June 2010 — Like every other aviation journalist, I’ve been watching the development of the Embraer Phenom 300 for a few years now, and the more I’ve learned about the emerging light jet, the more I’ve come to appreciate just what an innovative airplane it is. It is, in essence, Embraer’s attempt to stretch the limits of the light jet segment by creating an airplane with best-in-class performance, comfort and utility while keeping operating costs at turboprop levels. And the airplane itself, which I’d seen but not flown, is a thing of beauty. Predictably, when I was asked if I wanted to go to Brazil to ferry the 300 up to the States, well … you can guess how long it took me to say “I’ll be right down.”
The bizjet world is relatively new to Embraer, which launched its executive jet program a few years back with the Legacy, a nicely reworked version of Embraer’s ERJ 145 regional jet. The Legacy sold for a few million dollars less than comparable large-body jets and was a surprise hit.
One RJ conversion does not a bizjet program make, but it wasn’t long before Embraer put its investment where its mouth was and launched a pair of clean-sheet airplanes, the Phenom 100 entry-level jet and the Phenom 300.
The 100 earned certification in late 2008; last year Embraer delivered more than 100 of the jets, that despite an economy that caused many cancellations. The airplane garnered rave reviews for its beefy design, predictable flying manners, very good entry-level performance and shockingly simple single-pilot operation.
The larger light jet, the Embraer Phenom 300, first flew in 2008. It earned certification late last year.
Much More Than a Stretched 100
The 300 does have many things in common with the 100, including the basic fuselage, the use of new-generation Pratt & Whitney Canada engines, the brilliant Garmin Prodigy flight deck and the same airliner-tough design philosophy.
When it was working on its design for the Phenom 300, Embraer was looking to go far beyond its success with the 100 by making the 300 a jet with very good speed and great climbing performance, a comfortable aisled cabin, excellent range and great operating economies and maintainability.
It has done all of that and a lot more.
Changes Inside and Out
Embraer designers took the basic fuselage cross-section of the 100 and ran with it. They gave the 300 a longer fuselage, an all-new wing, powerful and quiet Pratt & Whitney Canada turbofan engines, a hefty fuel capacity and solid construction.
The moderately swept wing stands in contrast to the 100’s straight-leading-edge design. In fact, the wing of the 300 looks for all the world like that of a large jet. Though not related to it, the 300’s wing is reminiscent of the swept wing of the Legacy 600. In addition to the effective wing flaps, the 300 features fly-by-wire spoilers that act as speed brakes or as lift dump devices. When used as spoilers, they automatically lower when flaps are extended or when the airspeed drops below 110 knots indicated. When armed, they activate on landing with weight on wheels to dump the lift and help get the airplane slowed down. The 300 doesn’t need much runway.
Anti-icing for the wing (and the horizontal tail and engine inlets — no boots here) is done with bleed air. Ice lights along the fuselage are standard, and there’s an easy-to-interpret icing status page in the systems section of the Prodigy multifunction display.
When it came to selecting engines in this thrust category, Embraer had several options, including the Williams FJ44s used on the CJ4, but it went with the Pratts and couldn’t be happier about that choice. The engines, PW535E models, are rated at 3,360 pounds of thrust apiece and are substantially quieter than the most stringent (Stage IV) noise requirements. And with the Phenom 300 meeting or exceeding every goal Embraer has set for it, from takeoff distance to high-speed cruise, the engines get much of the credit. They also sport an industry-leading TBO (tied with Williams FJ44-4As on the CJ4) of 5,000 hours, nearly a third better than some competitors.
Passenger Centered Design
The fuselage/cabin of the 300 is stretched 14 inches — it seems like much more — from that of the 100. Both feature Embraer’s Oval Lite cross-section shape that gives better legroom and headroom than does the competition. That said, the 300 is a light jet, so you won’t mistake the cabin for that of a midsize jet — it has a center aisle, but with the Oval Lite concept, Embraer has cleverly maximized the comfort of the cabin. The airplane’s full-size, minimalist-styled seats slide toward the center for additional room and recline almost fully for a very sleepable platform — something I tested thoroughly on one leg of our daylong trip. I will bring a pillow next time. Even the armrests retract, so you can get them out of the way when more room is needed.
The lavatory is another impressive feature. With an easy-to-operate, hard sliding door, a full-size potty and generous basin, the 300’s lav is the best I’ve seen in a light jet. And for an airplane with nearly 2,000 nm of range, a nice lav is a big plus. Embraer is working on making the potty a certified seat and adding a side-facing couch up front as well, to increase the passenger capacity from seven to eight, not counting the copilot’s seat.
