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.
The Phenom 100 did not seem to follow this strategy. Instead, it pushed the envelope of the entry-level concept, offering best-in-class performance while costing substantially more than its competitor. In reality, the 100 didn’t really compete against Cessna’s new Mustang but against the company’s long established CJ, in the form of the now discontinued CJ1+. The emerging M2 model, a CJ offshoot (Model 525) but with upgraded avionics and interior, most closely matches the performance, cabin and amenities of the 100.
In addition to its performance, the 100 brought value to the equation through Embraer’s airline heritage. It’s not just talk either. This entry-level jet has integrated engine indicating and crew alerting system, fadec engines, electronic monitoring and control of all systems through its synoptics system. It does, of course, feature fully redundant flat-panel avionics, dual-channel digital flight control, dual batteries, maintenance-friendly design and brake-by-wire, all remarkable features for a jet of the Phenom 100’s class.
As advanced as it is, the Phenom 100 was designed to be a single-pilot jet — Embraer’s 450-knot Phenom 300 shares this trait. The concept of building a single-pilot light bizjet isn’t new: Cessna has been doing it and doing it well for 40 years. But the Phenom 100 has established itself in that same class. The 100 is a single-pilot-friendly airplane.
There are three main reasons for this: the avionics, the engines and the layout, the first two of which represent recent technology breakthroughs that Embraer has smartly leveraged into single-pilot goodness.
By now everyone is likely aware that the Prodigy cockpit in the 100 is an offshoot of the Garmin G1000 avionics suite. The Mustang has a G1000-based avionics installation too. Prodigy is a great fit for the 100, and for pilots like me who have some experience flying behind G1000, the transition to the jet world is pretty straightforward. Prodigy improves upon the basic G1000 functionality (though “basic” is not an apt description for it in any way) by adding checklists (a huge help for the single pilot), synoptics (when there’s an abnormal condition, these make it a cinch to find the issue), and digital flight control. I’d like to see an in-machine utility for calculating V-speeds, something other entry-level jets have, and weight and balance, though Embraer does offer a remarkably capable preflight iPad app, iPreflight by APG, that does these chores and much more. The bottom line for Prodigy, though, is that it is a remarkably powerful integrated avionics system that gives the pilot a wealth of tools for managing and controlling the flight.
On the ramp the 100 is in my opinion one of the coolest-looking small jets on the planet. It is strong, powerful and mean-looking. It’s a Maserati that seats up to eight and goes better than 400 mph. The airstair door is the best in its class, and with one-handed operation, no particular loading restrictions (a couple of people can be climbing on it at the same time) and a gorgeous high-tech look and feel, the door says “big jet” and not “VLJ.”
The straight wing of the 100 separates it from its larger light jet sibling, the Phenom 300, though its tall T-tail, fuselage-mounted engines and apparent heated wing all look like the stuff of midsize jets.
The hot wing is, of course, a nicely executed illusion. The Phenom 100 makes use of deicing boots. Embraer has gone with silver-color boots, however, to give the airplane the look of a bleed-air heated leading edge. In my book, it’s a total affectation, one that I can’t help but love with just a twinge of guilt. The electrically heated windscreen is bordered by a metal frame affixed by numerous screws. In addition to looking cool, the frame can be removed in short order, allowing mechanics to replace the windscreen in the course of a couple of hours, since no panels need to be removed to do the job. It’s just one of the many service-first design features of the 100.
Another noteworthy feature of the Phenom 100 is the trailing link main landing gear, designed to be tough and to make touchdowns predictably smooth even for new jet flyers.
Embraer didn’t build the Phenom 100 to be a commercial machine, but it soon discovered that if you build something airline tough and cost effective to operate, the commercial operators will beat a path to your ramp.
The one thing these operators have been asking for is more seating, a tall order on a small jet. Embraer, however, figured out a way to do it, adding one side-facing seat in place of the wardrobe that you see when you first enter the airplane and another by making the potty a belted seat approved for takeoff and landing. The lavatory is the best in its class as well. With a hard-side pocket door, the lav, again, is something that you wouldn’t have found on an entry-level airplane.
The result of the additional seating is, remarkably, an eight-seat entry-level jet. Eight is a lot of occupants to have in the 100, to be sure, but the charter operators who asked for the upgrade say that it’s rare for all of the folks in back to be adults. Embraer did increase the zero fuel weight substantially, by 1,320 pounds, to allow the jet to dispatch when all the seats are full.
Another change sure to be popular is an option to upgrade the seats in the club seating area with more comfortable and more configurable seats based very closely on those in the Phenom 300. The replacement option is for all four seats — you can’t do just two of them — with a weight increase of 60 pounds. Something tells me that many owners will be willing to take that hit even if they’re not the ones sitting in the back.
Up front there are a few enhancements as well, though they’re not plainly visible. The TCAS II software has been upgraded to revision 7.1, a European requirement that allows the system to change its mind after it has issued a resolution advisory to climb or descend if the conflicting airplane accidentally mirrors the move of the host airplane and climbs or descends toward it.
Another new feature is SMS text messaging through Garmin’s Iridium-connected satellite link, the GSR 56. The new utility, which is handled through the Prodigy MFD, does text messaging and an SMS version of e-mail as well. More functions and cabin access to the system will likely come soon and will possibly include global weather. These functions are available in other, select G1000 installations.
