Falcon 900LX: Proven performer

Reviews — 22.10.18 BY David Zara

The feeling I got from this short session can be distilled into two simple facts. This bird flies like a finely tuned fighter, and the avionics are incredibly intuitive. Although I had some familiarity with the avionics suite from the Gulfstream 450, with which it shares some traits, the 900LX avionics still felt easy to understand. Gulfstream and their PlaneView cockpit and Dassault with EASy both use Honeywell EPIC hardware, but with different philosophies in their implementation. With Dassault, there is not only logic built into the system, there is intelligent logic behind the entire avionics architecture in the aircraft. Essentially, the engineers at Dassault must have asked a lot of questions of pilots before deciding on the set up. One reason they knew what to ask is that they are often pilots themselves.

Dassault is unusual in many ways. One is that the company is still run by the family whose name graces the front door, and family-run businesses tend to be driven by passionate people. Another is that, unlike most manufacturers, civilian and military pilots labour side by side. Dassault says fighters are intrinsically woven into the DNA of every Falcon jet and I feel it is true. Eric Gerard, who flew the Falcon 8X’s maiden flights, was the demo pilot in the Rafale fighter for the French Air Force for many years. Dassault prefers its test pilots to have seen more than just one aspect of aviation. Military pilots must be able to point the aircraft into the best position to perform their tasks. The actual flying and navigation is secondary to the task they need to perform. They have less time and less screen space to control the aircraft. They need to glance at one screen and understand everything that is happening.

I feel the Dassault engineers have succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. What you see in the HUD is exactly what is shown on the screens. You aim your circle to place it in the flight director’s circle to achieve your goal. It’s that EASY.

Cold in the hot seat

The next day dawned bright and bitterly cold in Teterboro. At the company’s flight department offices, I was introduced to Franco Nese. Nese is Dassault’s Chief Pilot, Flight-Operations Teterboro and a very serious pilot. We had briefed the flight the day before, but we went over what we would be doing once more. Briefing over, his serious demeanour was replaced by a bright smile as he led me to the aircraft.

I was not so brightly eager. Suffering from a heavy head cold and busy concentrating on keeping warm, I was not really in the mood to wax lyrical. My first thoughts were that the Falcon 900LX on the apron seemed bulbous rather than sleek. However, slowly, I had to admit that you could more kindly describe her as being fuller-figured; a curvy Sophia Loren to today’s more thin, angular models.

The aircraft had been prepared ahead of time and we slipped into our seats. The seat tracks well and it was easy to find a comfortable position. I was given the honour of the left seat. The start up is simple. You have DEEK protection, a sort of FADEC that controls the starting procedure. All you have to do is advance the fuel shutoff detente in the number two engine and switch the start selector to the start position, and the engine starts. The sequence is rapid and in seconds the engine is happily idling. The number three engine is started next the same way, followed by the number one. This is done with no agitas and very little work. The Honeywell TFE 731-60s consume only about 190lbs per engine at idle. Thy produce 5,000lbs of thrust and are a far cry from the GIV I am accustomed to, which drinks 1,400lbs at idle.

I love the electronic checklists. They are simple, intuitive and mercifully short. They are also easy to run through on the screens and clearly viewable by both pilots.

Simple, smart and safe

Taxiing is easy and precise and it took me all of two seconds to get used to the tiller wheel, which you must press to activate. It becomes second nature within seconds and you’ll find out the consequences fast if it doesn’t. This Falcon has very tight turning radius and can do 180s even on narrow runways. The tiller wheel is precise and not grabby. I won’t claim I was as precise and smooth as I would have liked, but I didn’t embarrass myself either, although the aircraft should take all the credit. ,

We were cleared for take off. I advanced the throttles and the bird leapt into the sky. Even though we were carrying 10,000lbs of fuel, out of a possible 20,905lbs, and could be said to be at mid-weight, I gather we used less than 2,000 feet of runway with a six-knot headwind component, albeit at -8C. VMCA is a low 85kts and V1 and V2 were low enough to me double-check the screens.

There is an interesting distinction I should mention. Unlike the Gulfstreams I am used to flying, the auto-throttles on the 900LX don’t engage until you are about 400 feet in the air. Dassault feels the crew should set the take off power and, should an abort be necessary, they will have less to do. Rather than having to disengage the auto-throttles and reduce power at a crucial and stressful moment, the crew has simply to pull back the throttles eliminating one step in the process. I wasn’t immediately sold on the concept, but on reflection I like it. It’s the same logic that permeates throughout the whole aircraft. Keep it simple, keep it smart, keep it safe.

Redundancy design

The climb was brisk, taking just 70 seconds to make it to our initial 60,000ft altitude. The next clearance of FL230 was equally expeditious, though at 260kts indicated it’s slower than I am used to. It seems that 260 and 0.74 or 0.77 work well for a climb in this aircraft. We were cleared to FL410 and given a heading towards Cambridge VOR in Massachusetts. Transitioning from head to LNV mode and back is easy. Nese requested a block altitude between FL390 and 410 and sufficient airspace for some manoeuvres. We did some steep turns and surprisingly I didn’t feel the need for any trimming. The control forces were light throughout the whole spectrum.

