Monday, October 29, 2012

Manufacturers in race to meet need for speed

For an industry that sells itself on shaving off time spent in transit, speed is a big deal. The top speed race between old Cessna and rival US aircraft-maker Gulfstream has been settled, but velocity addicts are still awaiting deliveries of the fast jet set.

Cessna’s Citation Ten, which keeps the speed crown currently held by its predecessor Citation X model with a maximum cruise speed increased to Mach 0.935, is on track for certification and deliveries in the second half of 2013, the Kansas company says.

Gulfstream’s speedy G650 ultra-large-cabin, ultra-long-range business jet received its type certificate last month from US aviation regulators, and first deliveries will go to customers before the end of this year. The Georgia-based company has orders for more than 200 of the $64.5m aircraft, with 17 completions expected before January.

The G650 had threatened Cessna with its top speed of Mach 0.925 until the Kansas company hit back. Gulfstream claims instead the title of most advanced flight deck in general aviation, including fly-by-wire controls, visibility-enhancing systems and advanced weather radar.

Ironically, given the focus on safety features, the US National Transportation Safety Board this month increased its criticism of the circumstances that led to a fatal crash during G650 testing at Roswell, New Mexico, in April 2011, citing pressure to keep to a certification schedule. The aircraft-maker says it has, since the accident, “redoubled its efforts to strengthen the safety culture in flight-test and throughout the company”.

The safety benefits from improved navigation, control and vision systems have already cut accident rates across aviation by huge margins – and further improvements are on offer.

Such benefits are also on offer further down the speed chain. I sampled the Honeywell SmartView Synthetic Vision System piloting a rather slower Pilatus PC-12 – maximum cruise speed about 280 knots – around the mountains of Switzerland this year and the improvements in situational awareness were startling. The system made normally challenging steep approaches to tiny strips deep in the Swiss valleys easy, and even simple things, such as super-imposing range lines on to the computer-generated topography displayed to the pilot, took a great deal of guesswork out of flying.

Looking east

Cessna, the world’s largest maker of business jets by volume, could be excused for being a touch more confident than this time last year. The NetJets order in June for up to 150 midsize Citation Latitudes – 25 firm and 125 options – marks a return to ordering products from the Kansas-based company, after a previous big order from NetJets went to Brazilian rival Embraer for its Phenom light jets.

The Latitude is expected to make its first flight in 2014, with certification and first deliveries in 2015. Brad Thress, senior vice-president of the business jets division, says its range of 2,500 nautical miles will be key to its popularity.

The Citation Longitude, with a range of 4,000 nautical miles, is expected also to win interest from newer markets where range is highly prized.

Lower down in the size stakes, the Citation M2, bigger brother of the light jet Mustang, is expected to be certified in the first half of 2013, with deliveries due in the second half of the same year. Cessna says global interest is strong, particularly in markets in Europe and Asia.

Cessna is also pursuing opportunities in China, which it forecasts as being in the top 10 of business jet markets within 13 years. It is on its way to producing the Sovereign and Latitude jets for sale in China, as well as the turboprop Grand Caravan.

Hawker Beechcraft’s Chinese adventure, which ended this month when its planned deal with Superior Aviation Beijing collapsed, shows that China’s promise can be limited. Richard Aboulafia, vice-president for analysis at the Teal Group aerospace consultancy, says co-building does not guarantee market access, and is skeptical about emerging nations’ ability to transform the sector’s fortunes.

But with the US market still waiting for a sight of the approach lights that herald a tidy recovery, failing to look east would be a mistake.