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The Big Promise of Little Jets

by Ed Stephens Jr.

Private Pilot magazine, February, 2004


Will you ever put jet time in your logbook? My guess is yes. It may be in the PIC column, or it may be tallied in dual received. But never mind the logs, a lot of folks would be happy with some jet time in the photo album. So letís separate the hype from the genuine promise of personal jets.

The hype crested last year. Every guy who had a 40-piece socket set and a can of zinc chromate was sending out brochures about his New, Pioneering personal jet. It was always an Innovative Breakthrough, In Development, a flying version of the family sedan that would be cheaper than free and faster than light.

But most of the weaker acts have since folded their tents. A few genuine contenders remain. I recently met with two such contenders, industry goliath Cessna, and scrappy neophyte Eclipse Aviation, to discuss their progress.

Both firms aspire to certify their single-pilot personal jets in 2006. Cessnaís Mustang, a six-seater, is listing for $2.3 million and will be the runt of the Citation litter. There is no doubt in my mind that this jet will see FAA certification and production. It is, after all, a Citation.

My latest ride is the Citation V, in which Iím type rated, and Iím impressed with this machine in specific, and with Citations in general.

But $2.3 million for the Mustang is still a lot of coin. Thatís not within the reach of your average Mom ní Pop flight school. Maw and Paw need revolution, not evolution, for that. Enter Eclipse Aviation.

The Eclipse 500, which is flying in test configuration, aims to hit the sub-million dollar mark, with a price of $950,000. With six seats, or five if you want to free up some space, itís a cute little feller, for sure, smaller then Cessnaís Mustang. This is a true micro jet, not just a small jet. Eclipse claims to have over 2,100 firm orders for this craft.

There is a market for this product. Can they really deliver the product to the market?

Hopefully so, because this is where things get interesting. True, the million dollar neighborhood means that slobs like me canít buy one. But slobs like me could eventually rent one, at least if the buddies chip in for the trip. Iíll shoot from the hip and guess that prices like $700 an hour, wet, might prevail once used Eclipse 500s hit the streets. Perhaps there will be a cadre of experienced "ride along" professional pilots who accompany new renter pilots as the renters build pilot-in-command time to satisfy their insurance. Aviation is famously, or notoriously, resourceful in situations like this.

Some instrument-rated private pilots are already earning type ratings in jets. Imagine the scenario if something like the Eclipse was around. Or picture a market for any pilot who wants to trade a few C-notes for an introductory jet lesson just for kicks. Why not?

Still, jets are tools, not toys. They are instrument platforms that only have economical fuel burns at high (typically in the thirty thousands) altitudes. Recall that 18,000 feet and above is Class A airspace, hence, IFR. Jets are point A to point B transportation, not sight-seeing go-carts. The vast gulf between instrument flying and visual flying is not going to get bridged by micro jets.

The ticket to jet jock status, then, might get cheaper, but an instrument rating will still be the real price of admission if you want to call yourself "captain." If youíre looking for an excuse to start your instrument training, you may have just found one.


© 2004 Ed Stephens Jr.