For some people a Boeing Business Jet is the ultimate status symbol, for others it is a business tool but for a few it is nothing less than a second home. Boeing realised that wealthy individuals and corporate CEOs who spend months each year travelling could use the space offered by the BBJ, a converted 737 airliner, to create a flying home-away-from-home.
It is late afternoon in the Kalahari Desert. In the distance, silhouetted against a National Geographic sunset is an airship. It is the length of a football field and it is cruising a few hundred feet above the parched soil. Below: giraffe and antelope scatter. But this is not a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. De Beers, the diamond company, is using a new generation of Zeppelins right now to prospect for diamonds in southern Africa.
The latest Zeppelin NT airship made its maiden flight in 1997. (Don’t say blimp – airships have a skeleton under their skin.) Since then Zeppelin have built two more in Friedrichshafen in south Germany, where the first ever Zeppelin took flight in 1900. One is being used by De Beers, another is in Japan, and the third is used for sight-seeing flights around Lake Constance near the factory, and was recently employed by the German authorities to police the soccer World Cup. A fourth airship is currently under construction.
It is possible to buy your own Zeppelin. The list price is €8.5 million, plus the cost of ground equipment such as mast trucks. “It’s like operating any aircraft,” says Thomas Brandt, the manufacturer’s CEO, “you need maintenance, certification, pilots but it is normal aerospace business.” Once ordered, a new airship takes about 18 months to build – plenty of time to get the pilots trained up.
This isn’t your grandparent’s airship. The Zeppelin uses three engines to reach a maximum speed of 125km/h. It can hover like a helicopter and dock and undock under its own power – no need for dozens of men with ropes anymore. The company has also dispensed with explosive hydrogen as a lifting gas in favor of inert helium. No more Hindenburgs.
The airship’s gondola can carry 12 people plus two pilots. BMW hired one to tour ten German towns. The aircraft carried the carmaker’s logo across Germany and it took nearly 2,000 VIP passengers for short flights. This is an eye-catching form of publicity.
Life for most of Zeppelin’s aircraft is a mix of pleasure flights, airborne surveillance and BMW-like charters. Brandt reckons it is possible for a well-managed Zeppelin to pay its way like this. De Beers, however, shipped one to Africa and use it for something altogether more serious: hunting diamonds. They removed all the club class seats and replaced them with sensors and instrumentation.
It is an ideal survey platform because it has less vibration than a light aircraft and can stay aloft for up to 24 hours. Advanced instruments, including one originally developed for the US Navy to hunt Russian submarines, scan the geology beneath the Earth’s surface for Kimberlite. These buried volcanic pipes hint at the presence of diamonds.
The De Beers Zeppelin is based in Botswana at the Jwaneng diamond mine because the best place to look for new diamonds is near an existing field and the gravimetric sensors are particularly effective in areas that are known to be promising.
It operates a few hundred feet above the ground flying up and down track lines like a grounds keeper mowing a football field. The slow speed and low vibration generate high quality data. David Hatch, a De Beers geophysicist, says: “As well as being fun – you get to fly around in an airship – it’s also been a huge technical success.”
Embraer’s Phenom 100 is the latest entry into the increasingly crowded ‘very light jet’ (VLJ) marketplace. These small personal jets promise to bring private jet luxury to a much wider audience. Embraer touts the Phenom 100’s generous cabin, impressive performance and reliability – but can it compete with its main rivals, the Eclipse 500 and Cessna’s Citation Mustang?
All three aircraft have broadly similar performance. The Phenom is the fastest of the three, while the Mustang claims the edge on range and the Eclipse has the shortest takeoff and landing distance. However, for most owners on most flights these relative differences are so modest as to be unimportant. The choice comes down to other factors: how soon you can get your plane, how much it costs, how comfortable it is and how you feel about the manufacturer.
Price is straightforward. Today [this article was originally written mid-2006] the Eclipse costs $1.47m, the Mustang $2.4m and the Phenom 100 is $2.75m.
The Eclipse and Mustang are likely to be certified later this year, whereas the Phenom 100 was only launched last year and has yet to take to the air. However, being late to the game isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. The Phenom’s competitors have very long waiting lists. Ironically, if you order a plane today, you may get a Phenom 100 first.
“I think the Phenom isn’t trying to go head to head on acquisition price and operating cost. Their selling point is size,” says David Wyndham, Vice President of Conklin and de Decker, an aviation consulting and research firm. In fact, it compares well with the $4.3m Citation CJ1+, a plane in the larger ‘entry-level’ category.
Compared to the Eclipse and Mustang, the Phenom’s cabin is taller, wider and significantly longer. The extra space means more legroom, as well as a wardrobe and refreshments cabinet. The four passenger seats are arranged as two pairs facing one another with fold out tables in-between. In other words, the BMW-designed interior will look like a small but conventional business jet. The main baggage hold is a generous 45 cubic feet – enough for golf clubs or skis, and nearly twice the volume of the Eclipse’s.
Of the three, only the Phenom has a conventional toilet with a solid door. The others make do with curtained-off potties. In the Eclipse, even this inconvenient convenience requires you to sacrifice a seat. If you make long flights, a private toilet is a bonus for modesty and comfort.
The Phenom 100 shares avionics and design features with the higher-performance, six-seat $6.65 million Phenom 300, which is due to be certified in 2009. While the Phenom 100 will appeal to owner-pilots, the 300 is targeted at corporate flight departments, charter and fractional operators.
Cessna is an established private jet player with a good support network, and Eclipse is a well-funded start-up. Embraer’s heritage is different. The Brazilian company makes regional airliners and military planes. It’s not a familiar name but with 17,000 employees and $3.5bn in revenues it is, in fact, the world’s fourth-largest aircraft company.
“This market is underserved in terms of reliable and robust aeroplanes,” says the company’s Luis Carlos Affonso, “but we have lots of experience in designing planes for 3,000 hours’ flight per year.” Affonso hopes that the company’s airliner heritage should mean greater reliability. To back this up the company will offer a fixed-fee maintenance agreement that will take the risk and hassle out of keeping the plane in tip-top condition.
Analysts concur. “As an established aircraft manufacturer, Embraer has a strong advantage over the new players. Specifically, they have a superb sales and support network, and a proven record of delivering aircraft,” says Richard Aboulafia, a vice president and respected aviation analyst at the Teal Group. His only complaint: “who convinced them that Phenom was a great brand name?” If you can get past the name, you could be looking at the most spacious and reliable of the new breed of small jets.
Note: an edited version of this article, also written by Matthew Stibbe, appeared in The Robb Report .
Check out this panoramic, high resolution image of the A380 cockpit: http://www.gillesvidal.com/blogpano/cockpit1.htm. Awesome.