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Dawn of the Single-Engine Jet

Dawn of the Single-Engine Jet

Oil flirts with $ 75 a barrel. Capitalism dances on. Free enterprise adapts. It always does.

A new and very slick adaptation to pricey oil is a jet airplane built with only one engine. Three manufacturers--Piper Aircraft of Vero Beach, Fla., Cirrus Design of Duluth, Minn. and Diamond Aircraft Industries of Wiener Neustadt, Austria--have a single-engine jet in the works. A fourth, Eclipse Aviation of Albuquerque, N.M., is toying with a single-engine version of its tiny Eclipse 500 twin-engine jet. In July Eclipse flew its skunkworks one-holer, the ECJ, into the big air show at Oshkosh, Wis.

Single-engine jets are not new. Air Force fighter jets of the 1950s, such as the F-86 Sabre, had one monster engine embedded in the fuselage. The F-86 flew 685mph and enjoyed a 10:1 kill ratio over the MiG-15 during the Korean War. But the F-86´s engine-flameout rate was unacceptably high for commercial use.

Safety through redundancy has always driven commercial jet aircraft. The Boeing (nyse: BA - news - people ) 707 entered commercial service in 1958 and used four engines to carry 141 passengers. The Boeing 727 followed in 1964, on a risky bet that only three engines were needed. The trend toward fewer engines continued with the 757 twin in the 1980s and, most radically, the jumbo 777 in 1995. Because the 777 was designed to carry more than 300 passengers over large oceans on just two engines, it was the most rigorously tested jet airplane ever.

Business jets, being much smaller, have used two engines from the beginning. The four-passenger Paris Jet debuted in 1954 but was considered more toy than tool. The first biz jet to sell in volume was Bill Lear (nyse: LEA - news - people )´s Learjet, first available in 1964. And today´s small, cutting-edge Eclipse 500 and Cessna Mustang, as well as the forthcoming Embraer (nyse: ERJ - news - people ) Phenom 100 and HondaJet, are twin-engine designs.

Fuel Economy Propels Change

The single-engine jet is a departure from the old idea that redundancy equals safety. Will the market accept singles? I think so. Fuel prices will dictate a demand for greater economy. Modern manufacturing processes combined with electronic fuel control and engine diagnostics make a single-engine jet much safer than earlier models. Today´s jet engines almost never fail. Will the paying public see it that way? Would you fly in a small jet with one engine?

Without hesitation (and assuming pilot competency) I would. I own a single-engine piston airplane, a Cirrus SR22, and both this summer and last I flew my wife and kids over the Rocky Mountains in our Cirrus. The Cirrus piston engine, made by Teledyne Continental, is very reliable. Yet in comparison, jet engines--having fewer moving parts--are ten times more reliable than pistons.

You may not know this, but the market has already accepted single-engine jet aircraft. The Cessna Caravan, Pilatus PC-12 and EADS Socata TBM 700/850 are big hits in the marketplace and profitmaking machines for their manufacturers. You may not think of these aircraft as jets, since they have a single propeller hanging off their noses. They are turboprops. Their engines are jet turbines that use the jet´s thrust to spin a prop.

The Cessna Caravan has been flying since 1985 and is a workhorse for FedEx (nyse: FDX - news - people ) in smaller cities. The Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 specializes as an executive, commuter and ambulance aircraft. The smaller TBM 850 seats six, goes 370mph and flies a 1,570-mile range on one engine. All three single turboprops have superb safety records, a sure sign that single-engine jet aircraft can be successful.

Which of the new single-engine jets will prevail? Eclipse wants to be the Porsche (other-otc: PSEPF.PK - news - people ) of single-engine jets. Its single will fly higher (41,000 feet) and faster (395mph) than its rivals´. But it will seat only four--two up front, including the pilot, and two in back. Cirrus and Diamond are trying to be the luxury SUVs of these jets. They will fly lower (25,000 feet) and slower (340mph to 360mph) but easily seat five to six people, in various configurations. The Cirrus single has huge windows for passenger comfort and an airframe parachute, in the unlikely event that the aircraft´s Williams FJ33 engine flames out.

The Eclipse, Cirrus and Diamond jets will cost in the $ 1 million range. They will have lower operating costs compared with jets of similar size. Piper´s single-engine jet is much larger, more like a Cessna CJ1+. It seats six adults comfortably and includes a potty. It will sell for about $ 2.4 million when it hits the market in 2010.

Aviation is a conservative, slow-moving industry. Bearing this in mind, the sudden interest in single-engine jets is an extraordinary development. It says volumes about the adaptive abilities of free markets to high oil prices. It says volumes more about human innovation.

To heck with $ 75 oil. It´s a great time to be alive and free!

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