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That ain't gonna fly.

When I asked an executive of Diamond Aircraft why the D-Jet wouldn't be certified above 25,000 feet, he said simply, These jets will rarely go above that. By these jets, he meant all very light jets (VLJs). Rarely go above FL250? Why then are the Eclipses, Mustangs, and A700s all targeting ceilings of 41,000 feet? It sounded like the folks at Diamond were saving some bucks by certifying a single-engine design with a limited ceiling and then justifying it with a claim that the higher-flying VLJs were out of touch with reality. After a bit of digging, it seems the reality is somewhere in-between.

Controllers tell me that there isn't much of a conflict now between the slow high-fliers--TBMs, Citations, King Airs, and the like--and the airline jets. Most of the turboprops and slower jets are below PL240. From FL240 to the low 30s the commuter jets and G-V crowd is moving faster and anyone who can't maintain over 350 knots isn't welcome, at least in busy airspace.

Above FL330 the ante ups again and you'd better be giving your speed as a roach number to play. Newer, more-efficient airline jets are flying faster and higher than ever before, often at PL410. In the words of one controller, "The VLJs will be competing for the same airspace as airliners. And they'll lose."

Not only will the VLJs cruise slower than ATC can comfortably work in with 737-800s, they won't climb fast enough. In fact, the controllers I spoke with pegged low climb rate as a bigger hurdle in working small airplanes than outright cruise speed. Slow climb rates hurt two ways: There is more time spent worrying about a conflict as the small jet lazily crosses the cruising altitudes of other jets, and the climbing jet has an even lower groundspeed than it would in cruise so it's angle of climb is unusually steep.

Our route structure is ready to create another snag here. If you're flying a small jet from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Cheyenne, Wyo., you're not competing for any busy jet routes. But taking the air taxi from Tebeboro, N.Y., to Gary, Ind., is the same thing as flying from LaGuardia to O'Hare as far as airspace is concerned.

Will controllers try to work the VLJs into the flow? Of course they will. But when space gets tight, it'll be the two-pilot, professional crews moving 200 passengers that'll get preference. It's nothing personal. It's just that the VLJ will be the odd-man out. Maybe when there are as many VLJs on J70 as there are taxis on Park Avenue they'll get a slice of sky to call their own--but it won't be up at FL410. Until then, the first VLJs will only get to strut their stuff across the sparsely populated regions of the sky. Elsewhere they'll be slogging it out in the upper 20s, seeing the worst of the weather, and burning more fuel for less speed than the brochure promised.

The flying public might be ready for the VLJ and point-to-point air taxi, but inside our current ATC system the reality may fall far short of the marketing copy.

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Title Annotation:REMARKS
Author:Van West, Jeff
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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