Entrepreneurs Set Their Sights on Flight

By Peter Glaskowsky  |  Posted 03-29-2005

Entrepreneurs Set Their Sights on Flight

After an ambitious entrepreneur strikes it rich in the computer industry, starting yet another software company or dot-com may not be exciting enough.

For some industry veterans, the future is in the skies.

Esther Dyson, longtime host of the PC Forum conference, responded to this trend with a new event focusing on progress in the aerospace business.

Her inaugural Flight School conference was held March 22 and 23 in Scottsdale, Ariz., with a day split between aviation and spaceflight sessions.

In the morning session on the emerging market for air-taxi service—a blend of business aviation, charter flights and commercial service—entrepreneurs talked with representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA.

This market is being built around a new class of aircraft, the VLJ (Very Light Jet).

VLJs typically weigh less than 10,000 pounds at takeoff, carry up to eight passengers, and are designed to be flown by a single pilot.

They cost from less than $1 million to about $2.5 million—well below the price of most corporate jets today.

New VLJs are being designed by companies such as Adam Aircraft, Diamond Aircraft and Eclipse Aviation.

Eclipse was founded by former Microsoft and Symantec executive Vern Raburn; its investors include Bill Gates.

The Eclipse 500 Jet, now undergoing FAA certification testing, is a six-place twin-jet aircraft that weighs less than 5,700 pounds fully loaded, half a ton lighter than a Cadillac Escalade.

The 500 is powered by Pratt & Whitney's new PW610F, one of several new small jet engines designed for VLJs.

Next Page: The consequences of the computer revolution.

The consequences of the

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Powerplants such as the PW610F are themselves a consequence of the computer revolution.

Without computer-aided design and supercomputer-hosted computational fluid dynamics simulations, the PW610F, and the VLJs themselves, could never have been built.

The computer systems in the new VLJs are based directly on modern microprocessor technology.

The ultra-bright flat-panel displays and the computers for flight control, engine management and navigation are not the same products you'd find in a Dell catalog, but they use commodity components wherever possible to help reduce costs.

These systems run custom software based on real-time operating systems—not Windows or Linux—and are specially designed to provide the necessary reliability across a wider range of thermal and mechanical stresses.

The lighting in the Eclipse 500 comes from the semiconductor industry—all cabin lights are made with LEDs rather than conventional incandescent bulbs.

It's this sort of technology that aviation entrepreneurs such as Raburn are bringing to the market after decades of stagnation caused by regulatory hurdles and concerns over legal liabilities.

Though not all of these issues have been resolved, strong demand from business travelers looking to save time and avoid some of the inconveniences of regular commercial aviation is pushing the development of these new aircraft.

Raburn says general aviation is "dead between the ears" and laments the building and celebration of 40-year-old private planes.

The new generation of small aircraft seeks to create entirely new markets.

Some computer-industry entrepreneurs aspire to altitudes beyond the 41,000-foot ceiling of the Eclipse 500.

PayPal founder Elon Musk, Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and John Carmack of id Software are all pursuing independent efforts to build manned spacecraft.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded the development of SpaceShipOne, the world's first civilian spacecraft, by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites.

Jeff Bezos has said relatively little about his plans for Blue Origin.

The company's simple Web site defines its mission as "creating an enduring human presence in space."

This is an ambitious but long-term goal; Blue Origin's first vehicle will be a sub-orbital rocket for space tourism.

Rutan's success with SpaceShipOne, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize, is well known.

Allen's investment has already begun to pay off, with Richard Branson's Virgin Group licensing the technology to create Virgin Galactic, a space-tourism startup.

Aviation and spaceflight represent very different challenges from the computer industry, with safety and regulatory concerns computer executives rarely face.

Technology development and government certification create substantial barriers to entering this market—but also serve to protect the substantial investments these pioneers are making in new aerospace technology.

In a way, computer-industry millionaires are repaying a debt.

Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and Pioneer Astronautics, pointed out that "the great computer boom in the 1990s was created by people who were 10 to 13 years old during the Apollo era … They didn't go into the space program, which is why they're rich."