The Embraer Phenom 300 has a solid ramp presence and a proud moniker, but does this South American beauty fly as well as it looks and does it live up to its name?
I can’t define the term ramp presence, but the Phenom 300 surely has it. A flight evaluation demands cool objectivity, but I found my pace quickening as I walked across the Calgary International Airport ramp in southern Alberta toward the beautiful and well-proportioned aircraft that awaited me. Embraer brought the Phenom 300 to the 2011 Canadian Business Aircraft Association convention in July to turn heads and sell jets, so I was eager to see if the Phenom 300 would fly as good as it looked. My guide on this test flight would be Andre Caselato, at the time Embraer chief pilot for the Phenom 300 (he was recently promoted to flight operations manager).
From Whence the Phenom
Brazil Embraer achieved its first true commercial success with the ERJ (Embraer Regional Jet) 135 and 145, and then entered the business jet market, adapting these regional airliners into the midsize Legacy series. If that didn’t furrow some brows in Wichita, the 2005 launch of the Phenom series must surely have gotten their attention. The earlier Phenom 100 was, and is, a straight-wing very light jet that survived the brutal growth spurt of the very-light-jet market that saw other companies in this sector come and go (remember Adam Aircraft or Eclipse Aviation?). The Phenom 300 entered the market in 2009, and while it shares the Phenom 100 cockpit design and Oval Lite fuselage cross-section, it is a brand new design.
The eight-to-nine-passenger Phenom 300 nicely straddles the light jet segment of the business jet market. It has a maximum ramp weight of 18,078 pounds (8,200 kilograms). With a full fuel load of 5,353 pounds, the published range is 1,971 nautical miles (3,650 kilometres) and the available payload is 1,142 pounds, which amounts to one crewmember, and four passengers each with 35 pounds of baggage. Of course, if you carry less fuel you can carry more payload; Embraer quotes a maximum payload of 2,416 pounds.
With reference to Embraer published performance, the company quotes a high-speed cruise of 453 knots (839 kilometres an hour) and a maximum operating Mach of 0.78.
Our preflight inspection revealed a very nice fit and finish. I could tell that it was a riveted aluminium structure, but only barely. Fuselage doors and panels are among the structures that are composite. Engine bleed air provides anti-ice protection for the wings, empennage and engine inlets (an ice detector system is optional). All avionics are mounted within the pressure vessel; a feature Embraer feels will enhance reliability. The 66-cubic-foot tail baggage compartment seemed generous, but might require long arms to access. As we passed the right-wing root, Caselato pointed out the provisions for single-point pressure refuelling.
The Phenom 300 is currently the only production aircraft utilizing the 3,360-pound-thrust Pratt & Whitney Canada PW535E engines, flat rated to ISA +15 degrees C (i.e., 15 C above International Standard Atmosphere). Each engine incorporates a FADEC (full authority digital engine control) system, which greatly simplifies the pilot power management chore.
The wing leading edges and tail were clean, having survived certification without the usual airflow tuning devices that give evidence of aerodynamic afterthought. I was preparing to be astonished by Embraer success when Caselato pointed out the ventral rudder yaw damper. Roughly 18 inches of the aft end of the ventral fin has been pressed into service as an independent, electrically actuated control surface. Not connected to the primary controls, it serves only a yaw damping function in the event that the primary yaw damper is disconnected or more to the point were to fail. It was clearly an afterthought, but an elegant solution nonetheless.
At its maximum certified ceiling of 45,000 feet, the Phenom 9.2-pounds-per-square-inch cabin pressure differential keeps the cabin pressurized to 6,600 feet; a feature intended to enhance passenger comfort on long flights.
We entered via the single-piece airstair door, and I initially turned right to assess the cabin comforts. Embraer offers a variety of interior configurations. The basic interior includes six seats in a club-forward arrangement with a generous forward galley. Alternatively, the galley can be exchanged for a smaller version and either an additional seat or a two-place divan. Inclusive of the cockpit seats and the externally serviced, belted lavatory, this adds up to between nine and 11 seats, depending on the configuration.
