VLJs: What Might Have Been

VLJs: What Might Have Been

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P1 looks at some of the business aircraft that failed to take off but could have had a bright future in the very light market sector. 

The very light jet segment is a competitive one, with Cessna and Embraer both dominating. Cessna’s Citation M2 has shipped more than 100 units less than two years after gaining FAA certification.

“Since entering the market in December 2013, the Citation M2 has quickly become the best-selling business jet in its class,” says Kriya Shortt, senior vice president, sales and marketing at Textron Aviation. “No comparable light jet can offer the M2’s combination of speed, range and payload, making it a great fit for customers in a wide variety of missions around the world.”

Shortt has a point. When you compare available data on the M2 against the HondaJet and Phenom 100, the Citation looks impressive – plus it is backed by Cessna’s pedigree and heritage. However, the standout of the three production aircraft seems to be the HondaJet. In terms of seating capacity and price, there is not much to separate the three, yet HondaJet boasts the fastest speed and isn’t beaten on range. Early reports also suggest a superior cabin experience, helped by the Over The Wing Engine Mount (OTWEM) design that displaces noise emissions. That design also frees up valuable cabin and baggage space. That said, there is little to choose between the aircraft in terms of headline specs – which is why it is frustrating to see the stats of some of the VLJs that never made it to market.

Of course, predicting performance is completely different to proving it, but as the experience of ATG shows with the Javelin, we came close to having an aircraft in the segment that truly offered something different rather than a preference for ramp presence.

VERY LIGHT JETS COMPARISON
  SPEED RANGE SEATS PRICE
HONDAJET 420 1300 6 4.5M
PHENOM 100 390 1178 7 4.5M
CITATION M2 404 1300 7 4.2
PIPERJET 360 1300 7 2.2
ATG JAVELIN 500 1000 2 3
DIAMOND D JET 315 1350 4 1.9
STRATOS 400 1500 4 2

PiperJet Altaire

PiperJet Altaire 5
Piper Aircraft abandoned the original PiperJet in favour of the larger Altaire, but that also failed to materialise.

Unveiled at NBAA in October 2006 by Piper Aircraft president and CEO Jim Bass, the single-engine, six-seater PiperJet was designed to fly 1,300nm at 360kts and was based on the airframe for the Meridian turboprop.

“It’s not about being first to market but about getting it right first,” said Bass at the time – a reference to Diamond’s D-Jet which was already well into flight testing. Deliveries were expected to begin in 2010 and the company had healthy orders for the jet mainly from existing Piper customers.

Four years after the NBAA launch, in October 2010, Piper announced it would instead develop an aircraft with a larger circular-section fuselage known as the PiperJet Altaire. The 160 customers who had placed orders for the original PiperJet retained their delivery positions with the new aircraft and at the same US$2.2 million price.

“However, just a year later, the Altaire was suspended. Piper said it could not foresee being able to recoup its investment in a reasonable time, with global sales of business aircraft nose-diving after the global financial crisis.

“Following an evaluation of Altaire development and light jet forecasts we determined the best course of action for the company going forward is to indefinitely suspend the program, preserving intellectual property and progress to date,” said interim Piper president and CEO Simon Caldecott, who was appointed on the same day.

Caldecott admitted that the Altaire was hitting all of its targets in terms of schedule, budget and performance but that light jet market projections made it difficult to continue. It was stated the company would entertain offers for the PiperJet/Altaire project.

Coming full circle, at NBAA 2015 Caldecott was on hand to showcase Piper’s new M600 turboprop business aircraft. Powered by a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-42A engine, and all glass Garmin G3000 cockpit, the six-seater has a range of up to 1,300nm and top speed of 260ktas.

“The Piper M600 is an elegant cabin-class business aircraft with exceptionally increased endurance,” said Caldecott.

“As a step-up aircraft in our M-Class, it is an economical plane to own and operate for those who need additional range. The number of Piper airplanes in operation has increased as business flight departments are making decisions to move to more economical Pipers from aircraft that are more expensive to acquire and maintain.”

