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So What's All This about VLJs?

by Mary Pat Baxter
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

They're definitely coming'. the Cessna Mustang, Eclipse 500', Embraer Phenom, ATG Javelin, and Diamond D-Jet. Cirrus is developing a 'personal jet' and Piper has one in the works too. Take a look at some of the manufacturer's Web sites; these are some pretty impressive and no doubt fun to fly aircraft.

What is a VLJ?

A VLJ is a Very Light Jet, generally under 10,000 lbs., with four to six seats (including pilot seats), speeds of about 300+ knots, capable of flying at altitudes of up to 41,000 feet.

Don't you have a better definition than that?

We hesitate to define these aircraft specifically and slap a label to that definition. This segment of aviation is so new and has already changed so much with ever-smaller entrants in the arena that any definition would probably quickly become obsolete. In the past we've categorized aircraft by their size, weight, or number of seats. It's becoming increasingly clear that perhaps size doesn't matter and maybe the operating environment would be a better means for grouping aircraft. It's something we would consider if we start making rule changes in this area.

What role is the FAA playing in the development of VLJs?

This exciting new aspect of aviation affects many lines of business within the FAA, such as Certification, Flight Standards, Air Traffic, and General Counsel. In June of 2005 we established a cross-organizational group to make sure we define and address all potential issues and coordinate our efforts where needed. We broke the group into committees to address specific areas such as pilot training, inspector training, maintenance, air traffic, etc. The whole group of about 30 representatives meets about once every six weeks so we can share what we're doing and coordinate our efforts where areas overlap. We usually meet by telcon since we're scattered across the country.

Can VLJs really be operated by a single pilot?

The manufacturers are designing these aircraft to be certificated for single pilot operation. As of the date this article is being written, no VLJs have received final certification, but Eclipse and Cessna expect to achieve it this year. There may be an initial second in- command requirement, a 'pilot mentor' requirement, or other requirements mandated by the manufacturer or insurance companies depending on the pilot's experience level. The FAA will be conducting the Flight Standardization Board (FSB) for the Eclipse' in mid-June. This is basically where a group of FAA inspectors, led by a Chairman from the Aircraft Evaluation Group, goes through the training for the aircraft, takes type rating tests, and makes any recommendations as far as training or pilot certification requirements. So that's the step in the certification process where pilot requirements are finalized.

Is the FAA going to require specific pilot training?

As noted above, final requirements for training will be determined during the FSB. However, here's what we're expecting:

Training will be done under the FAA Industry Training Standards (FITS) concept. We are working with industry as they develop scenario-based training programs for acceptance under FITS. Go to http://faa.gov/education_research/training/fits for more information on FITS. Manufacturers may also specify in the limitations section of their airplane flight manual that certain training be accomplished in order to act as pilot-in-command of the aircraft.

Because the VLJs are turbojet powered aircraft, a type rating is required and pilots will be tested in accordance with the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) and Type Rating Practical Test Standards (PTS). The FAA is in the process of beefing up these PTS to include more aeronautical decision-making (ADM), single pilot resource management (SRM), and a greater emphasis on performance analysis and scenario-based testing.

What about the National Air Space? Are these aircraft going to 'blacken the sky' and clog up the system?

Not likely, especially in the near term. First of all, these aircraft are designed to utilize smaller runways with takeoff and landing distances in the 2,000-5,000 foot range. It's expected that they'll be utilizing the regional airports and not adding to the already congested hub airports. Initially it's expected that there may be 100 VLJs by 2006, then perhaps about 500/year within several years of introduction.

However, estimates range from 5,000 units by 2020 to 15,000 units by 2020, so that's a pretty hefty increase. Through the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS), the FAA has already begun to prepare for this longer-term increase and potential capacity issues not only from the VLJs, but all aspects of air traffic. You can read more about NGATS at www.faa.gov/nextgen.

Well, what about mixing with faster airplanes, both at altitude and in terminal areas?

While some of these aircraft are certified to operate at 41,000 feet, it is expected that because of their range (about 1,100 plus nm) they'll be utilizing the mid-altitudes of about 20,000 to 25,000 feet. Pilot training and testing will emphasize operations in complex airspace and with much faster aircraft to mitigate any problems in this area. Through the work of our cross-organizational group, all aspects of Air Traffic (en route, terminal, systems operations, tactical operations, training, etc.) are very much in tune with the capabilities and limitations of the aircraft and will be very well prepared for their entrance into the system.

Will all VLJs have glass cockpits?

So far, that's what it looks like. The Eclipse even takes this a step further; integrating many aircraft systems into the Avio system they are designing into their aircraft.

So will the average GA pilot be able to fly a VLJ?

Price ranges are from about $1.4 million to about $2.7 million, so they're really not much more expensive, and in some cases less expensive, than some of the light twins or small turboprops. So'if it's in your budget and you've got the discipline to successfully complete the rigorous training program and pass the type rating check, you too can pilot a VLJ!

Mary Pat Baxter is an Aviation Safety Inspector in Flight Standards Service's General Aviation and Commercial Division and the Program Manager for VLJs.