Paris Air Show

Grob springs bizjet surprise

 - December 15, 2006, 9:37 AM

The world of business aviation woke up to a surprise here at the Paris Air Show today with the unforeseen launch of a highly versatile new private jet. The all-composite Grob SPn Utility Jet is both a niche-filler and challenger, offered by its developers as the long-awaited successor to Raytheon’s Beechcraft King Air workhorses and a more-industrious alternative to the emerging crop of light executive jets.

At a Le Bourget press conference this morning, the German airframer will announce that it is close to flying the carbon-fiber twinjet. The first prototype and a full-interior concept mockup is on display here in Le Bourget’s static area, in front of the Grob chalet (A354). European certification is scheduled for the first quarter of 2007, to be followed just a few months later by U.S. approval.

Externally, the feature that sets the SPn Utility aside from its light jet rivals is the beefed-up landing gear that allows it to fly in and out of places other business jets cannot reach: short and even unprepared landing strips in regions such as Africa, Asia and Australasia. “This can go anywhere the King Air goes,” said Niall Olver, CEO of Swiss-based ExecuJet Aviation, which is responsible for worldwide sales, plus international maintenance and service support.

With a turboprop-class low approach speed of around 100 knots, anticipated balanced field length at gross weight is 3,000 feet. Landing distance from 50 feet (ISA, SL, MLW) is 2,950 feet.

The 13,889-pound aircraft can seat eight or nine passengers and it will certified under Part 23 commuter rules for single-pilot operations (which are harmonized between U.S. and European authorities for aircraft weighing up to 14,000 pounds). Carrying six passengers and a pilot, it will fly up to 1,800 nm.

But the Grob SPn Utility Jet is more than a people-carrier. The roomy, 405-cu-ft cabin with a large, 54- by 33-inch side door can also earn its keep hauling light freight, as well as items such as bicycles and ski equipment (up to a maximum payload of 2,491 pounds). The door is large enough to load a standard European-size freight pallet.

The cabin has been designed for quick-change reconfiguration, allowing operators to switch between tasks in around one hour. In barely 15 minutes, emergency medical evacuation operators can remove two seats to make way for a stretcher. The cabin is 5 feet 5 inches high, 5 feet wide and 16 feet 9 inches long.

The new aircraft is powered by a pair of 2,800-pound-thrust Williams FJ44-3A turbofans, which has already been selected by other leading light jet programs.

The cockpit will be equipped with a Honeywell integrated avionics suite that will likely feature four 15-inch flat-screen displays to present the standard enhanced ground proximity warning system, traffic collision avoidance system and dual flight management system. Also part of the standard fit is a GPS and a dual-channel air data attitude heading reference system.

The introductory base price of €5.8 million ($7.1 million) includes eight passenger seats, a forward toilet and a basic galley, as well as four 100-volt power outlets. Customers have the option of moving the toilet to the rear to make way for a more extensive galley. A satellite communications system is also optional equipment.

According to Grob’s market analysis, the SPn Utility offers an affordable step up into jet operations for an owner of a King Air turboprop utility aircraft. In its view, the new twinjet also offers significantly more payload and range than the new very light jets, such as the Eclipse 500.

Olver told Aviation International News that his company has been frustrated by the lack of a flexible, jet alternative to the ubiquitous King Air. This is especially true for operations in Africa where airport infrastructure is thin on the ground.

Grob and its partners believe that the combination of a midsize jet cabin in an aircraft certified for single-pilot operations and short-field performance will chisel open market opportunities that have not previously existed in business aviation. In addition to private, corporate and air taxi applications for the SPn Utility, Olver predicted that fractional ownership programs will be keen to sell shares in a product that will offer an unprecedented combination of cabin size, range and price, attracting people who have not previously believed business aircraft could meet their needs.

Speed has been the compromise in the bid to maximize payload and range for SPn Utility. Its normal cruise will be just 375 knots, rising to a max cruise of 407 knots.

By committing to an all-carbon-fiber airframe, Grob is dealing with a much lighter structure, one that it can more readily optimize aerodynamically. The aircraft will also have about half the parts count of a conventional model, with lower maintenance requirements.

Based near Munich in southern Germany, Grob has a strong pedigree in all-composite manufacturing from more than 3,000 composite aircraft. From its experience in the automotive industry, it mills all substructures and parts, such as wing attachments. The firm has already developed the carbon-fiber G160 Ranger turboprop single seven-seater and the Strato II high-altitude research platform.

Grob and its backers began the program in January 2004. Remarkably, they have managed to keep the SPn Utility completely under wraps until this week.