FBO Light Jet Review

The Light Stuff:
Today’s variety of light jets provides the most choice ever

By Dave Higdon

If competition improves the breed, you should feel comfortable that the variety of light jets taxiing onto FBO ramps will only widen in the coming years as developments in the pipeline evolve into a variety of machines that improve on what’s available from today’s state-of-the-crop selection in light, entry level jets – already arguably the broadest, deepest selection ever under 20,000 pounds gross weight.

Choices in today’s lightest segment of the business-jet spectrum offer virtually all the speed, performance and technological flying accouterments of larger models, save, of course, for the larger cabins and long ranges of jets in the larger categories. But the smaller, lighter machines of the light-jet range deliver a level of efficiency that can rival or even best propjets and some piston twins.

Whether you examine cockpit systems, cabin comforts or business amenities, light jets give away little, if anything, to their larger kin – again, aside from their shear cabin volumes and proportional expense profiles.

And given the strong long-term outlook for the lightest jets within the fleet, expect the selection to continue growing. Today, no fewer than four contenders are vying for a share of the market using new ideas and new technologies in their quest to field some new solution for our need for speed.

The new designs under development by several of these new players could demonstrate that evolution does run in reverse – that is, that bigger isn’t always better.

These fledgling flying machines include six-seat machines that compare in gross weight and price tag more with the most-popular piston twins, while at the same time promise speed and utility comparable to six-seat jets that sell for four times the money and weigh up to 30 percent more.

Best of all, the economy of operation the developers promise beat that of even the best piston twins. And the operation flexibility is right out of FAR 23 – including a 61-knot maximum stall speed that means lots of FBOs on airports with 3,000 feet or less will be seeing these new machines when their day comes.

Whether for intrastate or international travel, the jets of the light category offer performance pilots find useful and efficient.

And the list will continue to grow here in the early years of the 21st Century, making the 2001 Class of light jets the largest ever.

Small Jets, Big Abilities

Fortunately for planemakers, few customers remain long satisfied with the performance of their first plane. Our need for speed knows only money as a disincentive; within the bounds of our budgets, pilots and by extension airplane owners, pursue faster, farther and higher exactly as far as our wallets allow.

For the business user, however, the equation often requires elements absent from egocentric decision making. Executive time and efficiency, comfort and utility, tax liability and investment depreciation all work together to frequently support bigger, farther and more expensive – even when faster or farther don’t factor into the equation.

But utility alone frequently remains the biggest arbiter of airplane choice. Regardless of size and costs, speed, range or cruising altitude, unless it gets into the fields needed, it’s of no use.

For those with the means, the transition from piston single to twin, on to turboprop and from turboprop to jet can occur effortlessly, thanks to airplanes that can use the same runways on the same days.

And the biggest obstacle for many remains budget, leaving them at compromise decisions to fly high-end pressurized singles instead of a propjet or jet.

Those days may be numbered, as you’ll discover below. The light-jet strata includes some entry-level designs geared to make the step up to a jet little different or difficult than tapping a twin. A couple of these designs, in fact, actually share more in cabin size with piston singles and twins than with any of the light-jet class.

Otherwise, these lightest of the class differ little from the rest of their light-jet kin: cruise speeds at or above 400 mph, cruising altitudes above Flight Level 300, and ranges that make transcontinental flight a one-stop proposition – at the worst.

These are the basic common performance denominators for our collection of the smallest jets. They gross anywhere from 6,000-pounds to our upper limit for the class, 20,000 pounds. Beyond that upper weight limit, there are no other parameters defining our group: neither price nor speed – none.

Despite their differences, these aircraft all qualify as serious flying machines and good hardware for business or personal travel.

Citation: Two Proven Platforms for Owner/Pilots

Cessna CJ1From the dawn of aviation, the single pilot was the typical crew operating the airplane, from the Wrights’ first Flyer to the earliest Learjets. Sure, some military and commercial hardware demanded two, three or more. But personal airplanes were built and sold mostly to individual pilots.

Operating solo eventually diminished in business flying as experience demonstrated that the complexities of most jets demanded more than two hands, two feet, two eyes and one brain could handle – particularly in less-than-ideal conditions.

