Despite enormous odds, a small aircraft startup hopes to sell the world’s fastest business plane, one styled after a military fighter jet.
Saker Aircraft is pitching its two-seat S-1 as the only airplane able to fly business executives and playboys at just under the speed of sound. The plane will have a maximum speed of Mach 0.99 but will cruise at 0.95, or about 720 miles per hour, a good deal faster than most commercial flights. Why not Mach 1? Federal authorities prohibit supersonic flight over the U.S., because sonic booms are annoying.
The $5 million jet is supposed to appeal to executives who want to zip from Los Angeles to Chicago, or New York to Florida, in about two hours. ”That’s what we’re selling: the fastest aircraft available,” says Saker CEO Sean Gillette, a 25-year-old ex-Air Force pilot from Santa Monica, Calif., who says he has spent about $100,000 of his own savings to design the S-1. The jet’s development is estimated to cost roughly $350 million, with a delivery target date set for sometime in 2019.
The plane’s speed could prove critical for passengers in another important way: There’s no toilet on board. Nor is there a desk, table, or sofa—common amenities on business aircraft, many of which hit speeds only marginally slower than the S-1. (Cessna Aircraft’s Citation X cruises at Mach 0.93 and carries nine passengers, although at $23 million, it’s about 4.5 times the price of the Saker.) The S-1′s lack of comforts for a gazillionaire could hinder sales, although Gillette says the airplane represents a new niche in aviation–quick flights under 1,600 nautical miles. “We know our jet is not going to be for everybody,” he said. External fuel pods will increase the plane’s range to about 2,200 miles, just under the distance for a transcontinental flight.
The S-1, which will also come with an ejection seat option, is counting on the fact that half of all business jet trips are made with one or two passengers, even with planes that can carry 10 or more people. “It’s like one person riding a bus,” says John Narraway, Saker’s marketing director.
Charlie Johnson, the former president and chief operating officer of Cessna, and a former U.S. fighter pilot, has been working with Saker as an advisor. Johnson is also the former president of Aviation Technology Group, which designed a similar aircraft called the Javelin in the early 2000s and collected 120 preorders before financing dried up; the company dissolved in 2008. He predicts that the S-1 will field at least enough orders for the company to produce 50 planes each year for a decade — provided it can find the money to proceed. Gillette says he and Johnson are talking with an investment bank, name undisclosed.
Still, if you have gobs of spare cash and want to fly fast, why not just buy an old fighter jet? That’s what the Google founders,Larry Page and Sergey Brin did in 2008, getting a Dornier Alpha Jet from Europe. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen acquired a Russian MiG 29 two years ago. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, an avid fan of airplanes and boats, has also purchased fighter jets, according to the New York Times.
Fighter jets are relatively cheap, too: A 1980s era L-39 Albatros jet from the former Czechoslovakia can be had for under $200,000, while aged Russian MiGs are sold online for as little as $79,000, less than a high-end Audi. But Johnson says a speed demon with a fat bank account cannot buy current military hardware to fly fast, and he contends that an old fighter jet is far from safe. “The old airplanes require a lot of care and feeding. Nothing in the world is nicer than something that’s brand-new and high-performance,” he says. “When you talk to these guys who want to buy [a fighter], the wives are the ones who roll their eyes.”