Quite possibly the perfect private plane for flying foursomes


Greg Gates was like a kid at Christmas. In fact, he was at his country club's holiday party, quietly enjoying an eggnog, when he first heard the news that quickly had him quivering with glee. His pal Bob Cecka, a longtime Delta Airlines pilot, had happened upon a new type of aircraft that he thought would revolutionize flying. He mentioned his find to Gates, a fellow member at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, and any talk of sugarplums and fairies promptly ceased. In that instant, Gates knew exactly what he wanted for Christmas: an Eclipse 500. He grasped that if what Cecka said was true about the innovative design and astonishingly low price point, he could travel hassle-free to every great North American golf course he ever wanted to play.

The Eclipse 500 is the first of a brand new breed of plane—the Very Light Jet, or VLJ—that is expected to transform the nation's skies in the next two years. The introduction of VLJs to America's airspace is predicted to spur a huge spike in jet purchases—until now the exclusive province of Fortune 500 top executives—by an entire class of folks who had previously been shut out from doing so by the prohibitive price tag. The new planes' affordability—starting at less than $1.5 million, or about $350,000 a person when split four ways—also means private jets will no longer be used primarily for business travel. Picture leaving your home in Atlanta early one Saturday morning, tossing your clubs aboard, buzzing down to the Jacksonville area to duke it out with the TPC at Sawgrass, zipping up the coast to Hilton Head for more Pete Dye fun at Harbour Town, then telling your pilot to head home so you can catch the late SportsCenter back in your own den. No airline schedules; no arriving an hour and a half early; no waiting in lines.

It took Gates less than a week to find three partners to go in with him on the plane. Glenn Hughes, Russell McCarty and Dave Laughlin are all friends and fellow Desert Mountain members. "A lot of people who live here fit the same bill as us," said Hughes, 40, an entrepreneur whose business interests have included timber, oil and gas, real estate and television. "We're semiretired and tired of fighting airports. What's kept everybody from pulling the trigger [on buying a jet] is the cost. But the Eclipse came in at a price people can afford."

Santa will deposit the Desert Mountain boys' present in March 2008, making them among the earliest VLJ owners in the world. Eclipse plans to produce eighty-seven planes this year, six hundred in 2007 and up to a thousand in 2008. The demand is such that if you have a high place in line, you may ultimately be able to sell your Eclipse 500 for double or triple what you paid.

The idea for a superlight jet sprang from the mind of former Microsoft executive Vern Raburn, who is a pilot certified to fly more than fifteen types of airplanes. He founded Eclipse Aviation in 1998 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the goal of "revolutionizing the transportation market" and has raised nearly half a billion dollars in capital to do so.

The Eclipse 500 is made for regional travel. It has a range of 1,400 miles and can cruise at 430 m.p.h. at an altitude of 41,000 feet. These statistics are comparable to the current lightest jet on the market, the Cessna CJ 1+, which is priced at $4.5 million—three times the amount of the Eclipse. Industry experts also predict the Eclipse will cost about half as much to operate as the Cessna. But price is just one of many advantages of the Eclipse 500, said Bassam Al-Sarraj, a Toronto-based aviation journalist, pilot and president of Easy Air Share, which sells fractions in aircraft. "It's economical to operate and it's an excellent investment as well," said Al-Sarraj, who was one of the few who had actually flown an Eclipse 500 as of May. "If you own an Eclipse and fill it with three buddies, it's like flying privately for the price of coach."

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."

Finally, Aimer contends that Eclipse has done things the right way, both in construction and in training. "I have an aerospace engineering background," said Aimer, whose company also runs Turnkey Management, a mechanical servicing operation for private aircraft owners. "So far, I'm impressed with what I've read and seen as far as safety. The one-piece design, which reduces the possibility of cracks, is pretty sound." He also praised Eclipse's pilot training program, performed in conjunction with United Airlines in Denver, that essentially educates a pilot from scratch, and he lauded the company for encouraging less experienced pilots to fly with a mentor pilot aboard. Then again, Aimer observed, given the amount that insurance companies such as Lloyds of London charge to insure inexperienced pilots, it can actually be less expensive to hire a veteran pilot.

Gates is one step ahead. "We know a retired commercial pilot [Cecka] who we hope to convince to fly us full-time at an hourly rate," he said. "If that isn't feasible, we will hire a pilot on a salaried basis. I would guess our yearly pilot cost will be in the $30,000 to $60,000 range." Gates and Hughes agree that the expected overall operating costs per partner will be around $60,000 to $70,000 per year, assuming the plane is bought outright and an annual individual usage of 100 to 150 hours. "The key to meeting these numbers," said Hughes, "will be keeping passengers in the plane while it's flying. In other words, cut down on dead legs."

