Very Light Jets: Boom or Blip?

Most of the buzz is focused on those planes priced at the "low" end, which will begin hitting the market this summer.

Other forecasts are similarly optimistic about VLJ potential: Rolls-Royce, in its 20-year forecast through 2023, says 8,000 VLJs will be built; Pratt & Whitney Canada, maker of the PW600-series engines that power several VLJs, is forecasting more than 5,000 VLJs to be produced through 2012.   The air taxi question

Key differences in the forecasts relate to whether the VLJ air taxi market will take off. Aboulafia says Teal Group remains an air taxi "agnostic," and Forecast International caveats its predictions by saying the emergence of on-demand air taxi services "utilizing hundreds of these jets to fly their customers from airport to airport" is critical to the VLJs' realizing their full market potential.

Perhaps the best known impending air taxi service is DayJet. The company expects to launch its business later this year with the arrival of the first of its 239 Eclipse 500s on order. The Eclipse 500 is one of three VLJ models that manufacturers expect to have certified by the FAA this year or early next year. Florida-based DayJet plans to have two pilots in each aircraft and three available passenger seats for trips of up to 600 n.mi., though it has not yet said in what part of the country the air taxi service will be launched.

The company's per-seat, on-demand model relies on in-house software that optimizes how the fleet moves between destinations, minimizing the amount of time the aircraft will fly with no paying customers on board, a problem that has historically been a bane to the profitability of air taxi operators.

Another air taxi provider waiting in the wings is Pogo, which has 75 Adam Aircraft A700 VLJs on order.   Making flying easier

While opinions vary on how the market will respond to the new aircraft, there is general consensus that the vehicles themselves have been the focal point for best of breed in aircraft advances, including highly integrated avionics and advanced engine design.

"It's really the elements of technology that have blended together" to make the VLJ, says John Olcott, president of consulting firm General Aero and former president of the National Business Aviation Association. "It ought to be simpler to fly than a piston-powered aircraft."

Examples can be found in the Eclipse 500, which is expected to be the first of the VLJs to be certified by the FAA, with deliveries arriving by summer. The aircraft comes equipped with a redundant "total aircraft integration" avionics package called Avio. Designed in-house, Avio controls the avionics, engine operation, fuel systems, flaps, landing gear, cabin pressure and temperature, and other systems via the aircraft's main computer and electronic power distribution systems.

In the engine department, Avio can activate an "automatic power reserve" if the system senses that one of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofans is operating below its expected performance. With power reserve, the normal operating engine gets a boost of up to 10% more thrust, while ultimate constraints of permissible power are maintained by the full-authority digital engine control, or FADEC, system. The Eclipse 500 will also use a new engine first suppression system that the company says is "more effective, simpler, lighter, and less expensive" than conventional Halon systems.   Watching the Eclipse

The first glimpse of empirical data on VLJs will not be long in coming. Albuquerque-based Eclipse Aviation is slated to complete its FAA certification for the $ 1.5-million Eclipse 500 imminently, and two others -- Cessna and Adam Aircraft -- are not far behind.

Eclipse's fleet of seven certification test aircraft -- five flight, one static test airframe, and one fatigue airframe -- had surpassed 1,000 hr of flight test time by mid-January. Powered by a pair of 900-lb-thrust PW610Fs, the six-seat aircraft has a maximum takeoff weight of 5,640 lb and is designed to cruise as fast as 375 kt, as high as 41,000 ft, and as far as 1,280 n.mi.

Company spokesman Andrew Broom says Eclipse has just under 2,400 orders for the aircraft, with 35% of these for individual owners who will fly it for business or pleasure. Broom says the first customer delivery is slated to take place before the end of June. Eclipse expects to produce fewer than 200 aircraft this year, ramping up to 800 in 2007 and 1,000 a year thereafter.

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