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Very Light Jets Ready For Takeoff?


Ah, the romance and glamour of air travel. What, you mean that hasn’t been your experience? Well you’re hardly alone. Most of us who fly commercially can hardly remember when it was really fun to fly on major airlines. And even when the in-flight experience isn’t too much of a hassle, there’s the security, flight delays, and crowds that combine to lessen airborne enjoyment.


For a fortunate few, private jet travel is a wonderful way to bring the fun back into flying. The price of ownership is a bit steep, especially if you want to jet the same distances at the same speed and altitude of commercial airliners. A nice used Challenger or Gulfstream can run up to $40 million or more and even smaller, mid-size Citations and Lear models are breathtakingly expensive. And you’ll need a professional crew to operate those big birds.


Charter is the preferred option for many jetsetters who don’t want the cost and responsibility of ownership. The big advantage of charter flying is tailoring the aircraft to your needs. A short hop for four people less than 1,000 miles doesn’t require the same airplane as a jaunt to the East Coast, Hawaii, or Europe.


Until recently, pure jet choices were limited to corporate aircraft. Affluent private pilots with the right kind of experience and ratings might own or operate a sophisticated single or twin-engine, piston-powered aircraft, and the very elite, a turboprop. But pure jet operation, with its quick and quiet operation, was out of reach.


What’s changing that dynamic is the arrival of Very Light Jet (VLJ) aircraft, driven by the development of small, efficient engines along with advancements in aircraft design and construction. Some of the new jets are designed to be as easy to fly as small, single-engine airplanes, especially if the pilots are accustomed to flying with glass-panel instrumentation.


That transition is helped with designs that use a single-jet engine that allows pressurized altitudes of up to 25,000 feet and speeds of up to 300 knots, yet can still fly at low speeds with easy maneuverability. Two of the promising new single-engine jets on the near horizon are Diamond Aircraft’s D-Jet and Cirrus Design’s Vision SJ50. Both are designed to operate with a single pilot, although there are controls for two, and both provide a little over the 1,000 nautical mile range at a cruising speed of around 260 knots, or 300 mph. With cabin room for up to five adults and modest luggage, it’s easy to imagine the opportunities for family and business fun. And the retail price is projected to be about the same as a Bugatti Veyron, about $1.2 million.


On the surface, there seems to be no downside to light jet ownership. That’s what a number of entrepreneurs thought a few years ago when a gaggle of new jet design concepts were introduced. But even Eclipse, an aircraft startup with a reasonable airplane and lots of orders is in reorganization and a few others may never see the light of day, especially in today’s challenging financial climate.


Perhaps the best bet is with seasoned aircraft manufacturers who have a proven track record, distribution, and training programs in place. In the single jet engine environment, Cirrus, Piper, and Diamond are certain players with a range of offerings. Cessna’s entry into the field is the twin-engine Citation Mustang, a plane that offers a bit higher performance at just over $2 million.


So how safe is flying your own jet airplane? More than a few skeptics with commercial pilot ratings call the new VLJs ‘doctor killers’ based upon the number of amateur pilots who flew the early twin-engine aircraft a few decades ago. But this is a whole new generation of planes with much better behavior. And if it’s the Cirrus, it comes with a parachute — something you can’t get even on that commercial jet.   BRIAN DOUGLAS


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