Light and very light turbofan-powered aircraft are versatile and economical to operate.
By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605,
Gulfstream IV, MU2B
Buying real estate and an aircraft have at least 1 thing in common: buyers are unlikely to satisfy all their needs and wants with a single purchase, so they must compromise to some degree.
In the case of an aircraft, there always seems to be a trade-off between payload, speed, and mission. Aircraft salesmen pitch that a specific model can satisfy every need, but this panacea philosophy rarely translates to operational efficiency across a wide range of operations.
A large-cabin jet with a flight attendant, CPDLC, and satellite Internet connectivity might work well for flying several passengers non-stop across the North Atlantic.
However, that aircraft is not the ideal option for flying the CEO of a small company on a 500-mile day trip operating out of rural airports. Manufacturers want their products to appeal to a wide range of customers. As a result, niche markets are often underrepresented.
The marketing slogan “You don’t build a church for Christmas” is an appropriate analogy. The phrase refers to the fact that church attendance swells at Christmas but remains at a consistent and predictable level throughout the rest of the year, so it does not make sense to spend a bunch of money building more square footage just to increase capacity for a single day.
Profitability dictates that a company markets – or builds – for the prevailing “normal,” not the outlier. But sometimes the outlier can become a market in and of itself. The single-pilot jet movement is one such example.
Single-pilot jet market
Despite the fact that Cessna was producing single-pilot Citations as far back as the 1970s, the Very Light Jet (VLJ) craze of the early 2000s brought the single-pilot jet paradigm back to the forefront of aviation discussions.
At the time, the most vocal advocate for the VLJ or “personal” jet was Vern Raburn, founder and CEO of Eclipse Aviation. Other companies sensed Eclipse was on to something and began developing their own VLJs.
Some of the designs were unique. Epic Victory, built by Epic out of Bend OR, had only 1 engine, which was mounted on the upper fuselage at the base of the tail. Diamond Aircraft’s D-Jet had air inlets in the leading-edge wing root, which were plumbed into a Y-duct to feed its sole centerline-thrust powerplant.
Adam A700 used a twin tail boom configuration connected by a horizontal stabilizer. Owner pilots who wanted to eschew the business suit in favor of a military flight suit were attracted to the ATG Javelin, which resembled the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet.
Eventually, the legacy aircraft builders developed their own products to serve the niche. The Cessna Citation Mustang was certified in 2006, and Embraer began delivering Phenom 100s 2 years later.
Economy and VLJs
The economic decline of 2008 and 2009 left only the Mustang and Phenom unscathed. Nearly all the other VLJ builders declared bankruptcy, and those who remained in business shelved their designs.
However, the premise that a “clean sheet” jet could be delivered for under a million dollars was somewhat dubious to begin with. Those who brought products to market had deep pockets and could play the long game. In 2017, Cessna decided to end production of the Mustang.
In all, 475 aircraft were delivered. The Phenom 100 is still in production and, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), Embraer delivered 369 units between 2005 and 2018.
Both the Mustang and Phenom are being flown single-pilot in nearly all sectors. Pablo Castello-Branco, now an airline pilot, flew the Cessna Citation Mustang single-pilot for 2000 hrs while employed by a high-networth individual involved with international auto racing.
Castello-Branco flew the Mustang extensively in Brazil (the owner’s home), Italy, and the United States, and relocated the aircraft internationally several times.
Taking a single-pilot VLJ on an Atlantic crossing – albeit with fuel stops in Greenland and Iceland – is atypical, but was necessary to get the aircraft in position to support teams during the racing season.
Typical missions consisted of segment lengths of 1.5 to 2.5 hours with 2 or 3 people shuttled between racing events. The owner also has a Citation X, but he found the Mustang to be more efficient for day-to-day operation on segment lengths in the 500–600-mile range.
He liked the Mustang so much that he installed a 5000-ft grass strip at his home in Brasília so that he can walk from his house to the aircraft.
This central location allows the Mustang to reach São Paulo in just over an hour and most Brazilian cites in roughly 90 minutes. Castello-Branco points out the irony, saying, “Here’s a guy who goes fast for a living and he owns both the fastest and slowest jet Cessna makes. It turns out the slowest jet is the one he uses the most!”
Citation Mustang & Phenom 100
According to FAA registry data, Mustang owners run the gamut from individuals to charter operators and corporations.
The Phenom 100 is comparable. Quest Diagnostics – ATC callsign “labquest” – seems to be the most consistent operator of the Phenom 100, with a fleet of aircraft delivering laboratory specimens on a near-daily basis.
Quest operates its Phenoms single-pilot. Based on individual aircraft flight histories from FlightAware, a large portion of the legs are 1 hour or less – although a recent westbound leg from MKC (Kansas City MO) to SLC (Salt Lake City UT) blocked over 3 and a half hours of flight time.
There are 4 Phenom 100s registered to the State of Texas, which uses the moniker “TexDOT” (Texas Dept of Transportation) when checking in with air traffic control. Officials and employees conducting state business can fly aboard the aircraft.
As of May 2020, the Texas Department of Transportation website advertises a rate of $703 per hour for the Phenom with an additional $400 per day surcharge if a copilot is desired or warranted.
For the State of Texas, under 60 minutes seems to be the sweet spot as well. FlightAware tracking shows that one Phenom operated 10 flights between April 23 and May 14, 2020, all of which were under an hour.
One flight between CLL (College Station TX) and AUS (Austin TX) blocked a short 19 minutes.
Honda Aircraft Company is considered a newcomer to the single-pilot VLJ market. The company was formed in 2006, but its HA-420 HondaJet didn’t receive FAA type certification until December 2015. The most noticeable thing about the HondaJet is that its engines are mounted over the wings.
