Monday, February 16, 2009

Light Jet: a taste of private travel

For a recent trip to Stuttgart (work, not pleasure, although I enjoyed it so much it might as well have been a holiday), I left the world of scheduled flight, and instead of the usual 737/A320, traveled by light jet - a Cessna 525B Citation CJ3. Although I've been on private (unscheduled) flights before, it has always been for short, informal flights in uncontrolled airspace - and very definitely not in light jets, but small prop-driven craft, most older than I am.

Starting at the airport, this experience was definitely a little different; not quite as nice as the General Aviation hop-in-and-away-we-go, but I did get a handler to walk the "PAX" through crew security, and then, on the ramp, a minivan waiting to carry the PAX to the 'plane, where the co-pilot placed my luggage and my jacket carefully in the rear cargo bay (whose carrying capacity is probably pretty similar to my car's). I began to feel a little over "sir'd" and over-cosseted.

Sir's plane awaits

On-board, aeronautic realities - i.e., planes need to be sleek - came up hard against passenger expectations; passenger seats are comfortable, but convey a sense of having been squeezed in - six in the usual forward-aft configuration with small folding tables between the facing pairs, and two more facing port and starboard respectively, one in the windowless rear, one just inside the door, where I sat - giving me the benefit of a window behind my head, plus the one in the door, plus a pretty good view through the windscreen, the cockpit being more or less continuous with the cabin. This felt to me a lot like a boat interior - the same conflict between the available space and the level of comfort the occupants want to achieve. This 'plane came without a loo, a configuration that is more or less reasonable, based on typical four-hour endurance. Flying like this is definitely a luxury- but the luxury is in the freedom of traveling where and when one chooses, at a time that suits.

Half-bulkheads separate cabin and cockpit; these also provide the only interior storage, and on this plane, included the tiniest fridge I've ever seen (just large enough for a few half-bottles of champagne, as I discovered). A lack of fridge space is probably a blessing in disguise in a 'plane with with a four-hour endurance and no loo, however...

I did try working on my laptop, but in my (comfy) jump seat, this wasn't easy - the fold-up tray on a standard airliner would really have helped. Eventually, I gave up on work, and, instead, primed by my perusal of the excellent Aviatrix blog, bombarded the friendly skipper with questions on instrumentation, navigation, redundancy, and anything else I could think of. The cockpit instrumentation really impressed me - a considerable step up from the last instrument panel I saw close-up. Three big colour displays can show nav points, aircraft attitude, engine and fuel burn stats, collision avoidance data (plotting the beacons of other planes - nothing for migrating geese just yet, who so far refuse to carry the necessary transponders), weather radar. A nice detail is that the nav plotter knows, literally, the lie of the land all over Europe, and thus can squak a "terrain!" warning if the pilot seems in danger of fluffing the approach to some interesting valley runway.

Independent power buses, generators and batteries give a reassuringly high level of redundancy. The mechanics of the plane are nice too - a tank in each wing can be switched to feed either engine, or both. I asked about icing; turns out those little jets have hot air to spare - so it is routed into the leading edge of the wings, heating them to boiling point. Pretty nifty. I asked about range: this little bird holds two tonnes of fuel in her wings, which give her about four hour's endurance with full passenger load at a sensible cruising height (40,000ft, say). Crouched (not much headroom) behind the pilots, I could watch the digital display as the fuel burned, and see an instantly-updated prediction of remaining fuel at destination. Cruising at around 400 knots, a lot of ground can be covered with that fuel load - at a rate of about €2,000 per hour - which, while not quite bargain basement, struck me as pretty reasonable, especially if you have 8 passengers (although their weight will affect the range).

A day later, a fresh crew took me home to the city by the sea early enough for a normal evening at home after working a full office day overseas; we flew very nearly a great circle course home, chasing a truly beautiful sunset west at 40,000ft. For now, I won't be making a habit of flying this way, but here's hoping the coming of the Very Light Jet will make this kind of travel more routine.

P.S. Estimating my carbon footprint for the journey, I find that my flight was surprisingly efficient - according to my back-of-the-envelope sums, my own car would have emitted nearly as much as my share of the jet's emissions.

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