The cockpit of the 100 is a comfortable and efficient place to do the business of flying the airplane. The seats are just right, with a lot of adjustability, including an easy up and down adjustment. There’s no eye-height sighting aid to help you determine the right height to set the seat, which I’d like to see. There’s also limited recline in the seats if they are pushed back to the stops. The rudder pedals are easily adjustable, though, and you can move them forward or aft to suit your body dimensions.
One system that Embraer is working on to upgrade soon is the brake by wire, which today requires a very smooth touch. A software/hardware update is in the works to make braking smoother and more efficient and to help keep the airplane braking in a straight line. There will even be new rudder pedal geometry to help the pilot get maximum pedal throw for better stopping power. The book values for runway length will not change, though the actual performance will be markedly better than the already impressive stopping power.
Starting up the 100 is remarkably easy. There are no “gates” in the throttle throw. You simply turn a rotary knob to “start” and let the system do the work while you monitor. If there were to be a hot or hung start, the system would automatically take care of the engine shutdown. It’s the way that engine management should be: foolproof.
On a crystal clear southern California day, we headed out to give me some stick time in the 100, an airplane I’ve flown a couple of times before though not recently. In the cockpit with me was Embraer’s chief pilot, Alex Theodoro, who briefed me on the airplane and our trip from Van Nuys, up to 41,000 feet, north along the airways and then, eventually, back to Van Nuys. It was a gorgeous day. The flight promised to be a fun one.
We were pretty heavy, with three and bags aboard and a lot of fuel. With a maximum takeoff weight of 10,470 pounds available, we were right at 10,050 pounds, giving us the ability to have taken a couple more adults with us at 200 pounds apiece plus their light bags while still having the range that day, based on the Prodigy’s very handy range ring, to fly to Texas.
On the takeoff roll from 16R at KVNY with a single notch of flaps, the Phenom 100 accelerated quickly. Our calculated takeoff distance that day out of Van Nuys was right around 3,000 feet, and the rotation speed was just over 100 knots. The 100 feels quick on the runway, though it’s not hard to keep it within a foot or so of the centerline. Rotation is smooth and positive, with no tendency to overrotate.
Just as I’d remembered, the Phenom 100 hand-flies great, with smooth, solid and nicely harmonized responses. The implementation of the trim is just about right, fast enough to reassure you that something is happening without being so fast that you can accidentally overtrim.
The power lever on this fadec airplane is set up with visual presets, from idle up to max cruise, then max continuous/climb power, then takeoff go-around power and, finally, maximum power, which is essentially an emergency setting that gives you more than 100 percent rated power. There’s a bit of a detent before you can push the throttles there.
The Pratt & Whitney PW617F-E turbofans put out 1,695 pounds of thrust apiece, and they are remarkably quiet and efficient. They seem a smart choice for the 100, giving it a combination of good climbing ability, excellent fuel economy (rivaling turboprop twins), decent range and best-in-class high-speed cruise of 390 knots.
Eventually ATC cleared us up to 41,000 feet, though only after giving us an unpublished hold on an intersection off of the Avenal VOR. We were OK with that because it was an absolutely smooth day at every altitude. The only bumps we felt on the hold were when we flew through our own wake on one lap. Then there was the view: the Sierras, snow-capped and blue in the distant haze, and the far Pacific coast, shrouded in a late spring marine layer. It was vintage southern California scenery.
For long-range flights, Phenom 100 pilots usually fly their airplanes up high, and you can see why. At the airplane’s ceiling of 41,000 feet, we were indicating Mach 0.60 on a total of around 520 pounds per hour (less than 80 gph). Nice. For faster speeds you’ll want to drop down a lot and plan for cruise speeds approaching 400 knots.
On descent it was easy to keep it at just under the barber pole, which is 275 knots, which is nice for the drive down to 10,000 feet since you can cover a lot of ground quickly. We used the vertical navigation utility in the Prodigy flight deck to plan our crossing altitude of 11,000 feet on the north arrival into Van Nuys, and the controller then stair-stepped us down on the arrival. On base, however, we were still at 5,000 feet, which is 2,000 feet higher than the published segment altitude. When we asked for lower, the controllers weren’t rude. They just ignored us.
Oh, well, the gear and flap speeds are high enough for it not to matter much, happily. The flap settings went from 10 degrees to two notches of 26 degrees (there’s a difference in stick pusher logic; there’s no shaker) and then full flaps at 36 degrees. The flaps are unusual in that they deploy separately on the left and right sides, a strategy that requires software monitoring to ensure they deploy symmetrically.
Landing the 100 is straightforward. As you descend on glideslope at Vref, you’re naturally slightly nose-high. The way the engines are positioned, pulling the power to idle as you cross the numbers raises the pointy end just a bit, putting the airplane into a near ideal flare attitude — Alex said that you might want to flare “imperceptibly.” It’s almost automatic. Despite my dive-bomber approach, my landing felt just right.
I braked as smoothly as I could, but we still wandered just a little. It’s hard not to relax pressure, but with brake by wire, you need to keep strong, steady pressure. The rollout was short and pretty straight. With a little practice, I’m sure I could get the feel for the brakes just fine, though it looks as though Embraer will, with its upgrades, be taking care of much of the hard work for me.
The Embraer 100 is no longer a brand-new or unknown airplane. It’s been a good seller for Embraer, and its dispatch reliability, which was, as I mentioned, spotty early on, is now simply very good and getting better.
The airplane is a wonder, a high-tech entry-level rocket ship with a large, light-filled and comfortable cabin along with plenty of range, good speed and a ramp presence that says in no uncertain terms that you’ve arrived … even before you’ve lit the fires for the first flight of the day.