Cessna’s Mustang VLJ has a claimed top speed of 340 knots.

Cessna Citation Mustang

Cessna was late to the very light jet party. When the company first announced the Citation Mustang, in 2002, it refused to call it a light jet. Cessna CEO Jack Pelton to this day refuses to label the airplane a VLJ and instead describes it as a "downward defense of the product line."

With a maximum takeoff weight of 8,395 pounds, the Mustang isn't the smallest or biggest VLJ, nor-at an average flyaway price of $2.75 million-the least or most expensive. The claimed top speed is on the low end of average, at 340 knots (although in test flights, better numbers have been achieved), as is range, at 1,150 nautical miles, and payload, at 600 pounds (full fuel, with a single pilot). With the Mustang, Cessna has continued its tradition of aiming for the middle of a market segment-and hitting the target.

Call it what you will, the six-seat (two pilots, four passengers) Mustang was the first VLJ to be fully FAA certified, receiving its type certificate in September 2006 and certification to fly into known-icing conditions two months later.

That the Mustang achieved these milestones before its competitors should surprise no one-no other manufacturer has certified as many business jet models in as little time. The Mustang is a logical extension of the company's popular CJ series small jets and Cessna has made more than 1,000 of them. The CEO of one competing VLJ maker begrudgingly admitted to me recently that "Cessna is a certification machine."

Cessna's reputation for successfully certifying aircraft was a major contributing factor in David Goode's decision to order a Mustang. Goode, who owns a ski equipment firm in Utah, plans to fly the airplane 250 hours per year. "It makes me very comfortable to be in the air with a company that has built thousands of business jets," Goode said.

For the Mustang, Cessna stuck with its time-tested, mostly metal construction. No carbon fiber fuselages baked in ovens the size of Delaware. No exotic, fighter jock sidestick controls for the pilots-just good old-fashioned control yokes.

Like all the CJs, the Mustang is certified for single-pilot operation. The avionics are modern glass panel, but are a variation of the Garmin 1000 system the company has been flying in its piston-powered propeller airplanes for two years. While the system on the prop airplanes features two screens, however, the one on the Mustang has three: there are two primary flight displays (one for each pilot) and a common multifunction display that shows maps, weather, engine data and systems, traffic and terrain and checklists.

The avionics have the power to allow for precise GPS landing approaches and have a new feature called SafeTaxi that shows where other airplanes are on the ground at an airport. In theory, this helps guard against runway and taxiway collisions at night or in bad weather or if pilots or air traffic controllers make a mistake.

Aside from the Garmin panel, the Mustang's Pratt & Whitney Canada engines are the aircraft's most significant new technology. (Variants of the engine have been selected to power competing VLJs from Eclipse and Embraer.) The engines, which Pratt started developing in the late 1990s, incorporate a host of new proprietary technologies that enable them to be smaller yet deliver impressive thrust and good fuel economy. Cessna claims that on a typical 500-nautical-mile trip, the Mustang will burn a miserly 95 gallons per hour. Near the aircraft's maximum operating altitude of 41,000 feet, fuel burns as low as 60 gallons per hour have been observed. Cessna estimates that a Mustang under warranty will cost $2.06 per nautical mile to operate.

As important as these innovations are, Pratt also spent considerable time redesigning how the engine would be built. Modular construction and a new assembly facility in Longueuil, Quebec, helped Pratt slash the engine's production, test and shipping time from eight days to a mere eight hours. The new plant will be able to build 2,000 engines per year.

The engine's modular design also makes it easier and quicker to service. With most jet engines, hot-section inspections (typically done at midlife) involve removing the engine from the aircraft and three to five days of labor. This engine will be able to be hot sectioned during a single eight-hour maintenance shift and without removing it from the aircraft.

While the Mustang may look like a small Citation CJ, inspection ports and systems layout have been done with ease of maintenance in mind, with digital equipment used instead of mechanical parts whenever possible for greater reliability. Only the brakes and landing gear employ hydraulics; everything else uses electric motors. Flight controls can be accessed without ripping up the floorboards, which you have to do on most other airplanes. An integrated diagnostic system allows a technician to access a troubleshooting screen on the multifunction display in the cockpit.

Cessna has formed "Team Mustang"-modeled after the highly successful dedicated "Team X" the company created to support its Citation X-to tend to customer support.

Passenger ergonomics rank among the best in class. The cabin is nearly 10 feet long and more than four and a half feet wide with a trenched center aisle that yields 54 inches of headroom. The oval windows have pleated manual shades and harken back to Cessna's successful line of piston twin 300 and 400 series cabin-class airplanes. They provide ample natural light that is supplemented by LED (light-emitting diode) lighting. The seats, while small, make extensive use of sculpted foam to maximize lumbar support. Headrests are adjustable. The outer armrests on the rear-facing single seats fold up and out of the way while the two-seat rear bench incorporates a center console with fold-down center armrest, storage drawer and compartment, cup holders and a power outlet. The rear-facing seats have limited recline-about 25 degrees.

Tasteful automotive-style graphics substitute for actual veneer finishes. The subtly curved side ledges feature cup holders and fold-out tables (one on each side). The four main passenger seats are aft of the cabin door. Across from the door are small beverage and storage drawers and the cabinet that houses the chemical, non-flushing toilet. (Though it's certainly better than no toilet at all, you probably won't want to use it unless absolutely necessary.) With the lid closed, the toilet cabinet makes a good storage ledge for small briefcases.

Cessna gave a good deal of thought to the environmental systems in controls. On many smaller turbine aircraft, either the cockpit or the cabin is too hot or cold. The Mustang uses separate cockpit-mounted temperature controls and separate sensors in the cockpit and cabin to ameliorate this problem.

Baggage space is generous for a VLJ: 63 cubic feet between the nose, tail cone and interior baggage and storage areas for a theoretical total capacity of 718 pounds.

David Goode and the first class of new Mustang pilots began their training in February and training giant Flight Safety plans to have full-motion "level-D" Mustang simulators operating by April. Cessna plans to build 40 Mustangs this year and claims to have more than 250 on order, with half those sales coming from outside the U.S., largely in Europe, where distances between cities and countries mitigate the airplane's "short" legs. A Mustang ordered today would not be delivered until 2009 or 2010.

While the price of the airplane has crept up more than 20 percent since Cessna first announced it, the Mustang ranks among the strongest startup programs in the manufacturer's history. In a sector of the market that has been clouded by what seems to be overly optimistic predictions about customer demand and aircraft price and performance, Cessna appears to be comfortably monopolizing the middle ground.

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