And that, we guess, is why despite the Altaire’s potential, the M600 seems a more appropriate way forward for Piper – building on its M Class family of successful single-engine business aircraft rather than becoming distracted by a potentially crippling commitment of developing the Altaire.

However, we can’t help feeling this is a real loss to the market.

Diamond D-Jet

d-jet2
Diamond’s D-Jet production remains “suspended” according to the company when asked by P1, so could it finally make it to market?

Talk about ‘so near and yet so far’. Diamond’s D-Jet is perhaps the closest any of these ‘failed’ jets came to fruition. With more than 700 hours of flight testing achieved and multiple orders in the bag, Diamond’s low-cost business jet could have had a serious advantage over its competitors. Designed to provide low purchase cost (under US$2 million) and cabin comfort at the sacrifice of high altitude, the D-Jet had its first flight back in April 2006 and then made its first public appearance at Oshkosh that same year.

“We are trying very hard to make it a landmark design—sort of like a Bonanza for the twenty-first century,” president and CEO Peter Maurer said at the time. “It’s the best fit for the owner-flown personal jet market, and while yes, you can still get into the weather at 25,000 feet, you will have plenty of weather information in the cockpit to avoid it. Taking an owner-flown airplane — especially a single-pilot one — up to 41,000 feet may give you some edge in speed, but we think that there is a safety advantage in the D-JET’s cruising altitude. Cruising at 41,000 feet is like walking a roofline — it’s not a forgiving environment if something goes wrong. Flying at 25,000 feet is more like walking on a wide plateau in terms of risk involved.”

With 300 firm orders on the books, and the business aviation industry booming, there seemed to be little sign of risk on the horizon. However, an issue with the original Williams turbofan engine resulted in a switch to a more powerful engine from Williams – a move that crucially delayed certification and pushed back projected first deliveries to early 2009. By this time, three prototypes were undergoing flight testing. However, the financial crash hit Diamond hard, and it came to depend on securing funding from the Government of Canada and Government of Ontario to continue the D-Jet programme. That funding did not materialise in 2011 and flight testing was brought to a grinding halt. Later that year, things went from seemingly bad to even worse. A majority share sale of Diamond Aircraft Holdings to Medrar Financial Group in the UAE seemed to offer the D-Jet a much-needed lifeline, as well as Diamond’s piston line of aircraft. The sale, sadly, never went through. In late 2013, staff on the D-Jet programme were laid off, and it remains ‘suspended’ to this day – so a revival may happen.

Stratos

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The Stratos, on paper at least, would have been a brilliant aircraft, with impressive speed, range and unbelievably low cost

Hindsight can be a wonderful thing. Just ask Stratos Aircraft co-founder Alexander Craig. Launching the 4-seat Stratos at EBACE in 2008, Craig said his aircraft would succeed where others had failed because Stratos had a better product and had learnt from the mistakes of others. However, this was just four months before the global financial collapse.

The aim of the Stratos 714 was simple – to produce a high-performance, clean-sheet jet to fly four people 1,500nm at 400knots
in comfort.

Michael Lemaire, the CEO and high-performance aircraft pilot said that the Stratos 714 offered the next step up from 4/5 seater propeller driven aircraft, whether piston or turbine – essentially offering business jet performance in a smaller aircraft.

With a range greater than HondaJet, Citation M2 and Phenom 100, and costing less than half all of those aircraft, the sleek Stratos could certainly have been a game-changer. Deposits were taken ahead of its full-scale cabin mockup appearance at NBAA 2009, but then things started to go quiet. Model wind tunnel testing was conducted in August 2011, but that is the last trace we can find of the aircraft’s development.

It seems appropriate, then, to leave the last word to Stratos’ Alexander Craig. He never said when the airplane would be certified. “That is one thing we learned from the others: Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” said Craig. So who knows? Maybe the Stratos, or one of these other stalled aircraft, will indeed resurface once demand in the VLJ sector soars. Watch this space…