Safety issues a hot topic at VLJ forum in London
Delegates at the Very Light Jet (VLJ) conference, held March 26 and 27 at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, warned that unless a range of measures are put in place, the widespread introduction of this new “phenomenon” could prove a commercial disaster. Capt. Randy Phillips of the UK’s Aviation Training Associates spoke of an accident involving a Cessna Citation CJ1 on February 13 (N102PT), in which an Internet entrepreneur and her son were killed. He referred to the accident to illustrate the potential risks of pilots being underprepared for such aircraft (even though the CJ1 is not a VLJ).
The conference included some of the top names in the VLJ industry, and “stakeholders” in areas such as regulation, insurance and air traffic control who have been trying to gauge the potential impact of thousands of VLJs poised to enter service over the next few years.
The conference speakers generally agreed that the current general aviation accident rate is totally unacceptable for the new jets, although they seemed to accept that achieving airline levels of safety is unrealistic. However, Capt. John Cox, chief executive of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consulting firm located in Washington, D.C., posed the question of what would be an acceptable rate for VLJs.
Timothy Bartos, senior underwriter with insurance provider AIG, said VLJ insurability was similar to that of existing small jets, with pilot qualifications being central. He argued for the need to see a “professional mindset” among VLJ operators. “We like to see a logical transition through various aircraft, not just a jump straight from a Bonanza to a VLJ,” he said.
Many speakers welcomed efforts by Eclipse Aviation to require rigorous training for all pilots in the operations manual for its EA500, and for adopting a flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) program in conjunction with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Kathy Abbott, chief scientific and technical adviser to the FAA, welcomed Eclipse’s new role in flight data monitoring and said she hopes other manufacturers would do the same so data from various sources could be cross-referenced. She also suggested it is “not too late for the VLJ community to think of flight deck standardization.” She warned against depending on a “virtual pilot” to help single pilots manage their workloads, arguing that it would “create a mismatch between the user’s expectations and the associate’s capabilities.”
Cox expressed his conviction that TAWS and ACAS collision avoidance systems must be installed in VLJs. His message was supported by Eurocontrol adviser George Ranga, who presented a study suggesting that if VLJs do not have these cockpit systems there could be a 30-percent degradation in the safety benefits gained by equipping airliners in busy airspace with ACAS. However, he cautioned that the air traffic management agency has only just begun a detailed analysis.
Many at the conference stressed the need for exemplary, professional-level pilot standards. Specifically, speakers urged that VLJ makers build on the upset recovery and hypoxia training introduced by Eclipse by adding topics such as high-altitude stall recoveries, handling smoke and fire in the cockpit, and training for diversions and go-arounds to ensure that crews make early decisions to avoid unnecessary descents.
FAA senior safety analyst Robert Matthews said VLJs would attract many pilots to jets for the first time, and that having a large fleet early on would “increase exposure substantially.” Usually there is a learning curve with a new aircraft type, where lessons are gleaned from accidents and the rate is brought down before the fleet has grown very large–as happened with the introduction of Cirrus aircraft starting in 2000, said Matthews.
Current and impending VLJ air taxi operations were discussed by both Peter Leiman, managing director of European start-up Blink, which is due to start operating Cessna Citation Mustangs after EBACE, and by Matthijs de Haan, managing director of ETIRC Aviation, now a part-owner of Eclipse and its European distributor. ETIRC is working with an undisclosed European airline to replace its business class with a fleet of VLJ air taxis. De Haan said he believes the move could increase the airline’s margins on business class by 50 percent, yielding a pre-tax profit of 18 percent on each flight.
Eclipse president Vern Raburn reported that Florida-based DayJet, the first VLJ air taxi operator, which flies EA500s, claims it has stimulated a new market, with 94 percent of its customers never having chartered an aircraft before and many of them becoming serial users. Commenting on the practical side of that operation, Raburn said there have been no problems attributed to the lack of toilets onboard the EA500, nor with the fact that passengers are weighed at check-in–and penalized by being banned from future flights if they lied about their weight when providing booking information.