Who Says a Jet Can't Be Cheap?
Gerry Merrill says he can build you one for $150,000.
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, March 2008
(Page 2 of 5)
Merrill estimates the cost of a production engine at $44,000, about the same as the price of current piston engines of similar power. But the estimate is dependent on a production run in the thousands.
The other aircraft in the Merrill line have similarly surprising numbers. A four-seater powered by an 800-pound-thrust engine could hit 280 mph, and get up to 22 mpg. That's better fuel economy than current four-seat prop airplanes, which fly 100 mph slower. Merrill figures such an airplane, once in large-scale production, would cost about $450,000, roughly the same as a current Cirrus SR22-GTS four-seater. He estimates that his single-seater, weighing just 320 pounds empty, would cruise at 220 mph, get 55 mpg, and cost just $150,000.
Emmett Kraus, a retired manager of advanced design at Cessna, thinks Merrill's calculations are more than just wishful thinking. "He knows what works and what doesn't," says Kraus. "His program makes a lot of sense. I've studied his performance and pricing claims, and I think they're pretty reasonable. With all his hands-on experience in the industry, he's in a better position than most startups to accurately predict his prices. By far."
His slick airplane designs notwithstanding, Merrill's engines alone would seem to have the potential to revolutionize personal flying. It's an industry axiom that engines beget airplanes, and history suggests that if Merrill can ever get the engine built, the airframe makers will come, in droves. For the past 35 years, every time the jet engine bar has been lowered, the smaller, cheaper jet that results quickly becomes the fastest-selling ever. In 1971, it was the Pratt & Whitney JT15D and the Cessna Citation. In 1993, it was the Williams FJ44 and the CitationJet. Today, it's the Pratt & Whitney 610 and the Eclipse 500.
As a kid growing up in Michigan during World War II, Merrill was obsessed with aviation. At age 12, his design for a 50-passenger turboprop won a prize from Air Trails magazine. Mesmerized by a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star at a post-war airshow, he decided he'd rather help create fantastic jet airplanes than fly them.
Merrill was hired by General Electric right out of high school, and went to work as a draftsman in the engine development department. At night he attended the University of Cincinnati, and by day he worked on the GOL1590, a prototype jet fighter engine that spawned the J79, which powered the F-104 Starfighter, F-4 Phantom, B-58 Hustler, and A-5 Vigilante. Then came gigs at Chrysler, Curtiss-Wright, and Smith-Morris, a jet engine component supplier. In 1963, he took a job as a senior design engineer at Teledyne CAE, at the time the leading U.S. manufacturer of small jet engines. He and Tom Foster, a designer who'd been a student of jet propulsion pioneer Frank Whittle in England, became Teledyne's preliminary design department.
It was here that Merrill first launched his quixotic quest to create a small turbofan for private airplanes—and where he first felt the sting of rejection and betrayal. In 1966, Foster and Merrill started work on a small general aviation jet engine. Their design for a 1,300-pound-thrust turbofan with a bypass ratio of 3:1 was a radical departure from the general aviation jet engines of the day—noisy, fuel-hungry turbojets with around 3,000 pounds of thrust. When Foster and Merrill first pitched their idea for a quiet, fuel-efficient turbofan to Cessna, the company was interested. But Cessna president Dwayne Wallace kept asking for more power, Merrill says, and the proposed Teledyne engine eventually grew to 2,100 pounds.
But then, according to Richard A. Leyes' book, The History of North American Small Gas Turbine Aircraft Engines, "Wallace...called Bill Gwinn, president of United Aircraft Corp., explaining that Cessna wanted to build a small jet, and that they wanted a Pratt & Whitney engine on it. Gwinn then called Pratt & Whitney Canada president Thor Stevenson, and the next day P&WC engineers were designing their first fanjet engine."