But the pendulum changed direction after about a decade with the 1972 arrival of Cessna Aircraft’s first Citation, the user-friendly Model 500. Its single-pilot orientation made the Citation a favorite of the owner/pilot community.

The combination of low price and single-pilot capability rolled back a barrier to many newly minted, affluent-enough aviators. Even corporations, that traditionally crewed with two found, the Model 500 appealed most for the expanded utility afforded by runway requirements shorter than faster, more-expensive options.

Jump ahead 20 years to 1992, when Cessna effectively reinvented the entry-level jet with the first deliveries of the CitationJet, a model that also reinvigorated the single-pilot segment.

The new-generation Williams-Rolls FJ44 fan-jet powerplants introduced on the CJ provided fuel efficiency that rivals traditional turboprops. In addition to the advantages of those 1,900-pound thrust engines, the new Citation also matched the prop planes in crew requirements – one.

The combination gave the littlest Citation an edge in operating costs while delivering speed and altitude performance superior to anything prop driven.

Today’s potential jet buyer enjoys a choice of two CJ models, both single-pilot, one today’s low-price champ: the CJ1, basically the original CitationJet updated with a panel facelift; and the CJ2, a more-powerful, faster, stretched variant.

Both sport the latest avionics, more-efficient interior configurations, and upgraded engines.

Equipped with Collins ProLine 21 series avionics, both CJs deliver a level of automation, situational awareness and redundancy traditionally found only on larger, more-expensive jets.

With a price of $3.77 million, the CJ1 retains the mantle of the price leader in business aviation circles, keeping it the object of affection for first-jet buyers and the target of competitors.

Its 370-knot cruise won’t blow wingtips off of the competition, but its 100-gallon-an-hour-range fuel efficiency rivals the per-mile costs of the Learjet 31A, a top contender for lowest direct-operating-costs mantle – save for its two-crew requirement.

But combine its other traits and you get a model distinct in any class.

Any airport with a runway 3,000 feet or longer is a candidate for CJ1 traffic; put a pair 1,000 nautical apart, and a pilot can help five passengers bypass a lot of hubs.

The littlest Citation needs hardly 2,100 pounds of kerosene to make the trip, thanks to the efficiency of the FJ44-1A powerplants. And it can fly legs as long as 1,400 nautical.

The CJ2 picks up where the CJ1 stops and does more, as economically, thanks mainly to the 2,400-pound-thrust version of the FJ44-2C engine. Sharing nearly identical fuel-consumption rate, the CJ2 delivers the same 1,000-nautical trip on just 200 pounds more fuel than the CJ1. Peak range for the CJ2: about 1,700 nautical.

Although their maximum payloads nearly match at 1,575 and 1,600 pounds, the CJ2 offers flexibility only available with the larger cabin and luggage space.

At $4.5 million, you get seating for seven and a cruise speeds of 410 knots, allowing you to cover that same 1,000-mile trip about 18 minutes faster, at 2:44.

With more than 400 flying going in to its tenth year, the CJs stand to keep Cessna holding on to the lowest-price mantle for a few more years.

Bravo and Encore: Two More Right Lights

Add some engine power, cabin length, payload and range, you move up the light-jet scale to Cessna’s Citation Bravo and Encore – two more of the straight-wing set.

Building on the records of the Citation II and V, these two keep runway requirements well under 4,000 feet and move cruise speeds out to nearly 500 mph. They also push the range equation to about 2,000 miles, while improving on full-fuel payload, thanks to the efficiencies of their Pratt & Whitney Canada PW500-series powerplants.

And they do this with the latest avionics without giving the competition any quarter in either price or operating economics.

Go Excel and Win the Space Race

Not only does Cessna make today’s two lowest-priced corporate jets, the light-jet leader also makes the world’s fastest business aircraft, the scorching Mach 0.92 Citation X.

In between is a unique model that makes the most of Cessna’s leadership in economical corporate aviation and its success with speed: the Citation Excel, the world’s first light jet with a stand-up cabin.

Basically, the Excel marries an improved version of the Bravo and Encore straight wing with a shortened version of the Citation X’s mid-size cabin.

Yes, the same height and width as the mid-size jet, but with about five feet less cabin length than the 28-foot Citation X.

The result is a significant improvement in passenger comfort without the added expense or cut in utility of a mid-size jet.

