Phenomenal fun in the Phenom 300E
Altitudes test pilot David Zara was delighted to shed his preconceptions about Embraer jets in praise of the Phenom 300E.
Surprisingly, in more than 33 years in aviation, not one of my 11,000 flying hours had been at the controls of an Embraer jet. I had been in the back of a few Legacy 600s as a passenger, but that doesn’t count. As a mostly Gulfstream pilot, I was also somewhat biased. Embraer products were reputed to be slower and didn’t fly as high. But I still wanted to try one for myself and was pleased when the Brazilian OEM offered me the chance. However, I approached the flight with even more scepticism when I found out it was the Phenom 300E that I was to fly. I had had my eye on one of the larger siblings and thought that I was being given short shrift with this light jet
It turned out that I was completely wrong. Both about Embraer and the aircraft. I loved the Phenom 300E.
The word that best describes the 300E is fun. And while that would do it justice, it wouldn’t begin to tell the full story. The 300E is well engineered and a great aircraft not just for pilots and passengers, bur for maintenance personnel and operators too, and that’s a rare combination.
I hadn’t flown a jet in seven months and thought I would feel rusty, but the Phenom welcomed me with open arms. The cockpit is so well engineered it had me at hello. The Prodigy Touch avionics system is a relative of the Garmin 3000, after some successful surgery by the folks at Embraer. It’s so intuitive I wonder how we didn’t think of it sooner. Imagine flying your iPad and you get the idea. It’s pretty simple. You see the icon on the screen, you touch the icon on the screen, you get what you want. Case closed. The pilots who like to touch buttons, flip switches and tell ‘civilians’ flying is complicated and difficult, will not like this system. Anyone can see it is easy. We’ll have to think of some seriously unpronounceable acronyms to keep the difficulty myth alive.
The 100 is a straight wing aircraft, while the 300 is a swept-wing advanced machine with winglets added for greater performance.
Figure it out
I’ll mention some figures for good measure. The 300E in an enhanced version of the original 300. However, lest you think the 300 is a larger version of the original Phenom 100, it’s not. The 100 is a straight wing aircraft, while the 300 is a swept-wing advanced machine with winglets added for greater performance. The 300E will vault 1,971nm out of a 3,188 foot runway. It will make that flight with more passengers on board and will climb to FL450 after takeoff. It will do all of that at less cost than most, if not all, of its competitors and with airline-like reliability. Now you know why it’s been the best-selling light business jet for more than half a decade. It’s why it was chosen by NetJets for their light jet fleet. The folks at NetJets choose planes they know can withstand heavy usage of over 1,000 hours per year, with amazing dispatch reliability, and minimal downtime for maintenance.
The pre-flight walk-around is simple – there aren’t many things to check. Fuelling is surprisingly easy for an aircraft of this class. There is an external fuel quantity pre-selector in the single point refuelling system. You set it and can then forget about it. It’s nice to see de-icing is via bleed air, like the big boys, and the system feeds and protects the wings, empennage and engine inlets. All other essential systems are electrically heated. Entry into the 300E is via a traditional one piece airstair. Casey Davis and Chris Rogers, my fellow aviators and babysitters for the flight, invited me to try closing the door and it felt sturdy and well balanced. A two-place divan welcomed me before I made a right turn into a cabin that is large and has a good eye line, thanks to intelligently designed seats and more. The new seats are made in-house and have very clever retractable armrests – a feature that should put an end to snagged shoulder bags. There are new upper tech panels, side ledges and sidewalls, and they make maintaining the new window shades a snap.
The ceiling now incorporates gaspers, halo, dome and reading lights and optional drop-down TV screens in a fluid and, more importantly, flush manner. No projecting corners for your forehead to find. The capacitive screens are dark until you need something. As soon as your finger approaches a screen the task you desire is laid out for you – like an IPad, only better. The cabin entertainment continues to impress, with really cool features courtesy of the Lufthansa Nice HD system, but what makes the cabin truly special is its oval shape, which adds more head and legroom than your traditional fuselage shape.
There are three layout configurations with thousands of possible options. Maximum passenger numbers range from nine to 11, not a small number for a light jet. The aforementioned Nice system lives up to its name, with controls so easy even an adult can understand them. Teens will appreciate the optional subwoofer and great sound when trying to annoy their elders. Everyone will love the audio and video on-demand wireless streaming system for both iOS and android devices to bridge the generation gap.
The stand-by instrument is also electronic and has its own dedicated pitot for extra safety. Even the emergency checklists are simplified for added safety, with fewer chimes and aural tones to reduce pilot workload.
There is a refreshment centre that you’d find in larger aircraft and a dual zone climate control system so men and women and Europeans and Americans no longer have to argue about the air conditioning.
The fully-enclosed, solid door lavatory in the aft of the cabin has two windows giving it an airy feeling, but the most distinguishing feature is that the system is externally serviced. Gone are the dark days when crews had to manually remove a tray from the toilet and walk it the length of the cabin and down the stairs to remove any unwelcome souvenirs of the flight.
I sat in the back for a while and can confirm the cabin is quiet and the seats are even more comfortable than advertised, but what really got me going is flying the 300E.