At 66 cubic feet, the external rear baggage compartment is big enough to carry a reasonable number of bags for all of the passengers. And it accommodates larger items, like several golf bags, rollaway bags or pairs of skis. Up front there’s an eight-cubic-foot forward baggage area, typically used to store the crew’s bags.
Even the full-coverage airstair door is the best in the category. Instead of having a door that opens laterally and a ladder-type stairway that folds down, the door of the 300 is the ladder. Cables support the door, but customers can add an optional steel rail for an even more substantial feeling. Even in its standard configuration, the door is better than many that you’ll see in many light midsize airplanes. At 29 inches across and 58 inches in height, the door makes it easier to get in and out while offering a kind of ramp appeal that, like many of the features on the 300, is typically associated with airplanes that cost much more.
It’s all part of Embraer’s goal of giving the 300 as big a feel as possible for a light jet. Part of this plan was the styling of the interior. Conceived jointly with renowned design house BMW Designworks, the interior is upscale and minimalist, using clean lines, muted colors and open space to give the feeling of a larger space. The biggest contributors to this impression are the windows, which are larger than those in nearly all midsize airplanes and nicely placed. Between every seat is a big oval window with a built-in shade.
There’s a substantial galley up front — on our trip, which spanned two continents, we enjoyed breakfast, lunch and dinner from our stash in the galley. There’s an ice bucket for storing drinks and keeping them cold and storage for wine and food and the trash that all those things create along the way.
Cost of Ownership
The 300 is designed to last and to be more cost-effective to maintain along the way. It is designed for 28,000 cycles or 35,000 hours, which equals about 30 years of flying at 1,200 hours per year. A maintenance computer keeps track of the health of the airplane’s systems and allows that data to be downloaded for fault identification or for trend analysis.
Carbon brakes are another feature that Embraer argues is a cost saver that might not seem like one right off the bat. The carbon brakes are 20 percent lighter, and they’re immune to thermal distortion and locking up at high temperatures. And because they cool off more quickly, they offer a quicker turnaround time.
Another high-tech maintenance saver is the SmartProbe multifunction probe and air data computer that I guess could be referred to as a “probe-by-wire” device. There’s no tubing that runs from it. It gets its data like any probe does but then does its calculations on board — yes, on board the probe — and then sends them digitally to the flight computer. The SmartProbe — there are, of course, two of them — is also used on the Falcon 7X and the very large Embraer Lineage. The digital probe eliminates the angle-of-attack sensor and does away with pressure checks too, not to mention simplifying maintenance in the unlikely event that something goes wrong with it.
Servicing the 300 will feel familiar to line personnel more accustomed to dealing with airliners than light jets. There’s single-point fueling, which will top off empty tanks — around 800 gallons of fuel — in 12 minutes. The lav, too, is externally serviced.
More than half of Phenom customers are opting to cover their maintenance needs through company’s multitiered Embraer Executive Care Program, which covers the cost of nearly every imaginable maintenance item and provides a high degree of cost certainty. Pratt & Whitney also offers maintenance programs for the engines on the 300.
Prodigy: Ultimate Expression of the G1000
Embraer took a bit of a risk when it decided a few years back to go with Garmin International to supply the integrated flight deck on the Phenom 300. Garmin had already shown its ability to do bizjet-level systems with its successful G1000 installation on the Cessna Citation Mustang, but it had never developed a system for any jet as fast, capable or complex as the Phenom 300.
Going in, Embraer was concerned that Garmin, known for its light-airplane expertise, might be a branding liability. This has proved not to be the case. In fact, one of Embraer’s product specialists told me that quite the opposite was true, that the Garmin avionics suite has turned out to be a draw for many customers.
Embraer’s version of G1000, called Prodigy, is the most impressive I’ve seen (and I’ve flown nearly every one), in large part because it greatly simplifies the management of the flight. The preflight list, for example, has very few checks and just a handful of action items. It will doubtless take longtime jet pilots a while to get over the feeling that they simply must be forgetting something. But they’re not. Actions such as turning on the beacon, for example, are done automatically, since you always want to have the beacon on when you start up, right?
It’s not just the procedures that are simplified. The entire cockpit is cleaned up, with far fewer switches, levers and buttons than seems possible in an airplane of this class. There are, for example, no master warning or master caution switches. All CAS messages are handled through the 12.4-inch Prodigy displays. And it works very well.