One thing the Desert Mountain boys are not worried about is an increase in congestion at major airports; their intention is to steer their plane to prime golf treasures by using underutilized smaller airports. So where's the first place they'll go?"We won't fly together too often," said Gates. "There's not a tremendous amount of legroom and Dave is the baby of the group at six-foot-two, 230 pounds." Indeed, the other three are each six-foot-four, one of the reasons Gates, Hughes and Laughlin were motivated to make a trip to the Eclipse factory in Albuquerque three months into their adventure, to see if they could squeeze in the four of them plus golf bags. They did, with little room to spare. "That and one twenty-five-pound duffle bag each is the limit," Gates said.

There is no written plan at this time for how the foursome's plane will be shared, though no one is worried. "We hope to enlist the help of paid consultants who are experts in airplane partnerships," said Gates. "Our initial thought was that each partner would have first claim to the use of the plane on a weekly rotating basis. There will be many issues to hash out, including time-sharing, hardware options, deadhead expense allocation, etc. But we'll work it out."

Hughes, a poker buff, said his first trip will most likely be to Las Vegas to play Rio Secco, where Butch Harmon teaches. McCarty wants to go to Castle Pines in Colorado, and he promises he'll be home on time. "Last time I was at Pinehurst," he said, "there was a bridge being built and somebody got stuck in the mud on the road to the airport. I missed my plane and couldn't get out until the next day. Missing flights is no longer going to be a problem."

By Propeller We Play

A Jet Alternative: Buy and Fly Your Own Prop Plane

Short of buying a jet, what's the best way to get around to the coolest resorts in the country?For many golfers it's owning—and piloting—a prop plane. Props cost far less than jets and, because they don't require much of a runway to land, they can make use of tiny airstrips often closer to resorts than even the nearest regional airport. And it's becoming more common for high-end resorts and private clubs to have their own airstrips on-site.

Brand new single-engine props cost anywhere from $200,000 for a four-seater to $3 million and up for a big six- to nine-seat turboprop. But most new models are in the $350,000 to $600,000 range. The one I fly, a Cirrus SR22-G2, cruises faster than 200 m.p.h. and can go from my home in Austin, Texas, to Orlando, Florida, in just over five hours with one fuel stop.

To fly your own airplane you need a private pilot certificate and regular training. An instrument rating lets you fly in the clouds, making these light airplanes even more useful. Typically it takes a serious would-be pilot a couple of months of regular flying to get a rating and a couple of years to build substantial flying time and experience, though much of this can be done with the accompaniment of an instructor or mentor pilot to speed along the learning process. For further information on obtaining a license and learning to fly, the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (aopa.org) has a helpful web site. —Robert Goyer

Jet-Friendly Resorts

What do you get when you own a private jet besides hassle-free, when-you-want-it travel?Closer to your destination. Small private jets—but rarely commercial airliners—can land within minutes of many top golf resorts. Here are a few appetizing examples.

Amelia Island, FL
Regional Airport: Fernandina Beach (3 miles)
Commercial Airport: Jacksonville (29 miles)

American Club, WI
Regional Airport: Sheboygan County (10 miles)
Commercial Airport: Milwaukee (58 miles)

Bandon Dunes, OR
Regional Airport: Bandon State (6 miles)
Commercial Airport: North Bend (19 miles)

Bay Harbor, MI
Regional Airport: Harbor Springs (10 miles)
Commercial Airport: Pellston (30 miles)

Cordillera, CO
Regional Airport: Eagle County (25 miles)
Commercial Airport: Denver (125 miles)

The Homestead, VA
Regional Airport: Ingalls Field (17 miles)
Commercial Airport: Roanoke (75 miles)

Keswick Hall, VA
Regional Airport: Charlottesville-Albermarle (10 miles)
Commercial Airport: Richmond (40 miles)

Kiawah Island, SC
Regional Airport: Charleston Executive (15 miles)
Commercial Airport: Charleston (35 miles)

La Quinta, CA
Regional Airport: Bermuda Dunes (8 miles)
Commercial Airport: Palm Springs (23 miles)

Pebble Beach, CA
Regional Airport: Monterey Peninsula (10 miles)
Commercial Airport: San Jose (81 miles)

Pinehurst, NC
Regional Airport: Moore County (10 miles)
Commercial Airport: Raleigh-Durham (71 miles)

Sea Island, GA
Regional Airport: McKinnon St. Simons (5 miles)
Commercial Airport: Jacksonville (88 miles)

Sea Pines, SC
Regional Airport: Hilton Head (4 miles)
Commercial Airport: Savannah (45 miles)

Treetops, MI
Regional Airport: Otsego County (6 miles)
Commercial Airport: Traverse City (60 miles)

Troon North, AZ
Regional Airport: Scottsdale Municipal (13 miles)
Commercial Airport: Phoenix (29 miles)