My first impression upon strapping into the cockpit was that it was modern, comfortable and visually impressive. The glareshield was low and flat, affording quite a satisfactory field of view in every direction. The seats and rudder pedals offered adjustment to accommodate every conceivable size of humanoid. I was also appreciative of the folding armrests on both sides it the little things that keep you comfortable on long flights.
Embraer Prodigy variant of the Garmin G1000 avionics system was bright and attractive, consisting of three 12.4-inch (31.5-centimetre) displays. The system has impressive capability, incorporating electronic checklists, system synoptic pages, synthetic vision, and caution and advisory functionality. In lieu of a traditional flight management system (FMS), Garmin offers an integrated avionics-interface keyboard. Speaking personally, the jury is still out on the Garmin avionics interface. Any pilot originally schooled on round gauges would face a steep learning curve to achieve proficiency on either the Prodigy or typical big box FMS (Universal Avionics, Rockwell Collins or Honeywell). It hard to say which system is easier to use, since most pilots approach them with a degree of prior experience (read bias). One thing I appreciated about the Prodigy, however, is that the interface is considerably less syntax-intensive than an FMS. To my eyes, reading one routing on a typical FMS leg page is like deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. The presentations on the Prodigy screens look more like English. Nevertheless, I trust I’m not the only pilot who has come down with a chronic case of indecisive index finger when confronted with simple tasks on the Prodigy. Of course, given that this system manages a lot of information, memorization of some syntax and keystrokes is probably inevitable. So, which is better, the G1000-derived Prodigy or an FMS? It probably depends upon what you flew last. In any event, the G1000 Prodigy interface is certainly capable and consistent.
Now, as if to prove I’m not shy of controversy, let discuss Embraer characteristic ram horn yokes. While not unique (Hawker jets, the Concorde), these handlebar-style yokes are indeed distinctive. The verdict: I love them. They blocked less of the instrument panel from view than a traditional yoke and provided a comfortable grip when hand flying. Embraer has mounted the yoke on a slightly angled shaft within the panel such that the yoke moves slightly upwards as it moves aft, ensuring clearance for full aileron displacement as the yoke moves aft over the thick part of the thigh. I found the controls for trim, autopilot disconnect and sync, and push-to-talk all conveniently arranged. In fact, overall, I found the handlebar yokes a very pleasant innovation.
Embraer is proud of the Phenom single-pilot certification, and subtle workload-saving thinking is evident in the design. For example, there is no switch for the anti-collision lights. They simply operate whenever either engine switch is in the run position. Similarly, the boost pumps turn themselves on whenever the aircraft is configured for takeoff. Perhaps the most interesting feature was the takeoff-configuration button, which, when depressed, checks that the flaps, trim, spoilers and parking brake are correctly configured for takeoff. I appreciate the idea, but having to remember to depress a button is hardly the way to discover if you have remembered to set the flaps. Nevertheless, it a good step enroute to full systems automation and does add a degree of comfort.
Phlying the Phenom
Releasing the parking brake set the Phenom immediately into motion, betraying considerable idle thrust. I found myself riding the brakes almost constantly as we taxied to Calgary runway 34. Ground handling was precise using the direct mechanical nose-wheel steering. The carbon brake-by-wire system was a bit grabby and unpredictable, so a bit of practice would be required to avoid spilling the passengers’ martinis. Also, the nose wheel turning radius alone was insufficient to negotiate tight corners, so supplementary braking and a jab of throttle were required. I found the pedal force gradient during taxiing slightly fatiguing, and pardon my complaining, but the pedal angle was also too pointy toed for my liking (i.e., quite a reach forward with the toes to achieve any brake pressure).
