Very Light Jets (VLJs) are remarkable aircraft. Some 10 days after his company made its first customer delivery, Jack Harrington, vice president of business affairs with Eclipse Aviation, sang the praises of the Eclipse 500 VLJ to an FAA technology conference in Arlington, Va.
Certification delays aside, the Avio integrated avionics system on the Eclipse 500, expressed through sidestick controls and Avidyne Corp. primary flight and multifunction displays, is optimized for single-pilot operation and is easier to fly, Harrington ventured, than many piston twins. The $1.5 million microjet comes with Full Authority Digital Engine Control of its twin Pratt & Whitney turbofans and autothrottle — something unheard of at this price point.
The avionics suite is certified for Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) operation and comes with all the bells and whistles you’d expect of a bigger jet, including satellite datalinked weather and operational data. "I don’t think there’s much coming down the road that we’re not prepared for," Harrington said.
Eclipse Aviation, Albuquerque, N.M., in partnership with United Airlines, developed a six-phase training program for the Eclipse 500 that involves full-motion flight simulators and Aero Vodochody L-39 jet trainers. Aspiring jet pilots will be tested for their tolerance of hypoxia and unexpected situations at high altitude.
But how will they behave in the collaborative environment that will be the Next-Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS)? The introduction of nimble VLJs into already crowded airspace — never mind the challenge posed by unmanned aerial vehicles — points to the need to resolve standards and procedures leading to NGATS.
Estimates of the numbers of VLJs plying the skies in the next decade range from the hundreds to the thousands, all from reputable sources. Eclipse last year commissioned an economic impact study based on FAA’s forecast of around 5,000 VLJs. Not all those operators will be free-spirited general aviators. Two-thirds of the aircraft will be used for point-to-point air taxi service, according to the study, flying to places the airlines can’t serve.
Eclipse already claims at least half of the supposed VLJ market, with 2,600 reported orders. The company says it will ramp up to four-a-day production to chip away at the backlog.
"It’s just going to make it much more busy, with a lot more planes in the airspace system," Tenny Lindholm, manager of general aviation programs with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told conferees. "We’ll have a lot of [VLJs] — 2,600 orders from one company is just the beginning of an emergence."
As the saying goes, the sky is the limit for VLJs. At the conference, Harrington and R. Lance Nuckolls, a safety inspector with FAA’s Flight Standards Service, said airspace conflicts involving VLJs — if any — will work themselves out. "As far as compatibility at the flight levels, I look at that to some extent as an air-traffic control issue as far as their utilization of the airspace, how they mix the aircraft," Harrington said.
"Once we get into the approach environments, the airport traffic areas, there’s no problem. We’ve got the speeds, we’ve got the climb, the descent. The issue is, how about when you’re up there at [flight level] 3-5-0 and you’ve got a 777 cruising along at [Mach] 0.8? [I’ve been told], that’s not a problem, we use offset routes right now."
Nuckolls said the operating profile and short-range air-taxi mission of VLJs may keep them apart from very big jets, anyway. "We might actually be looking at the fact that some of these guys may not even be in RVSM airspace because of the profile, the mission of [VLJs]," he said. "The average guy [needs] 800 or 1,000 [nautical miles]. If they wanted any more than that, they’d get a bigger jet. Being certified at that level and actually going to that level are two different things.
"The only thing that I’m hearing concern about now," Nuckolls added, "is the fact that a lot of the airports — around Chicago you have Palwaukee and DuPage and Aurora and Kenosha and Waukegan — use the same terminal controllers. They all come into that same terminal area, so the FAA has to [be] prepared to do that. We feel with the automation that’s going in on the controller side and the automation with NGATS and everything else that’s going on, that problem will solve itself just through the technology and the information."