Citation 500: Definitely Not a VLJ PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Cox   
Thursday, 24 February 2011 13:39

Isn’t it interesting that the current new wave of mini-business turbines, known as very light jets (VLJs), advertise themselves with speeds in the 310 to 360 knot range? Until recently, when Adam, Eclipse, Maverick and Viper fell by the wayside, everyone seemed to think that was fast enough.

Well folks, guess what? That’s exactly the kind of speed Cessna offered some four decades ago with the Citation 500, and that airplane could carry eight people. In those days, everyone thought of Learjets and Falcons as the prevailing corporate transports, and many laughed at anything that couldn’t knock off .80 Mach (460 knots) at 35,000 feet. People made jokes about the airplane, calling it the Nearjet and the Slowtation and citing the problem of bird strikes — on the trailing edge of the wing.

Most of the folks who were laughing back then aren’t laughing now. They’ve had to swallow their scorn as the Citation 500 and its progeny have become the most popular jets above the planet. These days, Cessna sells the world’s fastest business jet, the Citation 10, at Mach .92 (528 knots), and a variety of other corporate jets that range in speed and seating capacity down to the Mustang’s 340 knots and six luxury buckets.

Though there’s often little physical resemblance between today’s modern Citations and those first, straight-wing, cruciform tail airplanes, the Citation family has collectively sold nearly a third of all the business jets built in the last quarter-century.

Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the Citation wasn’t Cessna’s first jet. The company won a government contract in 1952 to produce the U.S. Air Force T-37 “Tweet” primary trainer, fitted with tiny, 927-pound-thrust Continental jet engines. The T-37 was a major success, and Cessna speculated about stretching and expanding that airplane to create a civilian model: a four-seat jet that would cruise at 400 knots as high as 46,000 feet.

Cessna finally decided the numbers wouldn’t work in those early days, and it was left to Morane-Saulnier to introduce the world’s first business jet, the MS-760, itself a variation on a military trainer. Morane-Saulnier attempted to form a coalition with Beech to market the airplane in the United States in the late 1950s, but the deal fell through.

The Lockheed JetStar, an aborted, four-engine military project, came next, and finally, the spectacularly successful Learjet 23 premiered in 1965. That airplane wound up defining the class. Not surprisingly, the original Learjet 23 was Bill Lear’s variation on a military design, the Swiss P-16 fighter.

Cessna was still convinced the market would respond to a medium-priced, medium-performance jet that could operate into abbreviated runways, and they spent $35 million developing what was originally called the FanJet 500. At the time, Cessna’s investment represented 50 percent of the company’s net worth. Many industry observers hypothesized there was no way the Wichita aerospace firm would ever recover their development expense, and some felt the renamed Citation 500 would be the company’s downfall.

Cessna tested and tweaked the design for three years, following its plan to produce a short-field jet that could land at the majority of the world’s airports. The forward fuselage was lengthened, the cruciform horizontal tail was redesigned with greater area and higher dihedral, and the engine nacelles were repositioned.

Cessna ignored its critics and bravely introduced the first Citation in late 1971. The airplane could transport eight to nine folks in a cabin that was four inches wider and two inches taller than a 421, with two pilots up front and as many as seven passengers in back. Never mind that it was 100 knots slower and flew 10,000 feet below the competition; Cessna had faith that it would sell.

It did. The Citation premiered at a price of $695,000 (compared to the Learjet 24D at $850,000), and Cessna sold 250 of its new jets in the first five years. The company knew the airplane would compete head-on with twin turboprops that could be operated by a single pilot, and to that end, they introduced a single-pilot version of the renamed Citation 1, the Citation 1/SP. The Citation 1 and 1/SP quickly established the type as the world’s most popular jet. (It’s significant that the same airplane sells today on the used market for $300,000 to $400,000.)

My friends John and Martha King of King Schools in San Diego, Calif., purchased a used Citation 500 in 1987 after years of flying a Cessna piston twin. They operated the Citation all over the United States for the next 14 years.

“We stepped up from a Cessna 340,” says Martha King, “and though the Citation was a much larger airplane, it was an easy transition, because it followed the basic Cessna multi-engine philosophy. The cockpit was laid out very much the same, and most of the switches were in the same places. Stepping up from the 340 was very simple, though you obviously needed to adjust to the higher speeds. The Citation was about 50-percent faster than the 340, but most of that was at high altitude, so the speed difference was fairly transparent in the landing pattern.”

