We Fly: Embraer Legacy 500

As promised, Embraer's technological wonder is a game changer.

Embraer Legacy 500 Feature

Embraer Legacy 500 Feature

Embraer Legacy 500 (Photos: Robert Goyer)

What's the coolest airplane in the world, at least that a civilian could buy? There are some impressive contenders for that unofficial title, including a couple I've had the chance to fly in the past year, such as the Gulfstream G650 and the Cessna Citation X+.

We recently got the chance to fly yet another member of the club, the Embraer Legacy 500, a long-awaited midsize marvel from the Brazilian manufacturer that has forged its way into the business aviation market with a handful of brilliantly engineered airplanes, the first couple of which, the Legacy 600 and Lineage 1000, were bizjet versions of successful regional airliners. The follow-ons were two light jets, the Phenom 100 and Phenom 300, which have become strong competitors against Cessna's CJ models.

With the Legacy 500, Embraer was clearly looking to move upstream with an airplane it hoped would enter service as the most technologically advanced midsize model available. Mission accomplished. It is without question one of the most advanced private airplanes in the world, period.

PUSHING LIMITS

You might think that people in the market for a new bizjet have complicated motivations, but that's not so. Just like customers for light planes or tablet computers, for that matter, prospective bizjet buyers are motivated by basic desires. Four of these stand out: safety, performance, technology and comfort.

Embraer hopes those looking for midsize airplanes will consider the Legacy 500, because it offers owners of legacy midsize jets upgrades in every department. From the pilot's point of view, it's a fabulous ride.

Despite a tough economic environment when it launched the airplane in 2008, Embraer was wise enough to understand that, by the time the 500 came to market, things would likely be different and the clean-sheet airplane would be high on the list of those business jet operators who were looking for something new and exciting.

In fact, they would wind up getting more than they expected. In terms of price and weight, the 500 fits neatly into the midsize bizjet niche. Other important figures tell a different tale, however. With a range of 3,150 nm, a big dual-club cabin, big windows and lots of room for bags, the Legacy 500 will challenge not only midsize jets but super-mid models as well.

Niche-busting has been Embraer's business plan from the get-go. Give customers more airplane for the money, which means more range, more room, great technology and good speed, and they will come. They have.

BASICS

Looking at it on the ramp, the Legacy 500 doesn't seem like a revolutionary airplane. It's got the pointy end at the front and the tail in back. It's made mostly of metal, with composites in various places around the airplane where composites make sense. The landing gear is fairly conventional, with the pilot's best friend, trailing link landing gear, on the mains.

The airplane is powered by a pair of Honeywell HTF7500E dual-fadec turbo­fans producing 7,036 pounds of thrust apiece. The engines are hardly unique to the Legacy 500. They also power the Gulfstream G280, the Challengers 300 and 350, the Avro RJX and the 500's midsize sibling, the Legacy 450, which is making its way ­toward certification now. With excellent fuel efficiency, on-condition maintenance and advanced digital control, it's easy to see why the HTF series engines are a popular choice for midsize and super-midsize airplanes.

As it has with its other models, Embraer underpromised and overdelivered on the Legacy 500. Its range of 3,125 nm at long-range cruise is 125 nm greater than the target, and its high-speed cruise range (Mach 0.80) of 2,948 nm is about 150 nm better than hoped for. Takeoff and landing distances are also substantially better than promised. The Legacy 500 takes off in just over 4,000 feet, which allows it to operate from many smaller airports. It lands in around half that distance.

Other bigger airplane features include single-point refueling, an externally serviced lavatory, and the future availability of a head-up display.

TECHNOLOGY

The 500 offers more futuristic features than any other midsize bizjet, or even super-midsize model, ever. It's a full fly-by-wire (FBW) platform with next-generation avionics with huge displays, a paperless (well, almost) cockpit, advanced power management, envelope protection, and high efficiency fully automated engines. It has autothrottles and brake by wire, and its flight stability mode takes much of the bumpiness out of what would be an otherwise turbulent ride.

In stark contrast to complex reversion logic employed by some manufacturers, the fly-by-wire approach that Embraer adopted is simple. There are two laws: normal and direct. That's it.

