Off the launch pad – a new plane for half the price

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Nextant’s remanufactured Beechjet could be the first in a complete lineup of ‘as new’ business aircraft

There was a deeper significance to Nextant Aerospace’s handover of a 400XT aircraft in October to Michael Silvestro, CEO of launch customer Flight Options. For the ceremony marked not just the inaugural delivery from the company’s production line in Cleveland, Ohio, but potentially the birth of a whole new species.

The plane is a “remanufactured” Beechjet 400A/XP equipped with new engines, avionics and a completely refitted interior. Nextant founder and CEO Kenneth Ricci told a media briefing at the NBAA Convention in Las Vegas that the aircraft are delivered “as new except for some sheet metal”. The basic fuselage is unaltered, but taking into account the modifications to all its operating systems and moving parts, the 400XT is calculated to be more than 88% new. “We think we have a new airplane, as good as any coming off any production line in the world,” Ricci said.

There is no precedent for this in the commercial aviation field. Remanufacturing has only been attempted with military aircraft before. Ricci’s vision, having spent more than 30 years developing innovative services in the industry, was to take an airframe that is one of the most robust yet built – and offers just about the best cabin space in its class – and re-engineer it to reflect the advances made in power plant and cockpit technology over the last 25 years.

Ricci founded Nextant in 2007 with this sole objective in mind. As principal of private investment firm Directional Aviation Capital, he reversed the usual approach to aircraft development by investing around $30 million up front to put the production plant in place ahead of the customary sales push. The 400XT did not log its first order until late 2010 and Nextant only began marketing the aircraft aggressively at EBACE 2011.

“It takes $400-500 million to set up a production line even for a light jet, and for a Gulfstream maybe $1 billion. We can build for a lot less money. It cost us 5-7% of what is needed to go from a blank sheet of paper,” Ricci explained at NBAA. But it took Nextant four years to make that debut delivery. “We had hoped it would be two. It takes a long time to get everything converted,” he added.

It took a year to get the engines right, while the lead time on the redesigned nacelles had been nine months, Ricci said. The XT400 finally received its required FAA supplemental type certificate late last year and is now coming off the production line at two per month, a rate that is soon set to accelerate.

Remanufacturing differs significantly from other modification programmes in that it creates a truly consistent product, Nextant says. The process requires more than 6,000 man-hours for each Beechjet taken in, beginning with a thorough inspection of the airframe to ensure it is free from corrosion and any detrimental wear and tear. All limited-life components are then returned to zero-time status by replacing or completely overhauling them.

This effectively makes the 400XT a new aircraft type. The standard 400A/XP type rating is not affected, though crews must undergo differences training which is included as part of the Nextant programme.

Crosshead: A good performer, for less

Cabin size, speed and reliability made the Beechjet 400 one of the most popular of all the light jets, and 606 were built. Its main drawback, in common with most of the aircraft’s older competitors, is restricted range. Carrying four passengers it will only stretch to 2,470km (1,333nm), largely due to the outdated Pratt & Whitney JT15D-5 engine and aerodynamic inefficiencies relating to the nacelles and pylons.

The remodelled aircraft boasts performance improvements include a cruising speed of 740kph (460nm per hour), reduced fuel burn that averages 20-25% depending on flight length, and a 50% increase in range (see table). It thus flies as far as the CJ4 and further than the Phenom 300, and is faster than either.

Nextant claims that these enhancements together with an upgraded cockpit will create a true “category killer”, with an acquisition cost similar to competing light jets such as the smaller Citations or the Premier 1.

The base price is $3.975 million, to which must be added additional avionics features plus cabin entertainment options such as high-speed wireless internet. Ricci said the typical final price was $4.1-4.2 million – “a new plane for 40-50% of the price of a Phenom [300] or CJ4”.

Customers are already voting with their feet. Flight Options, the second largest company in the private jet travel business in the US, has 40 of the 400XTs on order, though it must be pointed out that there is a direct interest here since Kenn Ricci launched Flight Options in 1998 as a fractional ownership provider for pre-owned aircraft. The company has since expanded into leasing, aircraft management and jet card programmes, and has a fleet today comprising the Legacy 600, Cessna Citation Ten, Phenom 300 and Hawker 400 and 800.

Raytheon and later HIG Capital owned Flight Options before it finally came back under Ricci’s stewardship in March 2009 when his Directional Aviation Capital vehicle bought the company back. He is now chairman there.

However, total orders stand at 60, and Nextant has won customers for the 400XT from Europe, South Africa and Australia as well as the US.

“It’s been well received globally,” says Jay Heublein, Nextant’s VP of sales & marketing. “It’s appealing across all categories, high-end private owners as well as fleet operators. What makes it attractive to one sector appeals to the other.”

At the fuel prices prevailing several months ago, Nextant calculated the operating cost of the new aircraft at $2.13 per mile compared with $3 for the unmodified Beechjet 400. Prices have since increased, but Heublein points out that “the higher fuel goes, the more the value proposition increases”.

Just as critical to customers’ decision making are acquisition cost and access to competitive aircraft financing, and the company says it has worked with a number of major international banks to ensure their commitment to providing retail financing.

“Aircraft financing has become challenging and there’s always going to be initial resistance,” Heublein says. It’s an education process for lenders.”

