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Resurrection In The Skies

Suppose we said that 36 months from now you'll be able to stroll down to your local "airplane mall" examine the cockpits and kick the tires on not two, three, or four -- but seven – seven brand new, fully certified, absolutely state-of-the-aviation-art Very Light Jets?

Would you believe us? Or would you double check the date of this entry to make sure it hadn't been posted on April Fool's Day. Or would you simply assume we'd gone gaga, round the bend, over the top, nutzo. Just plain crazy.

Isn't the VLJ revolution on indefinite hold, perhaps forever? Didn't most "experts" pronounce the VLJ industry dead after Eclipse and Epic imploded and so many other pretenders dropped out before even reaching the starting gate? Wasn't it all over virtually before it really got started?

As recently as January 1, it would have been hard to argue with that assessment. But January 1 was yesterday. Today, tomorrow and the future look considerably different. The skies are definitely friendlier and the horizons  brighter.

Back in 2005, in one of our very first <a href="">articles</a>, we said that "at least eight air frame makers" including Eclipse, Cessna and Embraer were designing and prototyping Very Light Jets.

So here are, almost five years later, and all three of those once futuristic personal jets are alive, well and being deployed and flown throughout the world. Yes, you read that right, all three of those aircraft. Even the much-maligned Eclipse 500, which has emerged, under its new owners, as the Total Eclipse ... total meaning that it is now being offered as a fully evolved, $2.1 million, 21st Century VLJ complete with Flight Into Known Icing certification, GPS coupled autopilot, onboard color radar, electronic moving maps and Jeppesen eCharts.

Like Eclipse, the economic environment that brought the embryonic VLJ market -- as well as the rest of the aviation industry -- to its knees is also showing signs of significant resurrection.

USB Investment Research's highly authoritative Business Jet Market Index hit 50% (on a scale of 100) in March, the first time it had reached that point in close to two years and a far cry from its low of 13% at the beginning of the recession.

More "bread-and-butter" evidence of the VLJ market's revival comes from Cirrus Jet Sales Director Gary Black who reports that the company has gone from writing about five orders a month for its $1.72 million Vision SF50 VLJ during the last half of 2009 to selling a whopping 25 during January and February. We'll do the math for you -- that's a 250 percent increase over November and December and brings the pre-sold Vision waiting list to just under 500.

Additional good news comes from Piper, which has been using the capital provided by its offshore investors to, in the words of CEO Steve Berger, "ramp up our engineering workforce by recruiting top professionals to provide the essential skills necessary to develop the PiperJet."  

Among those "top professionals" are the 38 engineers hired since January to work solely on the PiperJet. (The company plans to add 12 more high-level engineers to the PiperJet project as soon as it can find qualified candidates.)

Honda is also on a hiring binge aimed at bringing its prototype HondaJet airframes and their Honda/GE HF120 engines up to certification and production trim at more or less -- given the abilities of various sub-contractors to deliver components -- maximum speed.

As of early April, Honda was busy recruiting dozens of senior engineers (10 years-plus experience) and other aircraft design and production professionals to fill newly created positions in almost 20 key specialties ranging from avionic, electronic and electrical systems, to aerodynamics and performance, to manufacturing and quality control.

With its first conforming prototype -- which Honda says is being built to “production-level quality standards” -- scheduled to fly this summer and both the Vision and PiperJet not due to go into production until 2013, it would appear that Honda is the odds-on favorite to be the first company to put a fully certified, production VLJ on the flight line next to the Cessna Citation Mustang, the Embrarer Phenom 100 and the Eclipse 500.

But favorites don't always win and Austrian-based Diamond Aviation which has been slowly, relatively silently and apparently surely has been incubating its single-engine D-Jet VLJ "for the masses" -- or at least those masses who can afford an approximately $1.6 million dollar aircraft -- is still hoping to achieve certification (at least in Europe) and begin production of the D-Jet at its Ontario, Canada plant in early 2011.

Can Diamond beat Honda to the starting line? Maybe so. In just the last couple of economically challenged years Diamond has performed some pretty death-defying feats, most notably building and receiving EU approval of its Austro diesel-fueled aircraft engine less than a year after a major supplier of engines for its piston-powered models went bankrupt. There's also the Christian Dries factor. Diamond's iconoclastic founder, CEO and guiding spirit has already announced plans to produce a military trainer based on the D-Jet and a twin-engined D-Jet spinoff able to cruise cross-continent at 50,000 feet.

So, barring an interruption by the start World War III,  another total economic meltdown or some other act of God, it is very possible -- though not at all certain -- that you may have seven VLJs of various prices, configurations, and conceptual visions to choose from a mere 36 months from now seems.

But before you get too excited we have to warn you that you won't be able to simply fill out a credit app and fly one home -- all seven manufacturers already have firm order backlogs exceeding at least two --and in most cases more -- years of production.