Embraer and Garmin pulled off this feat of simplicity by evaluating the necessity of everything in the cockpit and integrating or eliminating it if at all possible.
This doesn’t mean that Prodigy eliminates sophistication. Quite the opposite is true. As I mentioned, it integrates a systems monitoring utility that makes it easy to flip through the various systems pages with a quick glance to see if everything is OK. If it’s not, by the way, the built-in CAS system will let you know and ferret out the problem and record the event for the maintenance techs at the other end. And all of this, remember, is handled in the avionics suite. Another feature I love is the takeoff configuration button, which, with one push, makes a number of checks to ensure the airplane is properly configured for takeoff. It’s easy to forget one in a long list of items. It’s harder to forget a single button. That’s simplicity and improved safety.
The autopilot is the staggeringly scalable GFC 700, and it has a number of features that give it remarkable powers, including something I haven’t seen on other G1000-based systems — radio tuning capability. Located right below the multifunction display, the keypad makes it easy to enter data or make changes to a flight plan while looking at the MFD directly above it.
The autopilot controller is located, as it should be, directly above the displays. (The only other instrument occupying the space is the fully digital standby primary display.) In addition to the usual functions, the autoflight system in the Phenom 300 has airspeed control, which controls engine N1 to maintain a selected cruise speed for a given altitude.
There’s also synthetic vision, XM Weather for North American-based airplanes and onboard vertical-scan color radar. The Phenom 300, it goes without saying, comes from the factory RVSM-approved.
Amazon Adventures and Beyond
After spending a few days in São José dos Campos, I was ready for my flight in the Phenom 300, and this was going to be a special opportunity. The plan was to fly from Embraer headquarters in São José dos Campos (near São Paulo) to the Amazon city of Manaus, from there on to Montego Bay, Jamaica, and then to Houston, a trip that spans two continents, all in one day.
It was barely light on the ramp when I met my companions for the flight, Tarcisio Brandão and José Filiho. Both are instructor pilots with many thousands of hours of experience flying jets both big and small, though neither one of them had a ton of time in the 300.
That would change. After dropping me in Houston, they were scheduled to take the airplane on a demo tour, with stops after Texas in Salt Lake City, Teterboro, New Jersey, and South Florida, then go to Europe with the airplane for a couple of weeks before heading home to Brazil.
As I mentioned, the 300 is a single-pilot airplane, and as José, sitting in the right seat, talked me through the pre-start checklist — a very short talk, as I mentioned — he pointed out how everything is arranged to be easily reachable by the left seat pilot, though it’s still possible, if less convenient, for the right-seater to fly it too. José demonstrated the pre-takeoff check button, which had nothing to complain about, and I started the taxi out to the active runway.
José handled the radios and made changes to the flight plan — just about all of the radio communications for the next several hours would be in Portuguese — and left the flying to me.
On the ground, the 300 feels like an airplane as big as it is. At our takeoff weight of 17,200 pounds, with full fuel, we had nearly 1,000 pounds of additional capacity. Control on the ground is easy, though the carbon brakes get plenty of work keeping the speed down to a minimum while taxiing.
The PW535Es are fadec engines, but they don’t have detents. Instead, you set the power by lining up the levers with the bright white lines on the quadrant. The fadec synchronizes the engines for you. It’s just one more single-pilot convenience, and at a critical phase of flight.
With a push of the takeoff/go-around button, we were ready to go. I advanced the throttles and off we went. Directional control was smooth, and I had no trouble keeping the centerline. Our V1 speed of 109 knots came quickly with rotation a blink of an eye after that. Gear up, flaps up. Initial rate of climb was eye-popping, around 4,000 fpm even at our relatively heavy weight. For climb you simply reduce power to the climb setting on the levers — it really is that easy — and watch as the airplane goes up. Going out I hand-flew, following the flight director to guide us on our way.
We were given a climb to 12,000 feet and then to 20,000 right off the bat with no intermediate level-offs. That rarely happens in the States. Soon thereafter, we were given a climb to 40,000 and then our final altitude of 43,000 feet. It took us just 20 minutes to get to FL 400 and another four minutes to reach 43,000. Up through 36,000 feet, we were still climbing at better than 1,500 fpm, and from there we maintained at least 1,200 fpm. For a light jet, the 300 is a strong climber.
