Expanding the Market for Small, Very Light Jets

Departments - From the Flight Deck

Eric Brothers
Senior Editor

The light, medium, and large business-jet market segments continue to rebound, although sluggishly, from the economic downturn of the Great Recession, according to this year’s Bombardier Aerospace annual business aircraft market forecast for the next 20 years. One segment not included in the report that is poised for growth is the very light jet (VLJ) market. VLJs represent just a tiny fraction of the overall business-jet market, mainly because so few are actually available, but latent demand could translate into a stream of manufacturing and MRO opportunities once these personal-sized jets – many of them long promised – can be delivered. It’s easy to be dismissive of such a small market segment, but for the small machine shop, it could represent meaningful revenue.

The Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., is general aviation’s version of the air shows and exhibitions at Paris and Farnborough. Although initially focused on the needs of aircraft homebuilders, the event has grown immensely in scope during the past four decades to include all facets of civilian and military aviation. Business jets have become a featured attraction on the AirVenture midway, representing to many private pilots the ultimate dream in personal air transportation. However, not all of the offerings are executive jets marketed to corporations and multi-millionaires. Several companies are offering VLJs as an affordable, entry-level jet that an experienced private pilot can learn to fly safely and maintain at reasonable cost.

One of the VLJ competitors, Greensboro, N.C.-based Honda Aircraft Co., has been making steady progress toward flight certification of its HondaJet. With six FAA-conforming pre-production planes undergoing flight and ground tests, certification is targeted for the end of 2014.

Among the other VLJ manufacturers, Eclipse Aerospace, Albuquerque, N.M., has received an amended production certificate authorizing assembly, test, and certification of new production Eclipse 550 light jets. Cirrus Aircraft is installing production tooling at sites in Minnesota and North Dakota to build flight-test articles of its Vision SF50 personal jet. Brazil’s Embraer Phenom 100 private light jet, which received certification in 2008, is now being assembled in Melbourne, Fla.

Perhaps the most novel biz-jet comes from Swiss company Pilatus, known for its turboprop planes with noteworthy short-field performance and large cargo bays. Why is Pilatus entering the crowded business jet arena? Tom Aniello, VP of marketing, says the market is current customers who want the same advantages of the company’s PC-12 turboprop, but in a plane capable of 150kts more air speed. Pilatus’ entry, the PC-24 twin-turbofan jet, supplies that performance and is still able to be flown in and out of dirt airstrips. The type is to enter service in 2017.

All of the entries in the VLJ market will require sophisticated manufacturing and maintenance skills to support them, and that is where business opportunities – such as those requiring expertise in repairing carbon fiber reinforced composites or overhauling turbine engines – will arise.

Another entrant in the aerospace sector is also poised for take-off. Effective with this issue, Tom Grasson has handed the editor’s duties to me. I am both flattered and honored to take the left seat on the flight deck. Tom guided the magazine from first take-off until now, and I have come to appreciate the broad perspective from 39,000ft that he shared with AMD readers. I hope I can maintain the situational awareness that he advocated, especially in being mindful of the long-range impact government policy can have on our lives and livelihoods. To help maintain AMD on a proper heading, your input is always welcome and can be sent to ebrothers@gie.net. – Eric