Direct mode is, as it sounds, an electronic interpretation of mechanical control of the airplane. Direct mode gives the pilot the feel of what the 500 would fly like if it were equipped with hydromechanical controls (it's not). This mode is the emergency fallback option. The airplane still flies pretty well with it.

The normal mode is what the airplane is in all the time, unless there are a series of extraordinarily unlikely equipment failures that render the FBW computer inoperative. It's still nice to know that direct mode works great if that were to happen.

In normal mode the Legacy 500 has all kinds of cool built-in safety features that were unheard of in any kind of bizjet 10 years ago. In midsize jets, they are an absolute first.

Normal mode protects against overspeed, overstress, overbank, underspeed, excessive yaw and more. The stick is employed by only one pilot at a time, which might take some getting used to for some pilots, though in a crewed environment, there should never be any confusion over which pilot has the controls.

WHEN MIDSIZE IS SUPER

We pilots like to think that famous airframe makers build these new jets so we can go flying in them. Would that were the case. The truth is they are transportation vehicles, plain and simple. The cockpit is simply the office where we pilots do our work. Of course, it's our poorly kept secret that it's the best job in the world, at least the flying part, that is.

Embraer knows who buys airplanes and where they sit, and so it didn't stop innovating aft of the cockpit door. Far from it. The cabin of this new midsize jet is simply spectacular, representing the company's best achievement to date.

One of the hallmarks of the super-midsize segment is a flat floor as opposed to a sunken alley. Like nothing else in the non-super-midsize segment, the 500 has a wide flat floor, which goes nicely with its 6-foot stand-up cabin, optional divans, wet galley, large inflight-accessible interior baggage compartment, vacuum flush toilet and a very low cabin altitude (6,000 feet at an altitude of 45,000 feet). All of this is nicely complemented by an extremely comfortable and elegantly styled interior.

As we've seen with Gulfstream's industry leading windows in its G650, G280 and the emerging G500 and G600, windows are often the measure of the plane. While the glass in the Legacy 500 doesn't quite measure up to the glass in the larger and more expensive Gulfstream models, it is still a striking feature. Situated at every seat in the double-club configuration, the windows provide an open ambience that defies the traditional feel of the midsize segment. Those of you who have spent time in the cabin of an older midsize model know what I mean.

The cabin seats are highly adjustable and can be moved outward ­toward the aisle for even more room. They can be optionally configured with lumbar support, heat and even massage function. I did not test the latter. There are stowable work tables between each facing seating section, and the seats recline into a berthing position, effectively creating up to four good-size beds for ­inflight napping.

Standard in the Legacy 500 is Honeywell's Ovation Select cabin management system, an Ethernet based suite that supports high definition video, surround sound audio, global high-speed Internet and Wi-Fi throughout. The system interfaces nicely with most consumer electronics, especially with iPads and iPhones. There are even specially shaped hard pockets in the side panels to park your tablet in when it's time for one of those inflight naps.

FUSION

Up front things are even nicer. The avionics are Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion, with four 15-inch displays, cursor control devices and paperless design. Unlike Pro Line 21's, the design of the Fusion flight deck focuses on shallow menus for fewer clicks and shorter menu searches, point-and-click access, and one-touch accessibility.

Since my regular ride is a Cirrus SR22, I'm used to the open feel a side-mounted flight controller offers, but the feeling of openness and ­spaciousness in the new Embraer ­midsize jet is nothing short of spectacular. With crew seats that are comfortable and easily adjustable, the cockpit seems like a place you hang out rather than a cubby hole you squeeze into. Visibility is very good, thanks in part to the cleaned-up panel, which needs less space for gear, allowing more space for glass.

Displays are set up in what has become the de facto standard for airplanes in this class, with a primary flight display in front of each pilot, a multifunction display in between the two PFDs and a systems display below the MFD. The FMC keyboards are on a console between the pilots. You can still use the keyboards for most of the flight management duties, but many chores can be accomplished with the cursor control device, which I do my best not to refer to as a "mouse," even if that is what it is. One feature I loved was the point-and-click flight plan feature. Get a reroute? Drag and drop to the new waypoints and you're good to go.

Above the displays is the autopilot controller panel. An easy reach from either seat, this is the area of the cockpit where you're likely to spend much of your time on a long flight.

