As someone who writes about private aviation, I find it instructive (not to mention downright pleasant) every chance I get to fly on a business jet.
My latest opportunity came last month, when I joined a group of other aviation and high-end lifestyle publication journalists on a visit to Embraer, either the world’s third- or fourth-largest airframer, depending on what criteria you use). The tour was arranged to demonstrate the company’s rapidly growing line of business aircraft and was capped with a flight in one from its headquarters in São José dos Campos (about an hour’s drive from São Paolo) to Rio de Janeiro.
Embraer entered the business aviation segment in 2002, with its Legacy 600, an executive version of the ERJ 135 and our ride for the flight. The company has since added bookends in the form of the clean-sheet-design entry-level Phenom 100 and 300, and the top-of-the-line Lineage 1000, an executive version of its ERJ190). One of the main highlights of the press trip for me was seeing the progress on Embraer’s newest aircraft, the midsize Legacy 500. A brand-new model unveiled in 2007 and officially launched in 2008, the twinjet was designed from the ground up to take advantage of the latest technology, and is expected to fly by year-end.
Before Embraer took us to see the joined fuselage of the first Legacy 500 prototype (which at the time resembled less the sleek business jet that it will eventually become, and more a giant empty tin can with exposed insulation), officials took us to the flight simulator for a demonstration of the effectiveness of the aircraft’s fly-by-wire (FBW) control system.
After we familiarized ourselves with the controls in the cockpit, our “instructor” set us up for an engine failure during takeoff. For my first run, the instructor disengaged the FBW system. As the virtual 500 accelerated down the runway and became airborne, a right engine failure quickly sent the aircraft (in my inexperienced hands) auguring into the ground.
On the next attempt with fly-by-wire engaged, the loss of an engine caused a momentary veer to the right before the system compensated and swiftly adjusted control surfaces. Though our instructor was busy describing exactly what the FBW was doing at the time, in the end, the take home for me was the fact that the simulated aircraft did not crash. Not only that, it didn’t come close to crashing.
Given that the $18.4 million Legacy 500 and its smaller sibling, the $15.5 million Legacy 450, which will shadow the 500’s development, testing and certification by a year, will be the only aircraft below the $50 million price range to offer full FBW as standard equipment, this will no doubt be a jolt to the industry, and force others to quickly follow suit.
When our tour of Embraer's impressive facilities was over, we were driven to a taxiway on São José dos Campos Airport, where our Legacy 600 awaited. I had flown economy class on my way down to Brazil and even though I had the incredible luck of an aisle and window seat to myself, I was unable (as usual) to get comfortable enough to sleep during the nearly 10-hour flight. So, as we arranged ourselves around the Legacy’s plush cabin, I happily settled into one of its wide, leather seats. While I didn’t sleep during the oh-too-short 45-minute flight to Rio, I’m sure that I could have. As soon as we had buckled ourselves in, the large-cabin twinjet taxied out to the adjoining runway and we were airborne.
This is how aviation could be, I thought: no snaking through security, no disrobing, no boarding by rows, no jostling for the armrest, no taxiing delays–just get in and go. It was, to paraphrase a well-known credit card ad campaign, “priceless” (if not, then $25 million for the Legacy would be a good start). Upon landing at Santos Dumont (Rio’s domestic airport), we reluctantly exited with an increased appreciation of private aviation (and a vow, in my case, to purchase more lottery tickets in the future).
A few days later that euphoric bubble was burst as we made our way home by airline. Before our flight from Rio to São Paolo, we were informed that mechanical difficulties would delay our connecting flight to Washington for several hours, which caused many passengers to head to the airline ticket counters to rebook their downstream travel plans.
When we landed at São Paolo-Guarulhos International Airport, we found many gates out of commission (due to ongoing construction), and so we were forced to deplane on the ramp and board buses to the terminal. Since we had set foot on the ground outside the confines of the terminal, we were all then herded (with no apparent regard to seating class or privilege) indoors and up a flight of stairs to a nearly endless hallway where, as we would soon find out, we would once again pass through full security screening. Here the passenger loads of several aircraft were funneled through a single screening checkpoint.
During the near hour spent in line, a frustrated gentleman behind me (I’d guess a first-class passenger from his demeanor) was either complaining loudly about his situation on his cellphone or imperiously demanding answers from every harried airport worker who happened to pass near him. As I longingly recalled our hassle-free, blissful flight a few days before, I chuckled to myself and thought: “There’s one person who should be flying private the next time.”