Why the ProJet? Why now?

 - August 11, 2008, 6:07 AM

The idea for what is now known as the ProJet started four years ago during a conversation between Carey Robinson Wolchok, then a principal at private equity group Aero-Equity, and Israel Aircraft Industries founder Al Schwimmer. That conversation was obviously influenced by the then recently announced Eclipse 500 very light jet, and a relationship was born.

This relationship formed the foundation for the ProJet. To develop this airplane, Wolchok incorporated Pulsar Aerospace two years ago, and the company was renamed Avocet (after a small seabird) earlier this year. Wolchok is the chairman of Avocet and Schwimmer sits on the company’s nine-person advisory board.

Also part of the conversation was NASA’s small aircraft transportation system (SATS), which envisions low-cost, on-demand point-to-point travel using four- to 10-seat jets at the 5,400 public-use airports in the U.S. As envisioned, early consumers of SATS are expected to have access to “jet-taxi services” with hired pilots. According to NASA, scheduled services will likely emerge where travel demand requires and as entrepreneurs discover and meet growing consumer need.

It is this air-taxi market, as well as the burgeoning fractional aircraft industry, that persuaded Wolchok to jump in now. Further evidence of the importance of these markets to Avocet is its decision (despite its goal of Part 23 certification) to build the ProJet “to airline standards,” meaning that the twinjet will be rugged enough for high-cycle use. In fact, the jet is being designed for a service utilization of 1,500 to 2,000 hours per year.

But Avocet is aware of the challenges that lie ahead with SATS, especially considering that the traveling public would likely be afraid to fly aboard an aircraft with an interior size not much bigger than that of a large SUV. “Getting the public to fly in small airplanes is an education issue,” admitted Avocet CEO David Tait.

However, if educating the public doesn’t further the SATS concept, Tait said the replacement market for heavy pistons still makes the business venture viable, despite the expected heavy competition. “This replacement market in itself is substantial. There are at least 15,000 such aircraft that will need to be replaced in the near future.”