Business & GA

A Coming Phenom

By Ron Laurenzo | July 1, 2008
Send Feedback

Want a user-friendly, cutting-edge flight deck with growth potential for, say, synthetic vision? No problem. Want the reliability and dispatch dependency learned from decades of making airliners engineered into the basic design of your mini jet? Got it. How about autopilot functions tied to a full authority digital engine control (FADEC) that offer the best airspeed management this side of autothrottles? Check. Want an enclosed potty because your passengers’ bodily functions might not obediently shut down just because they’re on a "short-range" jet? We hear you.

How much these and other features will sway customers in the face of competition from bizjet producer Cessna, with its Mustang and CJ1 aircraft, or the Eclipse 500 from upstart Eclipse Aviation remains to be seen. But it is clear that Embraer, which announced the Phenom 100 a little more than three years ago and began test flights last summer, is not taking success for granted. Far from it, the Brazilian company best known for its regional jet airliners has fully focused its deep resources on the Very Light Jet (VLJ) market.

The foray into the realm of VLJs began as the company finished designing the E170/190 regional jet family, shifting those engineers and designers to the Phenom family, which includes the larger, faster, longer-range 300, now in flight testing and scheduled to enter the light jet market in the latter half of 2009.

By late May, Embraer had already sold 750 Phenoms, said Henrique Langenegger, Embraer vice president for Executive Aircraft, declining to break down numbers between the 100 and 300. The company plans to deliver the first 100 in either September or October and move up to 15 out the door by the end of the year. With a projected lifespan of 35,000 flight hours and many features designed to simplify maintenance and maintain high dispatch reliability, the 100 is specifically targeted at air-taxi companies, which have placed about half the orders.

"The owner pilots will have a lot of things for free that they don’t really need," said Langenegger. "Sometimes we joke that their great great grandchildren will still be flying it."

Prodigy Flight Deck

Although slower and shorter-ranged than larger business jets, avionics is one area, probably the only one, where VLJs can match up with heavier, more expensive aircraft.

At the heart of the Phenom is Embraer’s Prodigy Flight Deck, based on Garmin’s G1000 integrated avionics suite. Although designed to be flown by one pilot, Embraer estimates only about one-quarter of users, primarily owner operators, will actually do so. Langenegger said people who fly for leisure tend to go single pilot, while private operators who use the plane for business like to take a professional along for added safety. Charter and air-taxi operators will most likely fly with two pilots.

Langenegger said Embraer chose Garmin based on performance and cost.

"The Garmin platform offers a lot of functionality, sometimes even more functionality than we have on our big aircraft," he said. "It helps us to offer an aircraft at a much lower price, around $3 million compared to $4 million-plus."

Among other things, with a software update the Garmin avionics suite will accommodate synthetic vision, currently available only on a limited number of airliners and large-cabin business jets like the Gulfstream 400 and 500 series. The system’s open architecture will keep options open for further upgrades as they become available.

BMW Group Designworks USA, Newbury Park, Calif., crafted Prodigy’s sharp exterior design, focusing on ease of use and aesthetic appeal intended to flow into the rest of the interior. Between the ram’s horn yokes, lies another Prodigy feature not common to small airplanes, a panel-mounted keyboard that provides pilots with another, more efficient way to talk with the FMS.

Although one of the most overused adjectives in the aviation industry, the word "integrated" does indeed appear to sum up the Prodigy Flight Deck, especially considering the base G1000 and all other avionics subsystems come from Garmin. Think Apple versus PC.

"It’s hard to provide a good definition of what [integrated] means to the pilot," said Garmin’s Jessica Myers. "But ultimately it’s going to reduce your workload, it’s going to increase your safety of flight, it’s going to give you more time in the cockpit to manage the aircraft."

Several features distinguish the G1000’s application in the Phenom. First, Embraer chose to use identical 12-inch screens for the two primary flight displays and multifunction display (MFD). That allows commercial users operating with minimum equipment lists to dispatch the airplane even if one display dies, a level of redundancy common to airliners and larger business jets, but not the general aviation aircraft with which VLJs are often associated.