The 3,804-pound-thrust of the two PW545A engines propel the Excel to cruise speeds of 430 knots while carrying 885 pounds of full-fuel payload more than 2,000 nautical miles – on a fuel supply of just 6,700 pounds, minus NBAA reserves, of course.

The Excel gives Cessna the biggest thing in light jets.

Bombardier Aerospace: Learjets 31A, 45

Today, people still say Learjet when they know only that an airplane is a business jet. You could say that Learjet is where the corporate aircraft was started, even though other planes had filled the role of corporate aircraft.

But the first Learjet 23 of 1963 opened a new era in business travel equal to the impact the Douglas DC-3 had on the airline industry: it invigorated the business, attracted competition and thus spawned growth.

Speed, efficiency and utility made the Learjet line the namesake of all business aircraft.

Learjet 31And the 31A continues that tradition, boasting numbers that make it a contender for the efficiency champion of corporate flying.

Created as a hybrid using the Learjet 35’s cabin and the Learjet 55’s advanced, winglet-equipped wing, the 31A quickly caught on with the corporate community when it arrived a decade ago.

And its numbers still warrant respect.

The 31A cruises in the Mach 0.81 range – about 460 knots – flies as far as 1,400 nautical miles with four passenger plus reserves, and does so in a mere 120 gallons an hour.
The combination keeps the company boasting that the 31A delivers the lowest per-mile flying costs of any business jet flying.

Learjet 45And that makes the new Learjet 45 a valid successor to the 31A and strong claimant on the same efficiency mantle. The first all-new Learjet designed since the original 23, the Learjet 45 sports a larger, stand-up cabin, while retaining the speed and efficiency of its cousin.

The capability of connecting Athens and London in under three hours, or Denver and New York City in under four, underscores the 2,000 nautical-mile range of the 45.

Its a cruise speed of Mach 0.81 that keeps the times proportionally low, as befitting an all-new design that not only wears the Learjet badge, but sports the same distinct profile as the first.

It’s the 45’s distinct combination of performance, handling and efficiency that distinctly says "Learjet," even though the cabin size and comfort try to tell you this is something different.

Raytheon Aircraft Co. Beechjet 400A

Still selling after all these years, the Beechjet 400A launched the venerable Beech Aircraft Corp. into the light-jet business back in the late 1980s thanks to the company’s purchase of the old Mitsubishi Diamond.

Completely "Americanized" by the Wichita company, the 400A is the oldest light jet in the stable of what today is known as Raytheon Aircraft Co.

For the new model year, Raytheon’s designers completely redesigned the cabin into a center-club configuration that sports seats convertible into full-size berths.

Raytheon also made the Beechjet quieter, thanks to new mounts for the JT15D-5 engine and additional sound-dampening materials. The cockpit has been reengineered around the integrated Colins Pro Line 4 avionics to enhance crew effectiveness. Included in the changes were new control yokes and a relocated landing gear lever.

The result: A 468-knot business platform capable of carrying as many as seven passengers on flights as long as 1,700 miles, plus reserves.

That market knows a good thing when it has it is evident from the 400A’s continued sales success during the development of the upcoming Premier I.

Premier I

premier 400aIf you liked the Beechjet 400A, the maker of it, the Hawker 800 and 1000 has something all new in light jets, the first home-grown design in the Raytheon jet line: the unique Premier I.

What makes this new model unique stems from its airframe-materials combination. Raytheon engineers created a light jet with external dimensions similar to the CJ2, but with significantly more interior volume – approaching that of the Excel.

The method behind this apparent inconsistency grows out of the thinner fuselage wall of the Premier’s two-piece composite fuselage. Created on a special robotic machine, the carbon-fiber-and-honeycomb structure eliminates internal bulkheads, stringers and longerons, giving the Premier I a cabin significantly wider and taller than metal-structure designs.

Flying on a pair of 2,300-pound-thrust Williams-Rolls FJ44-2A powerplants, the swept-wing Premier I cruises at more than 460 knots.

Flying with the same passenger/crew combo cited above for the two CJs, the Premier covers the same 1,000 nautical-mile trip in under 2:30 on the same fuel as the CJ2, about 2,300 pounds.

