The Phenom 100 sitting on the ramp at Clay Lacy Aviation in Van Nuys, California, looked for all the world like a Brazilian airplane, but it wasn’t, at least not entirely. It was, in fact, the second Phenom 100 to be assembled in the United States, at Embraer’s impressive facility in Melbourne, Florida. The Melbourne site is testimony to Embraer’s commitment to jumping into the North American market with both feet, providing airplanes assembled here of components that are largely U.S. sourced.
It seems like longer than five years ago that Embraer earned certification for its Phenom 100 entry-level jet, which had been announced just a few years earlier. The launch of the program was done at the height of the very light jet (VLJ) craze, back when the energy of Eclipse was still powering great interest in the segment and before it became clear that the concept of the VLJ category was largely a product of hype. Two companies that were inspired to build new sub-10,000-pound airplanes, Embraer and Cessna, both rejected the VLJ label, claiming their new entry-level jets, the Phenom 100 and Mustang, respectively, were simply new Part 23 models and not an attempt to create any kind of new category. It’s clear in hindsight their approach was conservative and largely conventional. Both airplanes are no-compromise jets that just happen to be at the light end of the spectrum. And despite a challenging market, both airplanes have enjoyed strong sales over their still short histories.
While Cessna was, at the launch of the Mustang, a longtime light jet manufacturer, the Phenom 100 broke new ground for Embraer. It was, indeed, a remarkable achievement. Even though it’s been only a few years since the 100’s entry into service, many people have forgotten that the jet was the Brazilian airline maker’s first foray into a purpose-built bizjet. The company is no newcomer to turbines. It’s been building airliners for decades and pioneered, along with Bombardier, the regional jet concept. Its first bizjets were derivatives of its airliners. The large-cabin Legacy 600 was fast, roomy and priced right. Its luxurious Lineage 1000 was a bizjet spin-off of one of Embraer’s larger regional jets. But it had yet to build a bizjet from a clean sheet. The 100 would be its first try.
While there were the expected growing pains, the effort was a success. Embraer’s completion of the project on time and on performance signaled that Embraer was not just a new bizjet player but one that is not to be taken lightly either. At the same time, there were early maintenance issues with the Phenom 100 — problems with the brake-by-wire system, flap computer and air-conditioning system — causing headaches for early owners. By all appearances, those problems have been solved. Moreover, Embraer’s response to the issues highlighted the company’s intense commitment to making things right, to doing whatever was necessary to get their customers’ airplanes back in the air. It signaled clearly Embraer’s commitment to being a major player. And no one questioned the underlying quality of the Phenon 100, despite the teething pain. Owners love the airplane.
Following the 100, Embraer quickly earned certification for its Embraer 300 large-light model. And a remarkably advanced midsize model, the Legacy 500, is closing in on first flight and a 2013 certification date. The 500 features fly-by-wire flight controls, industry leading projected performance and an enviably large cabin.
The modus operandi for Embraer had been to compete with established bizjet makers by offering more value — larger cabins, faster speeds and better loads — for less money. The Legacy, for instance, was marketed as a super-midsize airplane but really competed against large-cabin models while costing millions less.