Maximum cruise altitude on the HA-420 is advertised at FL430 with an NBAA IFR range (4 occupants) of 1223 nm. Honda did a great job outfitting a VLJ with some finishing touches that are usually reserved for cabin-class aircraft.
Executive-style seating is standard. A large baggage area makes it versatile enough for overnight stays in addition to the shorter day trips it’s likely to fly most of the time. An optional exterior lavatory servicing panel eliminates the dreaded walk through the cabin to empty and refill the reservoir-style toilet.
A dedicated lavatory with a solid door instead of a flimsy private curtain rounds out the amenities. HondaJet Training is provided by FlightSafety International in a Level D simulator. Officially, there’s no line denoting what makes an aircraft a VLJ.
The consensus seems to be that anything below 10,000 lbs MTOW that can carry fewer than 6 passengers falls into the VLJ category. Smaller and lighter jets have advantages. They fly economically and can land just about anywhere.
A Citation Mustang burns the same amount of fuel during cruise flight that an Embraer 190 does during a single-engine taxi. A smaller footprint means it takes up less room in a hangar and can usually get away with lower ramp fees at FBOs.
The Cessna Citation M2’s MTOW of 10,700 lb technically makes it a light (as opposed to VLJ) single-pilot jet, along with the Citation CJ3+ and CJ4, which have MTOWs of 13,870 and 17,110 lb, respectively.
Pilatus received FAA and EASA certification for its PC-24 single-pilot jet in December 2017. Pilatus describes the PC-24 as “combining the versatility of a turboprop with the cabin size of a medium-light jet, and the performance of a light jet.”
Pilatus is marketing the PC-24 as a Super Versatile Jet (SVJ) – an entirely new category. Company data shows that the balanced field length for a dry, paved, sea-level runway is 2930 ft.
Landing distance under the same conditions is given as 2375 ft at max landing weight. With NBAA reserve fuel, 4 passengers, and a single pilot, the aircraft can fly 2000 miles at long-range cruise speed.
Cirrus Vision Jet
Cirrus Aircraft also created its own category for its single-pilot-operated Vision Jet. The moniker “personal jet” is designed to imply simplicity of operation, so an owner can fly it without hiring a professional pilot.
The engine is mounted on top of the fuselage and the empennage culminates in a V-tail configuration. Cirrus claims that the wingspan (38.7 ft) allows it to fit inside a 40-ft hangar typical of most municipal airports.
A published takeoff roll of 2036 ft and a landing roll of 1628 ft garner a pilot more runway options. One safety feature not seen on other jets is the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System (CAPS), which uses a ballistic parachute to return the entire airframe – and occupants – to the surface in the event of a catastrophic emergency.
Transitioning to single-pilot ops
Pilot demographics are mixed when it comes to single-pilot jets. Unless a pilot flew jets in the military, he is likely to fall into 1 of 2 categories – never having flown a jet before, or having jet experience, but only in an aircraft requiring 2 pilots.
The first group includes those not employed as professional pilots but having a desire to pilot their own aircraft. Overall experience is often a concern for the owner/operator pilot. Pilots flying under a crew concept paradigm are usually taught basic crew resource management and pilot monitoring skills.
In a single-pilot operation, there’s no one to challenge flawed decision-making, or identify, trap, and correct errors before they evolve into an undesired state. Before operating the Mustang solo, Pablo Castello-Branco had flown as part of a 2-pilot crew in corporate jets.
He points out that, even with prior jet experience, the single-pilot transition was challenging. The key to his success was twofold. The first step was having an avionics package that was designed for ease of operation and intuitive to use.
According to Castello-Branco, irrespective of the airframe manufacturer, the Garmin avionics suite was the perfect fit for a single-pilot jet. In addition to spending 5 years flying the Mustang, he flew 200 hrs in the Embraer Phenom, which sports Garmin avionics.
Being familiar and comfortable with the avionics and complementary technology, such as electronic flight bag and flight planning software, is a must for single-pilot jet operators. It all comes down to reducing workload.
Reroutes and holding are 2 of the worst clearances a pilot can get headed into a busy terminal area under instrument conditions. Before electronic charts, a pilot had to unpack, unfold, and frantically search for a phonetically dubious intersection or fix he’d never heard of, and program it into the navigation system.
The modern ability to type in the name of a fix, have it spatially displayed relative to one’s current position, and point and click seamlessly into the flight plan ensures that situational awareness is maintained and workload stays manageable.
The 2nd element in successful single-pilot jet transitions is a period of supervised operating experience. With 2-pilot crews, this happens by default. A pilot who receives training and a type rating and then joins a crew is “monitored” just by the nature of the tandem operation.
The same can’t be said of a single-pilot jet. Theoretically, after a type rating is obtained, a pilot can hop right in and fly solo. There’s an argument that insurance limitations drive experiential requirements, but given enough money – or net worth – the insurance argument becomes moot.
When the VLJ frenzy was at its peak, FAA realized the potential problems associated with lack of experience, so it restricted pilot-in-command privileges until a pilot obtained an appropriate amount of experience with a “mentor” pilot.
One of the best things about civilian single-pilot jet aircraft is that they all have a fully functioning set of dual controls. Jets like the Phenom 100 perform well and can carry decent-size payloads even with a 2nd (although not required) pilot in the cockpit.
The decision to operate single-pilot or add a 2nd pilot may ultimately come down to passenger comfort and the difficulty of the task at hand. One lesson that continues to plague aviation is that just because you can doesn’t mean you always should.