THE FLIGHT

I flew the Legacy 500 out of Embraer's North American facilities in Melbourne, Florida, this fall. To say that I was looking forward to the flight is a huge understatement. To say that it was worth the wait is as well.

My right-seater for the flight was Embraer flight test pilot Eduardo Camelier, whose abilities I'd already witnessed firsthand. Camelier flew the airplane for my photo shoot earlier in the day, and he was remarkably precise despite having to fly quite slowly to avoid overtaking the piston twin I was shooting from.

Camelier went through the short and sweet prestart and starting checklists with me — the shortness is not just a pilot convenience; quick startups and turnarounds greatly increase the utility of the airplane, something Embraer with its airline heritage prides itself on.

After an easy taxi out for takeoff — the 500 is easy to taxi, though as with many jets with big powerful brakes, it takes some getting used to the touch required to keep the passengers comfortable — we lined up and got ready to go.

With autothrottles armed, I raised the thrust levers to near vertical as the system took over and set our preset takeoff thrust automatically. Directional control was easy, and we accelerated briskly despite the warm day, rotating at 122 knots.

When it comes to the fly-by-wire system, there are a couple of exceptions to the "fly it like any airplane" rule, but they make the flying easier. The most noteworthy is that, when you want to establish a flight attitude, you use the sidestick to command that attitude, whether it's a climb, a descent, a turn or some combination. Let go of the stick, and the system remembers what you asked it to do. It's an easy feature to get used to.

Overall, the 500 flies remarkably sweetly. It's one of the two or three best-flying airplanes I've ever had the chance to try my hand at.

The plan was to climb to FL 350 directly, but in the busy Florida airspace, that wasn't going to happen. We instead stopped at 19,000 feet to do some airwork. I was curious to see just how the FBW system could help pilots avoid hazardous flight regimes, which meant we were going to intentionally put ourselves into those regimes to see for ourselves.

I put the nose down and let the speed creep up toward the barber pole. The system saw it coming and didn't let it happen, raising the nose just slightly and annunciating the overspeed condition. Then, at Camelier's urging, I wrapped it up into a tight turn and watched as the system kept the G-forces within check, protecting the structure and the payload. I also got the chance to try to fly the airplane too slowly, which again, the system did not let me do, warning me of the underspeed condition and gently pushing the nose forward like a wise and patient instructor, keeping the airspeed just barely above the minimum airspeed.

I also tried out the airplane in direct mode, flying it as though the FBW were mechanically connected to the flight controls. The effect was, well, like flying a regular airplane, a very nice regular airplane, with good stability and control feel. It made me want to get back to normal mode as soon as I could though, I admit.

Single-engine work was remarkably uneventful. Believe it or not, an engine failure is hard to even discuss as an emergency in this airplane — it's so easy to handle on one engine. I did some single-engine airwork, and flying the 500 on one engine is very much like flying the airplane on two engines (albeit with less power). So good is the FBW system at compensating for the loss of thrust on one side that you can take your feet off the rudder pedals.

We ventured up to 35,000 feet to check the speed at cruise. Sure enough, we were nibbling right around Mach 0.80, the high-speed cruise figure.

Heading back to Melbourne for my one and only landing in the 500, we kept it in normal mode with full flaps. As flaps are brought in (to three "notches" or greater), the FBW system signals the computer to change to a new submode, speed stability. The key on the approach is to use the trim switch to select the trim speed you desire. Hit the button and the airplane will maintain that speed, pitching up or down very slightly to hold that figure. The technique sounds odd, but once you do it in the airplane, it makes perfect sense.

Despite it being my first time in the airplane, I made a decent landing — what did I tell you about that trailing link landing gear? — and we got down and stopped in just over 2,000 feet of ground roll, thanks largely to the huge carbon brakes and brake by wire.

THE FUTURE

The Legacy 500 has, once again for Embraer, busted a niche. It is a midsize airplane in terms of range and price (right around $20 million), but it behaves in many ways like a super-midsize model. With a world-class cabin, class leading technologies and safety systems, and the support of a truly global manufacturer that seems to have committed to the North American market, the Legacy 500 has a lot going for it.

The story doesn't end there. Embraer has another Legacy coming down the line. The Legacy 450 is a slightly smaller and less rangy model with nearly all of the cool features of the 500 but a price of just $16 million. Embraer expects certification for the 450 soon.

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