Sharing credit for this level of efficiency is an all-metal wing and a computer-defined interface between the powerplants and fuselage. The Premier even operates easily from runways shorter than the two CJs.

And Raytheon opted for the latest flat-panel avionics from Honeywell to round out a jet that matches the technology edge of higher-priced, heavier jets – while keeping the price at $4.8 million. But Premier devotees face a bit of a wait; since Raytheon earned FAA certification earlier this year, the Premier I’s backlog three-year has only gotten stronger.

Flying But Not Yet Produced

These aircraft exist only as developmental designs, but in all cases the programs are moving toward production at varying speeds.

Sino-Swearingen SJ30-2

Start with a genius wing design, a cabin that feels sea level inside when it’s flying at Flight Level 410 outside, throw in another version of the same FJ44 engine used on other airplanes in this class, and you get Sino-Swearingen’s distinct SJ30-2 – the company’s second design but the first to go into production when deliveries start around year’s end.

Executives of the San Antonio-based company pulled a struggling program out of a potentially fatal dive by moving on to the SJ30-2 before completing the smaller, equally clever SJ30.

The SJ30-2 delivers Mach 0.83 cruise speeds that put this light jet more in league with some medium- and large-category business jets.

Ditto for the SJ30-2’s 2,500-mile cruise range – with a full-cabin payload – to give it the longest legs of any jet in its class.

Test flights of two certification articles are well under way, with certification and deliveries of the $4.5 million jet due late this year. And, similar to some other of its light-jet, the SJ30-2 will be certified for single-pilot IFR operations.

Alberta Aerospace Phoenix Fan-jet

sigmajetMost of you can be forgiven for not knowing about Stellio Frati’s effort to reinvent the primary trainer on a single-jet platform with the innovative trainer, the Jet Squalus.

Well, the Squalus returned to development about four years ago under the ownership of the Canadian company Alberta Aerospace in Calgary. And the start-up effort aims to deliver two versions, this time in civilian garb: the first, a two-place trainer called the SigmaJet, the other a four-passenger version dubbed the MagnaJet.

After going through two engine incarnations, the company decided to use a single Williams-Rolls FJ44 – the first single-engine application of this engine in a passenger aircraft.

Regardless of seating capacity, the basic design lends itself perfectly to single-pilot IFR, since its basic design was conceived with student pilots in mind. Avionics and other accouterments are still in development as the company reinforces its financing. Price should be less than half a CJ1; certification is planned for sometime late 2001 or the first half of 2002.

VisionAire Vantage

vantageAround longer than any other developmental design, VisionAire’s Vantage flew for the first time in November 1996 and remains in developmental flight tests. But much of the program went on hold in October 1998 after executives of the St. Louis-based company froze the program to correct several deficiencies found in the airplane’s basic design.

The changes arose out of nearly 200 hours of flight tests that revealed handling and aerodynamics shortcomings, as well as needed changes in the engine inlets and landing-gear geometry.

Between a price still projected at about $2.2 million and its single-engine status, the Vantage remains a ground-breaker.

The engine for this bird, the proven Pratt & Whitney Canada JT-15D-5D, capable of propelling the Vantage to speeds exceeding 350 knots over distances of up to 1,000 nautical miles.

The slow landing speed and easy handling of its forward-swept wing bring runway requirements down to an unheard-off 2,500 feet. Obviously, here’s yet another light jet with all the right light stuff to justify single-pilot IFR operations.

Also unique, the Vantage sports an all-composite airframe, an attraction for buyers interested in low maintenance and high tolerance for the elements.

VisionAire’s plans include adaptation of latest avionics from Garmin International, flight- and engine-situation displays from Meggitt, and autopilot/flight-direction equipment from S-Tec.

But don’t expect to see any Vantages parked on your ramp for several more years while the company continues its campaign to raise enough capital to complete the program. The latest project certification date is now around late 2002.

New Players: Lowering the Light-Jet Price Barrier But Not the Performance Bar

From here on we examine four new designs that hold the promise of business aircraft at piston prices – including three projects aiming below the million-dollar mark. Success of one or more should rewrite the equation between light jets, propjets, most piston twins and even a few high-end piston singles.

