Start-up hopes to outfox other VLJ competitors

 - September 15, 2006, 6:55 AM
Tony Fox, the 84-year-old entrepreneur credited by those with long memories as being the father of the very light jet, last month sold the 1970s-era Foxjet design to start-up Millennium Aerospace of California. Fox still manages a multimillion-dollar business conglomerate and holds 96 patents.

The Foxjet project was announced in 1977 with the objectives of lowering the fuel cost to about nine cents a mile versus 48 cents a mile (when jet-A was about 50 cents a gallon) for a comparable corporate jet; allowing flights into nearly any airport; and selling for $500,000 to $700,000, about half the cost of the competitors at that time.

However, the six-seat, 1,400-nm Foxjet was shelved in the early 1980s when the U.S. Air Force selected its Williams WR44-800 fanjet (the predecessor to the now-certified FJ44) for an air-launched cruise missile and the government denied any nonmilitary use of the engine. When a suitable high-bypass turbofan became again available, Fox did not have the time or financial resources to supervise the airplane project.

“My dream is to see the Foxjet flying during my lifetime,” Fox said. “I’ve talked with 50 or 60 different prospective buyers recently, and I was convinced Millennium Aerospace has what it takes to get the Foxjet airborne.” Fox has agreed to serve as a consultant as the Foxjet moves toward certification.

“The Foxjet…defines the very light jet category,” noted Millennium Aerospace president Robert Swanson. “One thing we won’t change is the name. Foxjet is a catchy name, and more important, we consider it a fitting, permanent tribute to Tony Fox, whose vision was years ahead of the industry.”

Millennium now intends to refine some systems and will evaluate the current engine and avionics offerings for the revived aircraft. According to Barry Marshall, the company’s product development director, “The Foxjet was designed for Williams International engines, but now there are several other comparable powerplants to evaluate. We’ll do that this summer and select the best one.” This pits the Williams FJ33 against the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F, GE-Honda HF118 and a small Honeywell turbofan for the Foxjet.

“Our engineers also plan to incorporate greater use of carbon-fiber materials,” he added, “and we have a team designing a state-of-the-art avionics package for the Foxjet. Those minor modifications will be completed this summer, so we can finish building the production version by the end of this year. The fact that the Foxjet is virtually a turnkey design was a major reason we committed to building it.”

Millennium plans to build a new plant to manufacture the Foxjet and other aviation products that are expected to follow. An executive team is currently evaluating several possible locations, primarily in the Gulf Coast region, and conducting discussions with a number of state economic development offices. A decision on locating the new facility is expected “soon,” the company said.

Millennium plans to fly the Foxjet early next year, with certification expected by 2008. Marshall said the twinjet would cost approximately $1.4 million.