The pilots’ seats have plenty of adjustments and the view out front is generous. Engine startup is a no stress affair. Activate the start button for each engine and you are pretty much done. Prepping the plane for departure is very quick, and not just because Casey knows the plane inside out. The pre-flight checklist is basically: start the engines; set the brakes; set the flaps; go. Taxiing is done via the rudders and you get about 20 degrees of range without using differential braking, which is more than enough for almost anything but parking on a tight ramp. Taxiing smoothly made me look like a pro, and once cleared by Melbourne Tower I shoved the throttles forward and the 300E leapt out of the gate.
Acceleration is startling. I think we were airborne in about 1,000 feet, even though it was a hot day. The controls are firm. Casey had reminded me twice while taxiing to pull the nose to 20 degrees immediately after clearing the ground, lest we bust some airspeeds. He wasn’t wrong. You better be ready to have some serious explaining to do with the FAA if you don’t point this thing way up to the sky, because it wants to climb and climb in a hurry. Think of an amusement park ride but better and more fun.
The screens are easy to see, even on a bright Florida day. I chose the synthetic vision display, because I think it’s the safest mode. We were given a clearance to 5,000 feet and made it up there in little over a minute before levelling off. There is no traditional trim wheel and the electric trim is very fast. We asked for and received a clearance for Flight Level 450 and, even with the hold, made it up in 23:30 minutes despite temperatures around ISA+11 all the way to FL420, when we finally hit an inversion. At Mach .74 and ISA-10, fuel flow was a low 828 pounds.
The pressurisation system is excellent at 9.3 PSI, and at FL450 we had a comfortable cabin altitude of 6,600 feet. The stand-by instrument is also electronic and has its own dedicated pitot for extra safety. Even the emergency checklists are simplified for added safety, with fewer chimes and aural tones to reduce pilot workload. The synoptic screens are also designed for easier understanding. They are designed for pilots, not engineers.
One of my favourite components was the radar. The decluttering feature in the GWX 70 was helpful, but the vertical scan was awe-inspiring, although I would have liked an altitude measuring capability. It would eliminate having to use mental maths to calculate the altitude of the cells in front and coupled with spherics, significantly enhance safety by allowing pilots to quickly judge the severity of weather ahead. The turbulence detection feature is quite a plus in an aircraft this size.
One great optional feature is SurfaceWatch. Runway incursions remain a danger. This system eliminates the risk of an inadvertent incursion. Aural runway distance remaining callouts are a nice bonus. One more system designed to keep crew and passengers safe is a reactive windshear alerting feature, active when landing below 1,000 feet. I had thought that the cockpit was the last place that could offer me peace from electronic annoyance, but I found out that the Prodigy avionics can now receive SMS text messages. Some people will like that.
We did some steep turns, and the 300E handled it with ease. Extending airbrakes produced nary a complaint, though the descent rate increased substantially, which is what we wanted. Setting up the approach was child’s play and landing not much more difficult. Not to brag, but I greased it each time, though the credit must go to the 300E. For our last landing, Casey asked me to try stomping on the brakes hard, to check the short field capabilities of the 300E. I did and I can say without a doubt the brakes are amazing. It’s the only aircraft in its class with BBW brakes, and it shows.
One thing I’m particular about is luggage space. The external nose compartment is standard and nothing spectacular with a weight limit of 110 lbs. It’s good enough for some soft luggage and catering supplies. The rear external hold is very large in classic Embraer tradition. It’s 66 cubic feet or almost two cubic metres and a generous 463 lbs. That’s good enough for six garment bags, six carry-on suitcases, six computer bags and six pairs of skis. This ought to put a stop to family squabbles about what you can and cannot bring.
Owners and operators will appreciate the 300E’s low operating costs and ease of maintenance. Embraer’s airline heritage is a huge advantage as its designers are keen on widespread use of Line Replacement Units. LRUs are easy to replace and greatly reduce lengthy maintenance events. The Pratt & Whitney PW535E Dual Fadec engines have a high 5,000-hour TBO and pump out 3360 lbs of thrust per side. They are the highest flat-rated engines and TBO in their class. Inspection intervals are spaced at 12 months or 600 hours per year. This is an aircraft your maintenance department will love. There are 71 service centres worldwide and a generous warranty programme. It’s also a bird your CFO will adore. Operating costs are low and it uses little fuel.
How does the 300E stack against the competition? Quite well is the answer. It has better range; it’s faster, needs less runway for takeoff and uses less acreage for landing. It has over 100 nautical miles more range when departing Aspen and more than 500 nautical miles extra range when taking off from a 9,000ft high airport. It consumes less fuel and has better payload. It explains why more than 466 Phenom 300 and 300E units have been delivered across the world.
It feels good, flies well, but most importantly is more than the sum of its parts – it has sole. An aircraft is by definition a compromise. They are all good in their respective ways, but some are definitely better than others, and that’s where the 300E sits. It’s a clean-sheet design, though it’s very much the descendant of a long airline heritage. And the cherry on the phenomenally fun 300E cake? It’s certified for single-pilot operations. I really have had to check my bias!