Century Aerospace Century Jet CA-100

centuryConceived originally as a single-engine jet in 1996, the Century Jet now being developed by Century Aerospace is today a twin and another program that embraces Dr. Sam Williams’ engine technology.

The company plans to use a new Williams International’s upcoming FJ33-1, capable of powering the CA-100 to speeds of 370 knots for flights ranging up to 1,500 nautical miles with a useful load nearing 3,000 pounds.

Credit for these numbers belongs to this six-passenger bird’s all-composite design, the second in the field. It’s competitive edge should also get a boost from the $2.7 million price, which beats the closest competitor by around $1 million.

Meggitt Avionics flight, navigation and engine displays similar to ones used in the New Piper Meridian propjet, will fill the panel.

Century Aerospace expects first flight late this year, first deliveries for late 2002 or early 2003.

Eclipse 500

eclipseYou could call this one the Dot.ComJet, if you want to exploit the connection between computer millionaire Vern Raburn, the airplane fan behind the development of the Eclipse 500.

As revolutionary as the Internet – the board of directors includes several PC-industry veterans – this airplane possesses the potential to alter the aircraft landscape as much as the PC helped revolutionize communications.

Power for the Eclipse comes from a pair of all-new Williams International engines, the tiny EJ-22 derived from the experimental FJX-2 Williams built under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’ General Aviation Powerplant (GAP) program. At a mere 85 pounds, these tiny engines deliver a relatively huge 770 pounds of thrust.

And the FJ-22 is so fuel efficient that the Eclipse will be capable of flying at 385 knots for nearly 1,500 nautical miles with reserves, cruising at altitudes up to Flight Level 410.

Another major shake-up in business-jet mythology comes at the runway with the Eclipse capable of flying from strips as short as 2,500 feet – and landing on as little as 2,000.

In addition to cutting edge engines and top-notch avionics, the Eclipse will also boast cutting-edge airframe manufacturing through a process known as "Friction Stir Welding."
But the real shocker number in this program is the price-to-performance ratio, perhaps the best in history at a price of $837,000.

With the propjet singles starting at $1.6 million, high-end piston twins running above $1 million, and high-end singles clearing $700,000, the Eclipse could well spark a sea change in personal and business flying.

Initial deliveries are expected to begin at the start of 2004 and the backlog of commitments is already years in length.

Safire Aircraft S-26

safireAnother new jet, this one from Florida, could help fuel the fervor of an aviation revolution: the S-26 from Safire Aircraft.

Somewhat similar to the Eclipse 500 – including the a price in the $800,00 range – the buyer will sacrifice little for the privilege of flying this new-generation light jet.

Think about it: can anyone say it’s a sacrifice to cruise at 380 knots, travel at FL400, and span 1,400 nautical miles between stops? Particularly when operating costs don’t make $200 an hour?

The key to the performance of this design is another all-new, high-efficiency jet powerplant, Agilis Engineering’s TF-800 turbofan. While certification isn’t expected until mid-2003, more than 700 buyers have placed deposits to secure a delivery position.

Maverick Air TwinJet 1500

maverickOur last design is currently available only as a kit for the more-mechanical among business aviators, but plans are to field a certificated version of the new four-place TwinJet 1500 from Maverick Air in Penrose, Colo.

Similar to both Eclipse and Safire, the TwinJet boasts big performance in a small, low-cost package. For example, Maverick designed the TwinJet to carry a useful load of 2,500 pounds, almost equal to the aircraft’s 2,600-pound empty weight.

Similar to the VisionAire and Century designs, the TwinJet uses composites to keep weight down, in this case pre-impregnated fiberglass cloth for most of the airframe. The designers use carbon fiber in the TwinJet’s control surfaces for its light weight and higher strength.

For a small plane, the cabin is a huge 53-inches wide by 48-inches high; a 20-cubic-foot luggage space rounds out the 88-inch-long cabin.

With engines in the 750-pound-thrust range, the TwinJet cruises at about 340 knots on legs as long as 1,000 nautical with its standard 270-gallon fuel capacity.

And the FAR 23-compliant 53-knot stall speed allows the TwinJet to use runways as short as 2,500 feet.

The certificated version of the Maverick will cost about $1.2 million, low enough to make it a contender among both the old and new models that make up the Light Jet Class of 2001.