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The Incredible Lightness of Flight

Very light jets have arrived.

October 4, 2007
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The Embraer Phenom 100.

A yacht is a wonderful place to be. Getting there and back is another story. Which is why the super-rich never fly commercial, the very rich rarely do and the middling rich have had to cadge invites from jet owners or find a convenient board of directors meeting that allowed them to hitch a ride on the company jet. The only break in this holding pattern has been the surge in fractional jet ownership-until now.

Today you can become a member of the very light jet set, flying in a VLJ aircraft that you may own, share or charter. (If qualified, you may even fly the plane yourself.) Regardless of how you arrange things you can have a fast, efficient, comfortable and hassle-free time getting to your dock.

The VLJ you have chosen to use will typically carry five or more people (including the pilot) at better than six miles a minute (315 knots) while cruising at altitudes as high as 41,000 feet. Maximum range, albeit with an empty seat or two, will be at least 1,100 nautical miles (with the fuel/flight time reserves recommended by the National Business Aviation Association). The VLJ can operate from almost all of the 5,000-plus public-use airports (and with permission, thousands of more private fields) in the U.S., plus thousands more in Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, Central America and the Caribbean. It’s very likely that there will be a suitable airport within a 30-minute drive of just about any marina or yacht club you may care to visit.

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The VLJ trip to your yacht will be quick, quiet and totally pleasant. Park your car a few feet from the aircraft and place your bags on board. About 20 minutes after take-off, you will be cruising above the clouds at 35,000 feet at better than 300 knots. If you’re into flying yourself, as captain you will have the left seat in the cockpit, the best seat in the house. Your “glass” instrument panel will make all aspects of flying and navigation a joy. The airborne weather radar and the downloaded weather information on the multifunction display will make it easy to provide a smooth ride for your passengers. Cabin temperature and pressurization will be automatically controlled. The leather seats will be comfortable and there will be more than adequate legroom. In-flight entertainment? Bring your iPod, DVD player, Scrabble board or just look out the windows. If you’re not piloting the aircraft, sit in the second best seat in the house, next to the pilot. By the time your flight is over you will want to learn to fly. The 600-nautical-mile trip will be over in less than two hours, and you’ll land at the airport that is closest to your yacht.

People have been flying to their yachts or estates since the mid 1920s. Bill Lear delivered the first AVLJ (almost very light jet) on October 13, 1964. Lear’s concept for the Learjet 23 was an aircraft light enough to certify under Part 23 of the Federal Air Regulations (maximum take-off weight 12,500 pounds; Part 25, transport category rules apply to all heavier aircraft). The combination of light weight, compact size and turbojet power created a plane that could out-climb an F-100 Super Saber to 10,000 feet, reach 40,000 feet in just over seven minutes and cruise at 460 knots. The thinking then was that trips would be so short that passengers would not need stand-up headroom (or a head), any more than they would in a limousine.

Then, as now, small is beautiful in aircraft design. Small size and light weight translates into faster climb, higher speed and longer range on less fuel. (Designers of aircraft are reputed to be willing to trade their grandmother for a pound of weight saved in the empty weight of the plane.) Today’s VLJs are not just light (maximum takeoff weight 10,000 pounds), they are certified for single-pilot operation (in the U.S.). VLJs use technology to minimize pilot workload. Engines are computer-controlled. Cockpits feature moving map GPS and multifunction displays, integrated autopilot and flight guidance systems and automatic cabin pressurization controls. Climb in the cockpit and the color LCD screens on the instrument panel of a VLJ will look very much like those on the bridge on your yacht. The interior of your air-conditioned VLJ will provide the amenities you enjoy in a luxury automobile. Prices for VLJs range from about $1.4 million for the five-place, single-engine Diamond D-Jet to close to $3 million for the larger, twin-engine VLJs, such as the Embraer Phenom 100.

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Your decision to buy a VLJ or to use one operated by an air-taxi company (some hundreds have been ordered for this use) will be influenced by how often you plan to use the plane, the purchase price and operating cost. Cessna, with more than 4,500 Citation jets delivered, estimates the per nautical mile cost of operating its $2.62 million Mustang VLJ at $2.06 while it is in warranty (three years) and $2.28 when out of warranty.

You can fly your own VLJ. (The Cessna Citation I and II jet aircraft I have flown are in many ways easier to fly than some single-engine propeller aircraft.) However, VLJs can operate as high as 41,000 feet, flying in the same airspace as larger jets and airline aircraft while moving at better than six miles per minute. Expect both the manufacturer and the insurance company to insist that in addition to your pilot’s license (minimum private pilot, multi-engine land and an instrument rating) you successfully complete extensive training for the specific aircraft you wish to pilot. The NBAA has prepared recommended training guidelines for single-pilot operation of VLJs and technically advanced aircraft, which can be viewed at www.nbaa.org/public/ops/safety/vlj.

Civilian aircraft must be awarded an FAA Type Certificate before they can be sold and placed in service. The Eclipse 500 was the first VLJ to receive an FAA Type Certificate, although the certificate was provisional, with completion expected in the spring of 2007. Cessna’s Mustang VLJ was first to achieve full certification: single-pilot, day/night, visual and instrument flight rules, operation in reduced vertical separation airspace (above 29,000 feet) and flight into known icing conditions. The Adam

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Aircraft A700 may be the third VLJ to receive an FAA Type Certificate.

The Cessna Mustang, Eclipse 500 and Adam A700 are to be joined by the next group of VLJs, which includes the single-engine Diamond D-Jet, the Embraer Phenom 100 and the HondaJet. They in turn will be joined by the single-engine Piper Jet, Spectrum Aero Model 33, the Tam-Air Epic Elite Jet, and for the yachtsman in a hurry, the two-place ATG Javelin, which although light will require that the owner pilot be type-rated in the aircraft before he can enjoy its Mach 0.90 (faster than any airliner) maximum speed.

Is there a downside to the VLJ? Well, that depends on how you feel about the long drive to the nearest airline airport, getting there 90 minutes before boarding time, finding a place to park, checking bags, wiggling your toes when you take off your shoes before passing through the Marilyn Monroe machine that blows air up your trouser legs or skirt, and, of course, the thrill of having your belt buckle excite the magnetometer. If you miss the fun when someone tries to jam an oversize suitcase into the bin above your head, if you enjoy all those interesting people wedged in around you-then chances are there’s an airline with your frequent-flyer number on it.

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The VLJ will change the way many yachts are used. Travel time will be cut to a fraction of what is required today. The entire prospect of a weekend away will change from today’s “Is it worth the bother?” to “Let’s go. We can be on board in a couple of hours and come back whenever we want.” A very light jet will put your yacht in your backyard, even if you live in the middle of Kansas.

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