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The Golf Jet

There's nothing revolutionary looking about the Eclipse 500. It's just a small jet, thirty-three feet long, with a wingspan of thirty-seven feet. It weighs only 5,600 pounds—about the heft of a Chevy Tahoe and 1,400 pounds less than the Cessna jet. Inside, it has a low ceiling (barely four-feet high) and five seats: two up front and then three staggered single seats, although there's an option for a sixth. The seats are draped in leather of either a light or dark khaki color; the feeling boarding a VLJ is more Lexus than Lufthansa. The rest of the interior is fairly conventional—tray tables, cup holders and luggage space—until you look in the cockpit. The dashboard features a non-jetlike LED display, which helps control costs thanks to its reliability and ease of maintenance. If it looks familiar, it should: It was designed by BMW and resembles the interior of the 7-series.

Equally impressive to Al-Sarraj is the structural quality of the airplane. "It's light yet strong," he enthused. "It's a small plane that feels like a big plane. The special welding, the seamless connections—it's just solid."

Among the innovations used in the design of the Eclipse 500 are friction-stir welding, the PhostrEx fire suppression system, electromechanical actuators and digital electronics with integrated software—a lot of jargon but impressive enough to earn the National Aeronautic Association's 2005 Robert J. Collier Trophy "for the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America." The prestigious ninety-five-year-old award was presented to the company "for leadership, innovation and the advancement of general aviation" in the production of VLJs. Previous winners of the trophy include Orville Wright, Howard Hughes, Chuck Yeager and the crew of Apollo 11.

Still, some experts urge caution, stating that as promising as VLJs look, especially the Eclipse, it will take time to see whether the positives will outweigh the negatives. "I have mixed feelings about the VLJ phenomenon," said Ross Aimer, CEO of California-based air-travel consulting firm Aviation Experts, who spent forty years as a commercial pilot. "It's a great tool that seems to appeal to the Hummer-driving crowd. Golfers are the perfect market. They have the money, the smarts, and they're tired of taking off their belts and shoes at commercial airports. For four guys going from Scottsdale to Pebble Beach, this is perfect."

Nevertheless, Aimer cautions that none of the VLJs are certified yet and that they've already had several recent setbacks, including the anticipated FAA certification for the Eclipse 500 being delayed until late summer. He is also concerned about the single-pilot concept, especially if that pilot is inexperienced. "Flying isn't that hard; it's the automation that can mess you up," he said. "I feel like it's better to have the input of four eyes and two heads for safety's sake." Aimer's final red flag, which has been noted by many in the industry, is that the sheer volume of expected VLJs could overtax air traffic controllers (ATCs). "The ATC just sees a dot on a radar screen," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's one person in that plane or 350. They've got to deal with it. Hopefully, future technology advances in the ATC system will help." Superlight jets could increase traffic at metropolitan airports by up to 25 percent from present levels, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, adding that the FAA expects about five thousand VLJs to enter service within the next ten years. (In addition to the Eclipse 500, three other companies have models in the works).

Despite concerns of overcrowded skies, Aimer remains bullish on the future of VLJs, not only for private ownership but with their anticipated widespread use in regional air-taxi services. "Eventually the Eclipse will become the Volkswagen of the air," he said. "Originally it was to sell for less than $1 million. They had early engine issues that drove the price up, but even now, at $1.5 to $1.7 million, it's still very affordable when you're marketing it to folks who spend $100,000 to $150,000 on a car."

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