In the works: Looking to the future, OEMs continue aircraft development

 - December 29, 2009, 5:03 AM

As expected, the recession has taken a toll on aircraft manufacturers and would-be manufacturers. But while the list of canceled and delayed projects includes the inevitable marginal programs, the crop of active manufacturers is–with few exceptions–forging ahead with new aircraft.

Gulfstream tops the list with two new aircraft–the G650 and G250–that rolled out and flew on schedule late last year. Embraer hasn’t slowed any of its programs either and achieved certification and first deliveries of the Phenom 300 last month while developing its next two jets, the fly-by-wire Legacy 450 and 500. Cessna’s CJ4 is on track for certification early this year, but the company took a financial hit with the cancellation of the large-cabin Columbus, despite earlier assertions that the program would roll out to the market well into the next economic up-cycle.

The aviation world is still waiting for Dassault Falcon to unveil plans for a new super-midsize jet tentatively labeled the 5X. Company leaders have acknowledged that research is ongoing but have given no indication that plans for the new jet are gelling. It is likely, however, the Dassault researchers have been discussing the model with potential buyers.

Hawker Beechcraft has engineered a delay in the Premier II program. Despite repeated requests for an update on the Hawker 450XP, company officials have been silent, leading some to wonder if it is giving up on a major upgrade to the Beechjet/ Hawker 400 series or considering other changes to make it even more competitive.
Single-engine Jet Programs
Development continues in the single-engine jet arena, which appears to be taking on the mantle of the so-called very light jet now that the Eclipse 500 is out of production. Diamond Aircraft is scheduled to be first out of the gate with its D-Jet single this year. Cirrus Aircraft could certify its SF50 Vision as early as 2012, but the program, while ongoing, is suffering what many aircraft development programs face: lack of money to see the aircraft through to certification and production. Piper, backed by new owner Imprimis, continues work on the PiperJet. And Piper chairman and Imprimis managing director Steven Berger has said that the money is available to complete the program.

After the D-Jet makes it to the market, will the single-engine VLJ represent a viable new market segment or a limited field served by one or maybe two manufacturers? Time, as always, will tell.

The recession and likely questionable business decision-making appear to have dealt a severe blow to Epic Aircraft, which closed its doors in Bend, Ore., last year, leaving builders of Epic kit aircraft with partially finished airplanes. Epic founder and former president Rick Schrameck’s frequent additions to the company’s stable–at one point the company seemed to be announcing a new jet or turboprop every six months–seem to have been the company’s undoing. And chances of certifying any Epic airplane seem, at this point, nonexistent.

With its powerful Comp Air 12, Comp Air is trying to bring some competition to a market that is served only by the Pilatus PC-12, but so far Comp Air has had trouble raising the massive amounts of money needed for a certification effort.
The planned resurrection of the Foxjet, which was never more than a paper concept brought to vivid mockup life by Tony Fox in the 1970s, is not going to happen, judging from the lack of response from current Foxjet owner Millennium Aerospace.

SSBJ Contenders
At the other end of the spectrum are the supersonic business jet plans of Aerion and Supersonic Aerospace. Aerion makes a convincing case that money–not technology–is the roadblock to fielding an SSBJ. But SSBJs are running smack into the rule of aerospace complexity, which states that a given aircraft’s complexity and cost are directly proportional to the size of the potential market for that aircraft. SSBJs live in the thin air at the pinnacle of the complexity curve, and the proposed $80 million price tag for one of these swift jets naturally limits the size of the market. However, one should never underestimate the power of a compelling and unfilled market niche like the SSBJ, so there may be life in these programs after all.

This year and perhaps next look to be a continuation of the hunkering down that manufacturers have had to engage in, focusing on weeding out underfunded buyers from backlogs, achieving those sales that are possible, supporting existing customers and, if time and money are available, developing concepts for new aircraft. For the near-term, the ranks of new aircraft programs have thinned but, at the same time, reached more realistic and perhaps sustainable levels.