The Next Little Thing

Why 2006 is the year of the very light jet.

Honda's in! As announcements go, this was a whopper. More than 15 years of development preceded Honda's decision, trumpeted at this year's Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in, to build the HondaJet. Most attentive listeners? Other jet builders. (American Honda Motor Co.)
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Before founding Avidyne in 1994, Schwinn led a global communications equipment manufacturer to achieve annual sales of $150 million before it was acquired by computer chip maker Intel. Avidyne supplies the systems to piston-engine aircraft makers Cirrus, Columbia, and Piper and to VLJ makers Adam, ATG, and Eclipse.

Integrated flight deck systems have proven immensely popular. Garmin, best known for its Global Positioning System receivers, has followed Avidyne into the market.

For Schwinn, the key to keeping integrated displays affordable is the successful application and integration of technologies developed for non-aviation industries, primarily automobiles.

“The aviation market isn’t that big,” says Schwinn. “We had to be good at leveraging technology that was originally designed for another use. So our screens are laptop screens. Our Attitude, Heading, and Reference System uses gyros and accelerometers that were built for car stability systems by the tens of millions.”

Avidyne relies heavily on an automotive high-speed, safety-critical data communications system, called FlexRay, developed by a consortium that includes automakers BMW, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors, and Ford; automotive component maker Robert Bosch; and Motorola and Phillips Semiconducters. In cars, FlexRay drives an increasingly elaborate system of sensors and actuators that control things like anti-lock brakes and automatic stability controls.

Small, efficient fanjet engines, systems that make the aircraft easier to fly, R&D money from NASA, and a small group of entrepreneurs who didn’t know they couldn’t build lightweight, cheaper jets have all come together over the past 15 years to create a resurgence in the U.S. general aviation industry. Orders have been placed for more than 3,500 VLJs, with a total market value of more than $5 billion.

About two-thirds of the orders will form the backbone of a hoped-for air taxi market: a network that could offer on-demand and affordable business travel to the nation’s 5,000 general aviation airports. The air taxi business is targeting middle managers, a market its proponents claim is ignored or ill-served by the airlines. The other one-third of VLJs will go to private pilots.

These 3,500 orders do not include any government sales. On January 30, 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense issued a Request for Information to all very light jet manufacturers, asking them to submit data on the applicability of their aircraft in a variety of roles, from pilot training to surveillance. The Air Force plans to start flight evaluations at Edwards Air Force Base, in California, by December. Another reason that 2006 is the year of the very light jet.

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