The Phenom 100 is the first aircraft to include Garmin’s GCU 477 FMS controller, which controls all communications and navigation frequencies. It’s a bit more advanced than the GCU 475 on Cessna’s Mustang, which is strictly an MFD controller and does not control Comms.

Another first is the use of Garmin’s new GFC 700, a three-axis, fully digital, dual channel autopilot that is fail-passive, which means that if it breaks, it politely yields control to the pilot while alerting him that it’s time to start hand flying.

The GFC 700 is available only as part of a fully integrated Garmin cockpit and cannot be purchased separately to be combined with other navigation systems.

The autopilot, in cooperation with dual FADEC-controlled Pratt & Whitney PW617-F turbofans, can also hold airspeed and Mach speed over a limited range defined by the pilot, a feature known as automatic pitch and automatic Mach trim control. Although not a true autothrottle, it’s getting pretty close, Myers said.

‘Mach tuck’

Automatic pitch trim, which senses the aerodynamic force on the elevator and adjusts trim to maintain a desired angle of attack, is a common autopilot feature included on all G1000-equipped aircraft. But the Phenom 100 and 300 are so far the only Garmin-equipped planes with automatic Mach trim. Starting at Mach.7, the airplane’s center of pressure tends to shift backwards, raising the tail and lowering the nose in a phenomenon known as "Mach tuck." If not corrected, it can exhaust the elevator’s capacity to hold up the nose, resulting in a steep, potentially catastrophic dive. Automatic Mach trim artificially adjusts the elevator and puts back pressure on the yoke to keep the airplane in trim. A nice safety feature on the Phenom 100, which can fly right at Mach.7, it is essential to the speedier Phenom 300.

Embraer is working hard to translate what it has learned from building commuter turboprops and regional jets into the Very Light Jet arena, Langenegger said. The company began the Phenom program as EMB170/190 development was winding down, freeing up engineers to move over to the 100, then the 300. More than 800 people are working on Phenom development, he noted.

The same designers who made the 170 as the first commercial jet to use a smart probe instead of traditional pitot-static masts also opted to put it on the Phenom 300. Made by Goodrich, the SmartProbe Data System combines multi-function sensing probes, pressure sensors and processors in one unit, decreasing weight, drag and complexity while improving reliability. The system is easier to maintain. If it fails, you replace the whole thing, Langenegger said, without leak tests that require special equipment.

Just like their older, bigger cousins, the Phenoms will protect important components inside the pressure hull. Things that are expected to be changed or inspected frequently are easily accessible, not buried so deep you have to take apart the interior to get to them. The goal, Langenegger said, is that it take no more than 15 minutes to extract a part.

Another legacy of its airline experience is common type ratings for similar aircraft. Embraer is working with aviation authorities so that a single type rating covers both Phenoms, with differences training for pilots switching between the 100 and 300. The Prodigy Flight Deck in each aircraft is the same.

Truth be told, most passengers could care less about what’s in the panel in front of the pilots. They’re happy to arrive safely and, if possible, comfortably. To that end, the Phenom 100 is the only VLJ that comes with a stand-alone lavatory. Langenegger said air-taxi passengers are people who fly business or first class when they go commercial. They’re used to comfort. For the same reason, Embraer redesigned the cabin of the Phenom 100 early in the program, making it the largest in its class, with almost twice the volume of the Eclipse.

"Maybe most of the time it’s just going to be psychological, but it’s there if you need it," he said. "You don’t want people to be uncomfortable for part of the flight because they don’t have a lav."

Embraer offers an option that swaps the lav for two extra passenger seats, but there have been few takers. Most VLJ customers, Langenegger said, are opting for comfort.

Air-Taxi Operator DayJet Slows Expansion Plans

Air taxi operator DayJet, Boca Raton, Fla., is putting the brakes on its ambitious expansion plan, citing poor economic conditions. Nevertheless, the company’s financial troubles could have a rippling impact across the VLJ market.