Although the original Beechjet 400 was designed in the early 1980s, the typical airframe age of aircraft presented to Nextant is in the five to 15-year range and this is of no concern in financing terms, he adds.

“A CJ4 loses 20% of its value over five years and so will we, but at an acquisition cost of $10 million [for the Cessna] compared with our $4 million, the cash impact is much less. Banks quickly get their head around that,” Heublein says.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrosshead: Crucial eight-year decision point

The Pratt & Whitney engine fitted to the Beechjet 400A/XP, the JT15D, was one of the earliest high bypass turbofan engines. It is heavy in weight and heavy on fuel. Much of the performance enhancement achieved by Nextant has come from replacing the engines with Williams FJ44-3AP dual FADEC (Full Authority Digital Engine Control) high bypass turbofans, giving a more than 20% better thrust to weight ratio, and installing aerodynamically improved engine nacelles.

The cost of maintaining the P&W engine has increased significantly, with overhauls now costing as much as $425,000. The engines are overhauled at 3,600 hours. The cost of maintaining the Williams engine is 27% lower per flight hour and it will operate 400 hours longer between overhauls, an 11% improvement in the overhaul interval. Nextant puts the engine maintenance savings at $80 per hour or more than $317,000 over the engine overhaul period. With the average aircraft operating 450 hours per year, the optimum time for an owner to consider modification is around the eight-year mark.

“For some who already own the Beechcraft, they have a significant decision to make,” Heublein says. “Do they want to continue with an outdated aircraft or cut their operating costs by 30% and bring the avionics up to date?”

Of the 20 retail planes sold so far – that is, excluding the Flight Options order – he says five have been requests for conversions from existing owners. “If an customer brings a plane to us, the expected downtime is approximately 90 days and we can offer an interim lift solution via a short-term lease while their aircraft is being remanufactured.”

The 400XT is said to handle better at low speeds than its predecessor, especially on landing approach. The performance improvement is more noticeable in climb, and reduced noise emissions are an importat ancillary benefit. At 35dB below stage 4, the aircraft will keep local communities happy in sensitive locations as well as incurring lower landing fees, Heublein says.

Nextant used state-of-the-art engineering methods including computational fluid dynamics to redesign the nacelle, engine inlet and tail pipe and lower aerodynamic drag. The engine was repositioned and the pylon design improved.

This all contributes to the 50% range increase, allowing the 400XT to fly four-hour sectors with six passengers at 0.74 mach. Ricci told NBAA that trans-US trips such as San Diego to Teterboro could be accomplished, with more to come when winglets are available. They will be provided as an option from Q1 2013 and will be more effective than some of the “placebos” currently on the market, he said. The additional range increase will be in the order of 7-8%, with a double-digit improvement out of high, hot airports.

In the cockpit, the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics suite with fully integrated LCD flat panel displays replaces the former electronic flight displays, fuel quantity indicators and engine indicators. Three or four large 8 x 10 LCD display panels will display all required navigation and flight instrumentation.

The Pro Line technology, including onboard maintenance diagnosis, dramatically increases the safety, reliability, functionality and capability of the cockpit systems, eases crew workload and reduces the overall weight of the aircraft by 35kg. Options include IFIS (Integrated Flight Information System) and XM Satellite Nexrad Radar.

Crosshead: New seating plan wows customers

Nextant originally envisaged standard cabin layouts with six or seven forward-facing seats, the former giving increased cabin baggage capacity of 32cu ft and total baggage capacity of 58.4cu ft.

The aircraft displayed at the Dubai Airshow in November was in a new interior configuration with a three-seat divan and four-place club seating. The 400XT is the only light jet to offer this large divan format and boasts the most club space in its class. Heublein describes this layout as a genuine differentiator, and says 90% of orders so far have specified it.

Nextant expects to build 200-250 aircraft during the lifetime of the programme, and set out with a plan of building two aircraft per month for the first year, increasing to three per month by the end of 2012 and four per month in three years’ time. Buoyed by its early sales success, the company now expects to be turning out four 400XTs at its design and manufacturing facility at Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County Airport within the next 12 to 18 months.

The company’s service centre network currently consists of six US facilities and a first international one at Beechcraft Augsburg, in Germany, with more promised soon.

The ultimate vision is to extend the concept to other base aircraft and offer a full range of remanufactured jets. “Lots of companies have tried and failed to launch new aircraft – it’s an incredibly expensive process,” Heublein summarises. “Existing manufacturers may copy our idea, but they’re not really set up for it. We were the first to certify this, and it puts us light years ahead.”


Action sells in three key markets

Nextant announced at the Dubai Airshow that it has appointed Action Aviation as its exclusive sales agent for the 400XT in the UK, the Middle East and India.

“Action Aviation has a proven track record of bringing the most innovative, high-performance business jets and helicopters to the marketplace. With offices in the UK, Dubai and Bangalore, the firm is ideally positioned to serve each of these three target markets,” commented Jay Heublein, Nextant’s VP of sales & marketing.

Hamish Harding, chairman of Action Aviation, added: “The 400XT’s exceptional range, combined with its speed and superior accommodation, makes it an ideal aircraft for the mid-range flights typical of Europe, the Middle East and India.”