesman noted, “IAI has significant experience in designing aircraft and is putting that knowledge to work in the ProJet. In addition, Avocet believes that private owner-pilots will benefit from the robust design.” While the aircraft will be built by IAI in Israel, final assembly will be in the U.S. at a site still to be determined.

The D-Jet from Diamond Aircraft of Leesburg, Va., is a single-engine VLJ that is expected to fly later this year. Certification is scheduled for the last quarter of 2006. It will carry four passengers and a pilot.

Honda literature describes the HondaJet as “a new concept in air travel.” And despite development of its own Honda engines (and a recently finalized collaboration on same with General Electric) for the aircraft and a description of the twinjet as the realization of “the four-decade-old dream of Honda’s founder,” the Japanese industrial giant refuses to admit to launch plans for the program, saying only, “For our next challenge, Honda is looking skyward.”

There is considerable information about the HondaJet’s performance expectations. But for the interior, there is little more than an expectation that it will carry five passengers and a pilot, provide full cabin width for its entire length and offer 30 percent more cabin space than similarly sized “conventional aircraft.”

Not included on the cabin comparison chart is the Safire Jet. The program from Safire Aircraft had been proceeding until early this summer, when the company dismissed some employees and, more recently, was evicted from its facilities at Miami Opa Locka Airport for non-payment of rent. The company, at that time some $13 million in the red, was seeking new investors to keep the program afloat. The $1.495 million Safire Jet, designed to carry five passengers and a pilot, was most recently slated for certification in late 2007.

While none of the VLJs is in service yet, manufacturers are well aware that although performance and reliability are important, the cabin will be a major selling point.