Very Light Jets: Affordable to Fly and Maybe to Buy
Eclipse Aviation's EA-500 has garnered more publicity than any other very light jet and its developer Vern Raburn is widely regarded as the motivating force for the new breed of VLJs.
Credit: Eclipse Aviation.

Since the dawn of the jet age the ultimate idea of luxury for many people has been to own a private jet, but for almost everyone the dream has been far beyond financial reach.

Now, however, the dream of owning a private jet--or at least flying regularly in one--looks achievable, thanks to innovative new airplane designs and technologies.

The price may still raise eyebrows for many, but if you have about $1.5 million and plenty of time for some pretty intense pilot training, a personal private jet is well within reach.

You might think that still sounds like a lot of money, but it's nowhere near as much as you previously would have had to pay for a new, high-altitude private jet able to fly you a thousand miles in just three hours.

Now, a new class of small jets is coming to market. Most are designed for single-pilot operation, though to qualify for solo flying, inexperienced jet pilots must undergo intensive training followed by a period of supervised flying with a professional 'mentor pilot.' The mentor will advise on technique, monitor performance and recommend additional training as needed.

The very light jet--or VLJ, in industry-speak--is so cheap in business aviation terms that it's affordable to the merely well-off and is not purely a very rich person's plaything or the exclusive privilege of a big-company CEO.

About a dozen companies are developing VLJs. New-aircraft prices vary from the $1.36 million that Diamond Aircraft is asking for its five-seat D-Jet to around $3 million for some seven-to eight-passenger VLJs.

While the Ontario, Canada-built D-Jet is the cheapest VLJ, other models may become better known. One is the Cessna Citation Mustang, the new baby of the Citation bizjet range.

Cessna has built thousands of Citations over the last 36 years but the Mustang is a new design. The first customers are now receiving their Mustangs for around $2.6 million apiece.

Another VLJ is the HondaJet, a seven-seat jet being built in North Carolina by the big car maker as its first foray into the business aviation market. The Brazil-based airliner manufacturer Embraer is developing a seven-seat VLJ, the Phenom 100.

Even better known is the Eclipse Aviation EA-500. Eclipse was only established in the late 1990s, but its founder Vern Raburn--an early-days senior Microsoft executive close to both Bill Gates and Paul Allen--quickly achieved cult-like status among private flyers with his promise to build a jet costing under $1 million.

Raburn's vision hasn't turned out quite that way, since his aircraft now costs over $1.5 million. Eclipse has also had teething troubles and delivered the first EA-500 in recent months, rather later than planned. (It isn't the only VLJ manufacturer to experience early problems: The first Citation Mustangs suffered from avionics software glitches.)

But Raburn is seen as the father of the VLJ. At Eclipse, he created a formidable marketing machine that has garnered a wealth of publicity for the EA-500 and the VLJ concept.

"Vern is not the first person to build or even propose a light jet," said Nigel Moll, editor of the monthly edition of business aviation bible Aviation International News.

In 1977, entrepreneur Tony Fox proposed the Foxjet 600 five-passenger jet and built full-scale models, Moll noted. But neither the Foxjet nor Ian Chichester-Miles' four-seat Leopard (flown in England in 1988) were produced.

"What Vern is, is the motivator for the current crop of them," said Moll. "Various crucial things converged ... and Vern figured it was time to take a big step."

Particularly crucial were the development of small jet engines to power VLJs and business travelers' increasing dissatisfaction with airline flying after 9/11.

Even if you can't afford a private jet, you might soon be able to afford to take a business trip on one. The affordability of VLJs has inspired a clutch of new companies that plan to offer short-haul service linking local airports throughout the United States and Europe.

These operators are trading on the idea that business travelers will pay first class-plus fares for the convenience of avoiding long security lines at airline hubs and flying to their meetings and back inside a day. They have developed different business models that vary from whole-aircraft charters to booking individual seats on nearly a scheduled-service basis.

The first, DayJet, plans to begin flying in June, offering on-demand, per-seat service in Florida aboard Eclipse EA-500s.

But take note: Some of the smaller, less expensive VLJs such as the EA-500 don't have toilets. Ask what plane you're flying before ordering that cup of coffee at the airport.