DayJet executives stood by the company’s business model, saying its members and frequent flyers have proved the model, but the condition of capital markets has forced it to slow its growth for at least six months. DayJet began operations late last year, flying a fleet of 28 Eclipse 500s to a network of more than 100 "DaySpots" and 12 "DayPorts" in the southeast United States.

In May, the company laid off roughly 100 employees from both its current staff and those hired in anticipation of planned growth. The cutbacks were precipitated by DayJet’s failure to raise the $40 million needed during the first quarter to continue its expansion. (DayJet’s expansion is slowing, but not stopping. A few weeks after announcing the layoffs, the company said it had added Jacksonville and Sarasota, Fla., to its network.)

As a result, DayJet is delaying the delivery of more of the reported 1,400 Eclipse 500s it has on order, according to Chief Financial Officer John Staten, who cited the chaos in capital markets.

DayJet is the largest customer of the Eclipse 500 VLJ, accounting for more than half of the 2,500 on order. DayJet executives said they were making adjustments to the delivery schedule.

"Eclipse is working with us," said DayJet President and CEO Ed Iacobucci. "Overall, the number and the contract remain intact. For Eclipse, this is an opportunity to bring those on its long waiting list forward."

Executives stressed the slowdown has more to do with the state of capital markets, and say little about the company’s business plan.

"All the metrics say we are on to something," said Staten. "We have new members and new travelers. Fifty percent of our members have already flown once. Another 40 percent booked again. Some customers have flown 53 times, others 20-plus times. Once they fly with us, they book again within six to eight days. There is a pent-up demand for easy transportation, especially in the secondary markets. This is nothing more than a capital constraint issue we are dealing with." — Kathryn Creedy

Kathryn Creedy (kcreedy@accessintel.com) is editor of Aviation Today’s Very Light Jet Report, an Access Intelligence electronic newsletter. For more information, or to subscribe to VLJ Report, go to www.aviationtoday.com/subscribe.htm#vlj

Eurocontrol Studies The Impact Of VLJs

While few VLJs are currently flying in Europe, forecasts suggest as many as 500 could be operating on the continent by 2010, with many more to follow.

But their lower speeds and performance compared with normal airliners, plus their lack of collision avoidance systems, have raised concerns at Eurocontrol about their integration into Europe’s high-density airspace, and have brought about two projects to assess their air-traffic control impacts.

The first project was the establishment of a VLJ Integration Platform (VIP), a specialist group that includes European Air Navigation Service Providers, government regulators, VLJ manufacturers, airlines and intended VLJ operators.

The second project will be an intensive simulation in October, covering Central European airspace, at Eurocontrol’s Research, Development and Simulation facility in Budapest, Hungary. The simulation will evaluate the progressive impacts of VLJ operations from 300 flights per day to 1,000 to 2,000 flights per day.

VLJ performance concerns focus mainly on their slower departure speeds and climb rates, probably requiring dedicated departure corridors. Conflicts with faster airline jets at higher altitudes will also be examined. However, the VLJ’s relatively short range may see most of them cruising at medium altitudes, which could possibly result in the development of dedicated VLJ routes.

Yet, possibly the greater concern is the lack of full airborne collision avoidance systems (ACAS, the ICAO term for TCAS) in current VLJs. Typically, VLJs offer TCAS 1 systems that provide Traffic Alerts (TA) but not collision avoidance Resolution Advisories (RA). While Europe mandates ACAS for all civil passenger aircraft more than 12,500 pounds, VLJs weigh much less, and compulsory carriage could, according to one source, "add a double-digit increase to the aircraft’s price, plus added weight."

The lack of ACAS also raises concern among airlines, which regard it as reducing overall safety levels. And there is the subsidiary concern about less experienced VLJ pilots flying in high-density traffic with the risk, in the absence of RA commands, of them performing conflicting avoidance maneuvers in potential collision situations.

Eurocontrol officials will brief FAA on their VIP activity in September, with FAA expected to join the group in Budapest. Meanwhile, the VIP was undertaking a detailed analysis of VLJ issues, in readiness for the October traffic simulations. — David Underwood

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox