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Joining the Jet Set

by Ed Stephens Jr.

Private Pilot magazine,  February, 2005

 

Las Vegas is a city of brashĖbut calculated-- audacity, and thereís no better way to describe aviationís nascent Very Light Jet (VLJ) industry. The VLJ revolution, and it is a revolution, was visible at the National Business Aircraft Associationís (NBAA) annual convention, which saw about 30,000 industry pros per day bellying up to over 1,000 exhibits in the Las Vegas Convention Center from Oct. 12 through Oct. 14, 2004.

Oh, what a score for the little guys: Amid all the weighty iron, the ponderous corporate monoliths, and the usual heavy hitters, the terms "Private Pilot" and "owner/pilot" were buzzing from one end of the center to the other. Yes, little jets are big news, which means that owner/pilots arenít just crumbs under the table in the business jet industry, but are now front and center as a main course.

The old boast that private flying is a way around the airline cattle cars is, finally, going to meet most of its promise. The near future is shaping upĖand up, and up, up into the jet routes, airspeeds measured in percentage of Mach (yeah, buddy!), digitized avionics that would put many airliners to shame, auto pilots, even auto throttles, and serious IFR capability for serious point-to-point transportation.

The term VLJ is a new one, enjoying the industryís favor over "microjets" and "personal jets," so it looks like weíve got another clunky abbreviation added to our lexicon. There is no definitive definition of VLJ, but think small: Six seats, single-pilot capable, and about 8,000 pounds as a rough upper limit, though that weight might balloon a bit.

Two of the three top VLJ contenders are bold, entrepreneurial start ups: Eclipse Aviation, of Albuquerque, N.M., and Adam Aircraft, of Englewood, Colo. Both were founded by computer software magnates, so aviation is enjoying an echo from computer technology boom.

Meanwhile, industry Goliath Cessna is in the VLJ business as well; thatís an easy move for Cessna, since itís already the largest player in the business jet industry.

The Eclipse 500

When history writes about the VLJ revolution, it will be the little Eclipse 500 that is cited as the shot heard round the world.

The Eclipse is the brainchild of founder and CEO Vern Raburn, who is an experienced pilot and part of the early Microsoft cadre. Eclipse has rolled with the punches and it survived an abrupt change of course in the engine realm from Williams International to Pratt & Whitney Canada. Some things in aviation havenít changed since the days of the Wright Brothers, and pioneering aircraft are just funny-looking anchors until they find pioneering engines to drag them out of the mud. Thatís evolution, baby.

Raburn expects FAA certification of the Eclipse 500 in the first quarter 2006, and theyíve already pre-sold their production clear into the first part of 2008, claiming an eye-popping 2,126 orders so far. You can order one over the Internet (naturally) by downloading a form and sending it in with a deposit, and Eclipse reports that a number of pilots have done this without so much as talking to a salesman. The $1.175 million price tag is downright cheap in jet terms, and is, in fact, less than half the cost of many turboprops. It also makes the Eclipse about $1 million cheaper than its nearest viable VLJ competitor.

 

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© 2005 Ed Stephens, Jr.