I leveled the airplane off, reduced power to the long-range cruise setting of Mach .65 and looked at the numbers. At FL 430 we were doing 365 knots true, burning around 112 gph, or around 750 pounds per hour total. In smooth air and all by ourselves, we slipped past the capitol of Brasilia and cruised along toward our first stop, the Amazonian outpost of Manaus, where we needed to stop for customs even though we had the range to continue on to Venezuela. High-speed cruise is a lot faster, better than 450 knots, and with the nearly 2,000 nm range of the 300, that is a speed that many pilots will get to use when they fly shorter legs than we were flying that day.
The pressurization system on the 300 is another strong selling point. At its ceiling of 45,000 feet, the system can maintain a cabin altitude of 6,600 feet, nearly 1,500 feet lower than most airplanes at their ceiling. At FL 430, we were even a little lower than that.
As we got closer to Manaus, we began the descent, and the weather was looking promising. A storm had just passed the airport, and the ceiling and visibility were slightly above minimums. I loaded the approach and the autopilot began the descent. The vertical navigation (VNAV) functions on the GFC 700 make descent planning simple.
The spoilers help too. They can be deployed at up to 250 knots, and they make fast descents while keeping the airspeed under control a lot easier. They go away automatically when flaps are deployed, so there’s no fear of forgetting to stow them when the time comes to land.
The ATIS was calling it 400 overcast and two miles of visibility, and as I flew the approach we could see bits of ground flash by below. The autopilot intercepted the localizer and soon we were on our way down. At 500 feet agl, I switched off the autopilot and hand-flew the rest of the way. We broke out at 400 feet, and sitting there before us was Manaus, a storm having just passed through, steam rising from the drenched black asphalt and virga drifting by along the surface. Pretty.
Our approach speed was 109 knots, and I found it easy to maintain Vref within a knot or two. I had been tutored by José on the landing technique, which is, somewhat surprisingly, very similar to that used in the Phenom 100. With the speed stabilized, the airplane is already in the landing attitude, so you just continue the approach and let it land. I made just two landings — it was a ferry flight, not a flight evaluation — but both felt great.
The one thing that takes some getting used to is the brakes, and again José had great advice. The brake-by-wire design makes it easy to get stopped quickly, but you can’t pump them to even out the pressure. You need, instead, to keep pressure on the one pedal while you add pressure to the other, finding that perfect balance. Whereas my stop after landing in the Phenom 100 two days earlier would have gotten me pulled over for weaving had I been cruising on I-35, I was able to keep the 300 on or very near the centerline as we got down and stopped in Manaus.
On the ground in Manaus, the single-point refueling would have come in very handy for a quick turnaround, had customs’ computers not been down. I used my time, nearly two hours of it, to take some notes and snap some photographs. My Amazon adventure consisted, sadly, of those two hours spent on the ramp in Manaus. I must go back someday.
Once we were finally released by customs, we headed out. On leg two, I was riding in back and got a full appreciation of the amenities, including, as I mentioned, the fully reclining seats. There are also work desks, optional satellite communications (our airplane had an Iridium phone), great lighting options, dual-zone climate control (a lifesaver at FL 430), cup holders galore and entertainment jacks. On the way from Manaus to Montego Bay, Jamaica, I napped a bit, wrote an online column, went over my notes for this story and read. It was productive time all around, something that can seldom be said for airline flying.
After another long delay in Montego Bay, we launched for our final destination of the day, Houston. The airline pilots were complaining about the ride and the wind below us, but at 430 it was smooth and clear. The wind, however, was howling. At one point it was better than 100 knots right on the nose. We’d get there, and Customs was apparently open 24/7 at Hobby Airport.
We crossed over Cuban airspace, switched to Yucatan Center and watched the sun set behind the curve of the Mexican horizon, Venus shining like a 747’s landing light in the night sky above. We descended over the Gulf of Mexico, the lights of the oil rigs far below, and made our way for Houston.
Excited to be back home, or darned close to it, at least, I hand-flew the visual arrival into Hobby. The dark night was gorgeous, and the lights of the city were sparkling. The airplane, as I’d previously discovered, is a pleasure to fly: smooth, beautifully harmonized and nicely responsive. Coming in to Runway 12R, the 10- or 12-knot crosswind proved no factor, and I had the airplane down and slowed so soon that I had to let it roll out a bit to expedite down to the taxiway that would take us to Customs and, sadly, yet another wait.
It was nearly midnight, but we’d covered 5,000 nm. And along the way I got to know the Embraer Phenom 300 quite well. It really is the ultimate expression of the light jet segment, with best-in-class performance and outstanding comfort and utility, while offering single-pilot ease of flight and airline style maintainability. And it truly is a joy to fly.
The Phenom 300 goes for around $8.5 million nicely equipped.