The process was highly tactile and the yolk transmitted what the plane did and wanted to do clearly and without hesitation. The forces were linear and incredibly pleasant. Nese suggested we do a simulated loss of pressurisation with a high-speed descent. In no time we accelerated past the aircraft’s 0.887 MMO without any Mach tuck, nor surprisingly any vibration. It felt exceedingly safe. Flight test crews have taken it way past MMO with no problems. It was actually eerily quiet and smooth and the aircraft never even shuddered. Recovery was smooth and we levelled off at FL230.

We were turned to ALB VOR and started preparing for our arrival to TEB. I wanted to see how labour intensive it is to prepare an arrival into a high-density airport, but Nese had set up the arrival into the FMS before I could even react. Granted his fingers make the avionics sing, but without taking anything away from his considerable skills, all I can say is that it looked easy. It was certainly fast and required few steps. The trackballs are ergonomic and very intuitive, and I think I prefer them to the G450 sidesticks.

I also love the terrain feature and synthetic vision on the screens. Weather and traffic is easily blended into a tridimensional view, able to be absorbed even by older pilots, used to steam gauges. One pet peeve of mine, although almost everyone I know disagrees and thinks I am a curmudgeon for saying it, is that I like the speed-tape to show increasing speed descending, while every aircraft except GIVs show increased speed going up. Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for 99.9% of the remaining pilot population, Dassault decided to go with the majority. However, the systems can be easily monitored in the screens and trouble-shooting and safety are greatly enhanced when failures can be seen rather than intuited. The electric system is simplicity itself. It’s a DC aircraft. End of lesson.

The hydraulic system is equally simple. There is a left system and a right system and everything driven by each system is clearly depicted on the screens. One look and you know what you have and what you have lost. Simplicity and redundancy design extend to the landing gear. Should everything fail you simply drop the gear and gravity does the rest. One might be tempted to do a jiggle with the pedals to ensure proper deployment and I probably would, but Dassault says it’s unnecessary.

Low speed approach

The auto-throttles combined with the autopilot did a fine job of transitioning the plane from 300kts to 250kts below 10,000ft. The autopilot has a CLB mode for climb. The auto-throttles are either off or on, but come on should speed protection be needed: a good way to avoid Asiana-type accidents. Strangely enough, there is no need for a stick-shaker and the aircraft was certified without one. Approach is easy and my only concern was lower speeds than I am accustomed to. The FMS calculated a leisurely 116kts Vref. The plane felt rock-solid. My only concern, and it turned out to be unfounded, was the lower speeds for the flap extension. I am used to 250kts for flaps 10 degrees, and the 900LX requires you slow down to 200kts. The aircraft has slats that extend with every flap position and the transition is smooth and barely perceptible to passengers. Landing is a cinch and touchdown was a sweet end to a most delightful flight. Unlike the GIV, braking aggressively in the 900LX is smooth and there is only one thrust reverser. It’s mounted high in the centre engine, so there is no risk of FOD ingestion. While the lone thrust reverser is nowhere near as effective as Gulfstream’s twin power barrels, it is quiet and there is none of that potential tail wagging I have grown used to. It took about 2,600ft to slow down to taxiing speed and I feel this aircraft could be safely flown out of much shorter fields.

Tailor-made for comfort

The flight deck is only half of the testing of an aircraft, and I was looking forward to checking out the cabin comforts. The experience was truly amazing. The landing gear absorbed all the irregularities of the taxiway. Take off felt linear and smooth. Lift off was gradual and with barely a shudder we were airborne and accelerating. The crew upfront led the way and the cabin pressurisation system worked miracles. Despite a nasty cold blocking my sinuses, my ears barely felt the climb and descent. There was no pressure bumping and temperature control felt tailor-made for comfort. Sea level can be maintained up to 23,586ft and with a pressure differential of 9.6psi an 8,000ft cabin can be kept at 51,000ft. A more likely scenario is a 6,600ft cabin at 45,000ft. It’s not absolutely perfect, but it’s enough. We departed from an oven-like Las Vegas and landed at a frozen Teterboro and the temperature stayed comfortably constant throughout the entire flight.

One thing I had noticed when upfront was how quiet the cockpit was. There was barely any wind noise, even during our high-speed dive, and although I didn’t experience a dive as a passenger, I can attest to how quiet the cabin is within the aircraft’s normal operating range. There is never any need to raise one’s voice to conduct a conversation. The fit and finish of the interior is flawless, and the luggage area is accessible up to FL410, large at 127 cubic feet and easily accessible for crews to load.

Designed for efficiency

The 900LX has much to make owners and operators happy. First, the aircraft’s low 49,000lbs maximum takeoff weight means smaller overflight, landing, handling and parking fees. From the viewpoint of an owner paying fuel bills, as well as a global citizen concerned about leaving a smaller ecological footprint, the 900LX really shines. This aircraft consumes 50-to-60 per cent less fuel than most of its competitors. These are some pretty serious numbers and they translate into some pretty big savings over the life of ownership.

The 900LX was designed for efficiency and it translates into both operating savings and long legs. It can fly 4,750 nautical miles with standard NBAA reserves. This means Riyadh to Cape Town or London to Seattle is possible on one small tank of Jet A. I was also impressed by the fuel consumption at different speeds. Most aircraft have exponential fuel consumption ratios at different speeds. The 900LX’s fuel consumption is pretty much linear. Choosing Mach 0.77, Mach 0.80 or Mach 0.83 only makes a small difference in fuel flows. Owners and operators greatly appreciate the efficiency and pilots think it’s not too shabby either.

There is only one thing I really don’t like about the 900LX. I don’t have one and want one. Time to check out the brokerage ads.