For most people, the luxury of private aviation is time. It doesn’t matter if your Learjet or Falcon has leather upholstery, a minibar stocked with your favourite malt and a captain on your payroll; what you’re getting from the experience is the ability to shift schedules, jump queues, time-stretch your day and get straight from point to point. The idea of combining this fast-track lifestyle with the fun of actual flying only occurs to a handful of jetset executives and celebrities.
But private aviation is entering a new phase of innovation. Inspired by technology’s disruptive role in ground-based transport, a raft of proposals suggest new ways of taking to the air, bringing performance, pleasure and convenience together to make flying the default mode of stylish personal transportation. The first factor to consider is scale. Even the smallest private jet requires a substantial ground crew to turn it around. Downsize and the advantages are legion — easier access to more airfields and the ability to fly the plane yourself.
American manufacturer Cirrus Aircraft has been around since the early 1980s, building up a strong reputation with a range of sporty turboprops headed up by the five-seater SR22. The company packages every aircraft with its Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, a tried and tested safety device that springs out a giant parachute in the case of unforeseen eventualities.
The company is now testing its newest aircraft, the Vision Jet, a light jet that can take up to seven passengers and yet still be owner-flown. A carbon fibre airframe keeps weight down and the parachute system is still in place for peace of mind. First customer deliveries were late last year, creating a speedy alternative to traditional commuter craft.
Cobalt is an even younger firm with a rather more striking design in the form of its Co50 Valkyrie. Unveiled in 2015, the Valkyrie racked up substantial pre-orders, but hasn’t yet reached the crucial certification process. Although inspired by jet fighter design, with a canard wing configuration — two smaller wings at the front of the fuselage — twin tailfins and pronounced winglets, the Valkyrie is actually propeller-driven, with a rear-mounted prop giving the four-plus-one cabin a spectacular view from its wrap-around glass canopy.
Pitched as an exciting way to get to your bakehouse retreat and avoid weekend traffic, the A5 is a sports car for the air
Icon is another Californian firm with a bold idea. The A5 is a two-seater seaplane, with retractable wheels that give it the ultimate in landing flexibility, as well as folding wings that allow it to be trailered along regular roads. Pitched as a swift and exciting way to get to your lakehouse retreat without getting snarled up in weekend traffic, the A5 is a sports car for the air.
We then reach the wilder shores of aviation design. Electric power offers a new frontier for aviation, although battery technology needs to come on in leaps and bounds before any kind of parity with traditional aviation fuel is achieved. The possibilities — in terms of convenience, noise, speed and environmental performance — are huge.
New start-up Eviation caused a stir at the 2017 Paris Air Show with its triple-prop Alice proposal: an all-electric aircraft designed to take nine passengers for distances of up to 600 miles. Developed alongside its autonomous Orca concept, Alice’s slim wings — with no need for fuel tanks — are attached to a bulbous fuselage, with round portholes and a striking tailplane design. The Israeli company claims to have cracked the weighty issue of batteries big enough to sustain such a range, but even so the Alice is still a while away from its maiden flight.
German manufacturer Lilium is also proposing an all-electric machine, only with a significant technological shift. Its gull-winged VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) plane incorporates 36 small electric jet engines pivoting within two fixed sets of wings. The 300km/h (186mph) top speed and vertical take-off capacities suggest that the Lilium jet could be the ultimate future air taxi, summoned by app and capable of hopping from central London to Paris in around an hour.
“We reckon, that in 20 years from now, the electric VTOL personal aircraft will be a completely normal sight,” says Lilium’s Mareike Mutzberg, adding that “we’re aiming to provide an air taxi service with our own app and a booking system.”
While the prototype has made its first flight, the VTOL concept joins a queue of similar proposals yet to enter service, including an autonomous human-carrying drone designed for the skies of Dubai. So this new golden age of aviation might turn out like the turn of the last century, when pioneers would drive their sports cars to grass airfields and supplement their thrills by taking early flying machines on flights across country. Alternatively, this new technology might end up being reduced to glorified airborne Ubers.
The possibilities of electric planes in terms of convenience, noise, speed and environmental performance are huge
Hopefully the innate elegance of aviation design and the sheer joy of flight will prevail. Look no further than the HY4 electric air taxi. Currently a working prototype, this fuel-cell- powered aircraft has a distinctive twin fuselage design and a slender profile. The German company hopes the zero-emission approach will give this bold machine the edge when it comes to making short city hops.
As drone design and new propulsion technologies change the shape of aviation, you can be sure that the next decade will see a revolution in the way we take to the skies.