Bombardier Challenger 850

Jun 5, 2016 - 8:15 PM

You’ve long been able to obtain ultra-large-cabin comfort for around $10 million by converting a used regional commuter jet into a first-class executive aircraft. That has seemed like a hard-to-beat bargain for business jet travelers who crave roomy cabins—until now.

First, a little background. After Bill Lear sold Learjet, he tinkered with a design for a large-cabin aircraft that—thanks to advances in airfoils and engines—could be built and operated for midsize-cabin prices. In 1976, he sold his design for what he called the Learstar 600 to Canadair (now Bombardier), which went on to build the airplane under the moniker Challenger. Through the end of 2015, the airframer delivered more than 1,000 Challenger 600-series aircraft. The latest model is the Challenger 650.

Building on the 600 series, Bombardier began the popular Canadair Regional Jet program in 1989 and delivered the first CRJ in 1992. It stretched the Challenger 600 fuselage by more than 19 feet and gave the airplane a larger wing and more powerful engines. Deliveries of the 44- to 50-seat CRJ (Models 100, 200, and 440) totaled 1,021 through last year. Those models are no longer in production.

The airframer later delivered some 733 stretch-model 700, 900, and 1000 series aircraft, which seat 70 to 90 in airline configuration. Still later, the company offered executive shuttle versions of these models under the names Challenger 870 and Challenger 890. In split/deluxe cabin configurations, the 870 can seat 42 to 44 passengers while the 890 can seat 52. Prior to 2006, Bombardier offered the CRJ100/200 in executive/shuttle configuration as the Challenger 800. The company manufactured more than 30 of those.

In 2006, Bombardier began delivering the Challenger 850. Based on the then recently discontinued 50-seat CRJ200 airliner, it featured the same airframe and engines but with an interior outfitted for 27, 32, or 50 passengers in commuter configuration or 14 to 16 in executive. Bombardier delivered more than 60 Challenger 850s between 2006 and 2015, with the last of them selling for nearly $32 million; however, 2006 vintages now trade for as little as $8 million.

For that price you get a cabin on par with that in the much pricier and slightly faster Bombardier Global 6000, whose 2006 model sells for around $21 million. The Challenger 850’s three-zone cabin features forward and aft lavs, a large forward galley, a pass-through to the baggage compartment from the aft lav, and room to create a spacious center lounge/entertainment center or an aft stateroom.

Granted, the Challenger lacks the Global’s 6,471-nautical-mile range, but it is comfortably transcontinental with a 2,985-nautical-mile range (with four passengers, two crew) if you use the saddle tanks in the rear fuselage. However, to get that range you need to throttle back to slower airline speeds. Although the 850 has a service ceiling of 41,000 feet, few operators fly it that high and almost none of its airliner cousins operate at that altitude in the wake of a Pinnacle Airlines crash of a CRJ200 in 2004.

That accident occurred on a repositioning flight after the pilots had exceeded the recommended climb rate at altitudes above 38,000 feet in an attempt to reach 41,000 feet. They did this because they wanted to join the “410 Club”—essentially bragging rights for those who had operated the CRJ200 up to its altitude limit of 41,000 feet. The climb overstressed the engines, causing a dual flameout. That, combined with incorrect restart procedures, subsequently caused the engines to develop a condition called core lock, which made them impossible to restart. Powerless, the aircraft crashed short of the runway at Jefferson City, Missouri, killing both pilots. While the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the accident on the pilots’ “unprofessional behavior” and incompetence, it did point out the aircraft’s inherent limitations at altitude.

The General Electric CF34-3B1 turbofans (8,729 pounds of thrust each) that power the 850 are economical to maintain with inspection intervals on condition. Indeed, the aircraft is built to sustain the 12 takeoff-and-landing cycles a day that only the airlines can thrash out. So it promises to weather abuse better than your average corporate ride, and with more than 1,000 short-body CRJs still in ­service, parts are plentiful.

But fully loaded, an 850 weighs 53,000 pounds. So there are trade-offs.

First, the 850 needs lots of runway, especially under high/hot conditions. Fully loaded at sea level (standard temperature), it requires 6,300 feet to get airborne and that number can easily balloon to 11,000 at airports with even mild elevations and modest summer temperatures. This airplane should not be your first choice to fly in and out of Aspen in July.

Second, while climb times to airliner altitudes are respectable—you can reach 37,000 feet in as little as 32 minutes—anything higher will take precipitously longer and stress the aircraft to its design limits.

Third, given points one and two, most of the time you will be limited to operating an 850 at commercial airports with longer runways and flying it at altitudes where you’ll mingle with airliner traffic. This will add to your travel time.  

The avionics on the 850, which features the Rockwell Collins Pro Line 4 system, are capable but ancient. Navigation upgrades such as ADS-B will be required. However, given the price point of the airplane, even if you could afford to load up the cockpit with whiz-bang like synthetic vision, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense. The standard avionics work fine for the airlines.

Several completion centers have extensive 850 experience. Jet Aviation in St. Louis has completed a few 850s fresh from the factory and Flying Colours in Peterborough, Ontario has done some refurbishments, including an innovative carbon-fiber interior for an Asian client. Here again, the aircraft price point may limit what makes economic sense. But given the Challenger 850’s low cost and large interior, it would be understandable if you were tempted to go a little crazy.


Industry veteran Mark Huber (mhuber@bjtonline.com) has reviewed aircraft for BJT since 2005.

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