As founder and chief executive of Spectrum Aeronautical in Cardiff, Calif., Blue has been overseeing work on a very light jet that he says embodies new technologies and represents a new wave in commercial aviation.By next year, the company plans to begin flight tests needed to certify its Spectrum Independence S-33, a twin-engine jet made entirely of advanced composites.
Blue said the Independence is expected to win certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2009, even though the first prototype crashed near Provo, Utah, last summer. Both test pilots were killed.
With room for a pilot and six to nine passengers, the Independence has the cabin size and carrying capacity of a Cessna Citation, a mainstay of the general aviation industry, Blue said.
But the jet's empty weight will be roughly half that of a Citation CJ2(plus), and Blue says the Independence will be far less expensive to operate, partly because it uses smaller engines that burn about half as much fuel.
"The business jet is seen as something that is very expensive, but our corporate mission is to change that," said Blue's 33-year-old son, Austin, president of the privately held Spectrum. "Our mission is to design and manufacture a better airplane that is capable of going to more airports and costs less to operate."
At a projected cost of $3.65 million, the Independence will be more expensive than two recently introduced rivals, the Eclipse 500 and the Cessna Mustang.
The Blues contend that their technical innovations will differentiate Spectrum in a growing market for very light and less-expensive jets. Linden Blue, who also is vice chairman of San Diego's General Atomics, has acquired decades of experience in general aviation as a pilot and industry executive.
The niche is emerging at a time of increasing turbulence in the commercial airline industry, which has been wracked by soaring fuel costs, bankruptcies and delays brought on by security crackdowns.
A solution proposed by several startup companies, including DayJet, Linear Air and Pogo Jet, is an air charter business that operates like an air taxi or shuttle service. In other words, travelers could share flights between smaller airports at reasonable prices - especially in comparison to fares booked on short notice.
Linear Air of Lexington, Mass., for example, offered flights last summer from New Jersey's Teterboro Airport to Martha's Vineyard for $415 each way. Linear currently operates a 12-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan, but plans to expand operations with 30 Eclipse 500 business jets next year.
Some industry analysts question whether the cost of travel aboard such air taxis will be low enough for average consumers, or even for business travelers, who generally pay higher fares.
"There are a lot of very light jet wannabes waiting for a large market that may very well never happen," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation industry analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.
Sales forecasts for very light jets range from 300 to 500 annually, Aboulafia said. In any event, he said, "It doesn't really matter because most of that will go to the established players, Cessna and Embraer."
Analysts also wonder how travelers will view the safety record of air taxis, which have experienced an accident rate that is about 10 times higher than scheduled commercial airlines in the United States.
Robert E. Breiling, a Boca Raton, Fla., consultant who tracks aviation safety, says the record for air taxis is "kind of unfair" because it includes medical emergency flights and other high-priority travel in riskier conditions.
A more representative statistic may be the safety record for all business jets from 2001 through 2005, which was 0.55 accidents per 100,000 flight hours - or nearly three times the rate for commercial air carriers.
Spectrum's prototype would not be included, as the jet was certified as an experimental aircraft at the time of its July 25 crash.
A preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board determined that control cables for the wing flaps had been inadvertently reversed. As a result, controlling for a left roll only made the plane roll further right.
The cables had been disconnected and reassembled for work that stiffened the main landing gear, the safety board said.
Linden Blue described the accident as "a terrible wrenching experience for the entire company." Yet, he added, "If you can have any good fortune in an accident like that, it is understanding very quickly what the problem was, and knowing it had nothing to do with the design or manufacture of the airplane."
Blue contends that a chief selling point for the Independence is the extensive use of a proprietary carbon fiber material. He said it is far less expensive to build aircraft with this approach, and the design is easier to maintain and repair than other composite aircraft.
Spectrum has also developed specialized manufacturing processes that will lower production costs. For example, the company makes the fuselage in one piece using a mandrel, a machine that winds carbon fiber continuously around a central axis.
As a result, construction of the Independence airframe requires about 2,000 parts, while a comparable aluminum plane requires some 16,000 parts.
Most small jets today, including the Eclipse 500, use some composite materials. But Linden Blue maintains that the Independence has more than any other business jet in its class.
"We don't have any monopoly on the inherent qualities of carbon fiber," Linden Blue said. But Spectrum has worked closely with its manufacturing partner, Rocky Mountain Composites of Spanish Fork, Utah, to develop the jet's all-composite airframe.
"It's been an evolution of technology over the past 20 years," Austin Blue said. He noted that his father served as chief executive of Beechcraft in the 1980s, during development of the Starship, an all-composite twin-engine turboprop created by Burt Rutan, the legendary aircraft designer.
Blue, who left Gates Learjet to join Beechcraft, sought to implement automated manufacturing processes for the Starship. But executives at corporate parent Raytheon were uncomfortable with the risks. They insisted on using manual processes, and Raytheon ended production after making just 53 Starships.
Linden Blue left Beechcraft over the move but continued to work with Larry Ashton, an expert in composites who is now chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Composites.
Breiling, the aviation safety expert, said he views the rise of very light jets as a wave of the future. But he said it's expensive to get new aircraft off the ground.
In general, aircraft makers pay more than $300 million to win FAA certification for a new plane, said Jim Coyne, president of the National Air Transport Association.
About 80 percent of the airplanes that were proposed over the past 50 years made it to certification, Coyne said. And only about half of the new jets that are certificated end up meeting their market projections.
"I think everybody in our industry is thrilled that a new generation of jets is being developed," Coyne said. "But it's hard to predict how many will succeed."
Spectrum Independence; Beechcraft King Air; Cessna Citation
Cost $3.65 million; $5.01 million; $5.38 million
Seating 1 (plus) 6/9; 1 (plus) 7/15; 1 (plus) 8/8
Cruise speed 415 knots; 289 knots; 407 knots
Fuel cost $0.71; $1.45; $1.57 (per nautical mile at $4 per gallon)
Range 2,000; 1,677; 1,623 (in nautical miles)
Cabin height 4 feet, 10 inches; 4 feet, 10; inches 4 feet, 10 inches
Cabin width 4 feet, 10 inches; 4 feet, 6 inches; 4 feet, 10 inches
Cabin length 18 feet; 21 feet, 2 inches; 17 feet, 6 inches
Payload 2,000 pounds; 2,470 pounds; 1,805 pounds
SOURCES: Business & Commercial Aviation 2006 Purchase Planning Handbook; Spectrum