The Family-Friendly Private Jet Takes Off
BUSINESS FLIERS eager to preserve their sanity despite a Beyonce-like schedule have long justified the exorbitant expense of traveling by private jet. But shouldn’t the same cost-benefit analysis apply to your most precious asset: vacation time?
Aircraft makers are betting that at least a handful of nerve-frayed customers will think so. The market is admittedly rarefied—customers need at least a couple million to spend and the perseverance to train for a specialized but attainable pilot’s license. Still, manufacturers are investing in a relatively new category of small but fast planes, often called VLJs (very light jets), aimed at highfliers who want to quickly ferry their families to holiday destinations that would tediously take hours to reach by other means.
Cirrus Aircraft began delivering its SF50 Vision Jet, which seats five to seven people and flies at 345 miles an hour, late last year. A few months earlier, Honda Motor Co. , better known for cars and motorcycles, rolled out the HA-420, a petite six-seater with a scorching top speed close to 500 mph—not to mention big-jet features like a bathroom generously sized for an adult contortionist.
Other companies, including small-plane pioneer Cessna, have gotten on board, too, shifting their focus to the family-transport market. Unlike larger business jets generally meant to be flown by a pair of professional pilots, models like the Cessna Citation M2 and OneAviation’s Eclipse 550 have relatively simple controls and automated systems that Mom or Dad can handle solo. (Some customers hire a pro to do the flying while they do Sudoku in the cabin.)
You can save a lot of time flying a VLJ. While a summer drive to the Hamptons from Manhattan can take several hours in heavy traffic, a VLJ, soaring 20,000 feet above the crawling Fords and Chevys, can make the trip in 40 minutes. Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe? Drive eight-plus hours—or fly there in one. Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island takes at least a day to reach by car from Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Compare that to roughly 60 minutes aloft—with no need to synchronize your travel to the ferry schedule.
In many cases, taking a VLJ that goes 400 mph is even more efficient than boarding a 600 mph commercial craft; small aircraft can land at regional airports major airlines don’t serve, putting you closer to your final destination and enabling you to skip security checks.
Of course, there are prerequisites. Beyond the price of the aircraft, which start at $2 million, you’ll need the proper training. Start with a private pilot’s license in a basic, easy-to-fly propeller-driven airplane, like a Cessna 172, then move on to a faster, more powerful airplane with complex features like retractable landing gear. To fly a VLJ (or any other jet), you’ll need an instrument rating as well. Finally, specialized training for the specific type of VLJ that you buy is required.
While all that schooling may sound dreary, rest assured that, even if you’re a complete neophyte, you can be flying a jet in six months if your schedule and budget allow it.
Here are some of the personal jets seeking to replace the minivan on your next big family trip.
A proof-of-concept model of the Stratos 714 was introduced at July’s big aviation trade show, AirVenture, to much buzz. The final version of this single-engine, six-seat aircraft is slated to have a top speed of 460 mph and a 1,700-mile range. The prototype hasn’t quite reached those specs, said a spokesperson, but should as test flights continue. Built with owner-operators in mind, the Stratos 714 was specifically designed to be easy to handle, with “docile flight qualities.” The company is seeking additional funding from investors as it embarks on its next round of tests. Price TBD, stratosaircraft.com
Cirrus SF50 Vision
The design of the Cirrus Vision cleanly breaks with tradition. While most private jets typically have two engines, the Vision sports a single jet engine attached piggyback-style atop the fuselage. In the early days, plane engines were unreliable, so having two was safer than one. Today, jets rarely fail, but traditionalists (including the FAA) still prefer two-engine designs—it took some convincing to get federal approval for the Vision. If flying with a single engine gives you pause, rest assured that the Vision comes equipped with a parachute huge enough to slowly lower the entire aircraft in the event of an emergency. $2 million, cirrusaircraft.com
Cessna Citation M2
Slipping into the cockpit of a Citation M2, it’s hard not to feel like a bona fide airline pilot; the plane’s broad dashboard and beefy control yokes scream “jumbo jet.” However, this is still a small, entry-level airplane for Cessna, which has been developing its Citation business jets for more than 40 years. The M2 has an advanced iPad-style instrument panel and offers multiple automated systems to help solo fliers keep tabs on the machine without a co-pilot’s help. This is especially key in the M2, which can travel at 460 mph and has a range of 1,500 miles—the longest of the production aircraft in this group. $4.5 million, cessna.txtav.com
Instead of mounting the twin jets to the sides of the fuselage as most private jet-makers do, Honda decided to attach its HA-420’s to pylons on top of the wings. The unique design helps the plane fly faster and run quieter, while leaving room for a bathroom in the cabin, according to Honda. The company also applied decades of car-building experience and techniques to make the aircraft’s production as efficient as possible. One clear benefit: Even competitors acknowledge the aircraft’s high-end fit and finish—not to mention the category-leading top speed of 486 mph. $4.9 million, hondajet.com