John King laughs and says, “We used to call our airplane a Citation Zero because it was one of the early models, serial number 142. Cessna started labeling the first model 500s as Citation 1s, and the single-pilot models were designated Citation 1/SPs. Ours was an original two-pilot airplane, and though it was possible to upgrade it to single-pilot capability, we nearly always flew together, so we left it original.”

The Kings operated their airplane as a mini-airliner and had it configured for up to nine people, two crew and seven passengers. “Full fuel payload was surprisingly good,” Martha comments. “We could fly with nearly full seats and full fuel, and we did exactly that many times, carrying employees across the country to air shows and business meetings.

“While we could never quite compete with the airlines on seat mile operating costs, we could fly on our schedule to wherever we wished, with anyone aboard that we chose and we always knew our baggage would arrive at the same time and place we did,” Martha continues. “At FL350, we saw a fairly consistent 330 to 340 knots, about the same numbers as today’s proposed VLJs, on a burn of about 400 pounds per engine per hour. Mmo (maximum operating Mach number) was .705 and we typically cruised just below .60 Mach.

“With full tanks, we could fly nonstop San Diego to Wichita but usually not nonstop coming home,” Martha explains. “Flying cross-country to Florida or the East Coast was often a similar experience, usually one stop eastbound and two stops westbound because of the prevailing westerlies.”

In 2001, the Kings stepped up to a Falcon 10 that flies 50-percent faster with 50-percent better range, but they offer nothing but kudos for their old mount. “That was a truly wonderful airplane,” says John. “It was a great way to enter the jet class, with seat mile costs that compete with today’s airplanes, and it remains an excellent first step for those transitioning out of piston twins.”

Indeed, the basic Citation scores about 100 knots better cruise than the fastest piston twin, the Aerostar 700, and it beats most turboprops by at least 50 knots. A 1972 or ‘73 vintage Citation 1 costs about $300,000 in reasonable condition. Perhaps better still, you can buy a ‘78 model for $600,000 with more wing, higher gross, a 41,000 foot service ceiling and thrust reversers, a feature that further enhances one of the airplane’s already strong suits: short-field performance. Using reverse thrust, Citations could land and, more importantly, leap out of 3,000 foot strips. At a $600,000 price of admission, this means even the later model costs less than a quarter the price of the least expensive new jet, the Cessna Mustang.

All is not golden for the original Citation 500, however. By jet standards, the littlest Citation was considered underpowered. Climb rate from sea level was a respectable 2,700 feet per minute (fpm), but ascents to the airplane’s service ceiling of 35,000 feet were laborious, often demanding step-climbing and as much as an hour to burn down fuel before reaching optimum altitude.

Similarly, the age of the original Citation 500s means they’re saddled with antiquated systems and antediluvian avionics by today’s standards. You’d need to replace practically the entire panel and upgrade systems or plan on spending considerable money for maintenance.

The good news is that early Citations have no specified airframe life, so it’s possible to update the airplane with aerodynamic modifications, new engines and improved avionics basically forever. One company, Sierra Industries of Uvalde, Texas, has specialized in marketing replacement engines, modified wings, larger fuel tanks and a variety of other improvements, and so far, they’ve converted some 175 of the existing 450 airplane fleet, an impressive 39-percent market penetration.

Former astronaut and Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman purchased Sierra’s Eagle II conversion, replacing the stock Pratt and Whitney JT15D-1 engines with more efficient Williams FJ44s. I flew Borman’s airplane a few years ago, and the difference is indeed a revelation.

But by any measure, the Citation 500 was the unquestioned popularity champ that led the field in the 1970s. It represents a willingness to explore a market that no one knew existed.

A while back, we were all told that VLJs would be blackening the skies at unheard of low prices, putting upscale piston and turboprop singles and twins out of business. In the intervening years, reality has prevailed, and there are exactly none of the promised airplanes flying except in prototype form (three models are still under development, the PiperJet, Cirrus Vision and Diamond D-Jet).

Even today, nearly 40 years after the Citation’s introduction, the grandfather of the world’s most popular line of turbine corporate aircraft continues to provide viable business transportation for those who can appreciate its simple talents.

From the May 2010 issue of Cessna Owner