The pre-takeoff checklist was quick and simple, and we were soon ready to roll. Our takeoff weight was 16,160 pounds (7,330 kilograms), 1,808 pounds below maximum. For a 15-degree-Celsius (59-degree-Fahrenheit) morning at Calgary 3,500-foot elevation, the calculated takeoff field length was 3,065 feet (934 metres).
With the thrust levers advanced to the TO/GA (takeoff/go-around) position, the requirement for firm pedal pressure to hold static thrust provided a hint of what was to come. Brake release yielded exhilarating acceleration. Tracking the centreline was effortless, and the decision/rotation speed of 103 knots indicated airspeed (KIAS) was upon us in seconds. The required rotation force was comparably light for this class of aircraft, estimated at 20 pounds.
We quickly settled into the climb, and while the flight director displayed a target pitch attitude of about 12 degrees, Caselato had briefed me to capture something closer to 20 degrees lest we over-speed the 170 KIAS flap speed limit. The result was a rather decisive initial climb, followed by a distinct step as we retracted the flaps, flattened the climb and accelerated to a more conventional 225 KIAS climb speed.
Configuration changes during takeoff were nearly transparent. The trim rate was just right to allow quick jabs at the yoke-mounted switch to keep up with acceleration.
Time constraints necessitated a local, low-altitude test flight. Calgary terminal took a few minutes sorting out our Brazilian accent, whereupon we were granted a block of airspace in which to work. The first order of business was to simply sit back, fly for a few minutes and get a feel for what $8.5 million US will buy. My initial impressions were of a pleasant, friendly jet with good control harmony and satisfying response. Level speed changes were easily performed, with modest trim adjustments required from power changes.
Being a single-pilot jet, the Phenom should be easy and forgiving to fly. So, I decided to focus on handling qualities with the inexperienced single pilot in mind. I started by looking at the stall characteristics: the stall protection system ensures you won’t miss it. Proximity to the stall is indicated by red visual cues on the airspeed tape, aural cues in the form of a female voice calling Stall! Stall! a faint airframe buffet, and then, if you are stubborn, the stick pusher. At our operating weight, pusher actuation occurred at 99 KIAS in the clean configuration and 88 KIAS with the landing gear and flaps extended. The feel of the pusher was akin to pulling the trigger on a shotgun, wherein the recoil pushes the stick ahead with sufficient force to overcome any contrary ideas the pilot may have. Even a pilot lacking in self-preservation instincts and maintaining continuous back pressure after the pusher fired would be kept out of trouble. I tried it. The result was an entertaining rocking horse ride through multiple crescendos of angle of attack and pusher activation. We did stalls in various configurations, all with the same benign effect.
Upon completion of our stall sequence, we simulated a go-around in the landing configuration. At my request, Caselato pulled a throttle to idle to simulate an engine failure, leaving me to capture the single-engine safety speed of 113 KIAS. After a very brief delay, the rudder boost system activated, alleviating most of the asymmetric thrust. No fancy footwork was required, and thanks to the automatic thrust-reserve system and plenty of engine performance, single-engine handling really didn’t present much of a challenge.
Too soon it was time to return to Calgary, and Caselato warned me that the Phenom 300 is a clean ship. Trying to be helpful to air traffic control, I kept my speed up until final approach and found myself a bit high and tight when the runway came into view. Thankfully, I recalled the generous 250 KIAS landing gear extension speed. Dropping the wheels into the wind was remarkably quiet and smooth, with only a barely detectable trim change, but, to my disappointment, it added only a touch of drag. Likewise, extending Flap 1 (12 degrees) at 180 KIAS and Flap 3 (24 degrees) at 170 KIAS required little compensation on my part. Embraer touch showed here, as flap deployment was rather a stately business. Unfortunately for me, the speedbrakes are locked out after flap deployment, as those same multifunction panels serve as roll spoilers on approach.
Finally squared away at our approach speed of 113 KIAS, the landing proved hardly challenging. Touchdown was satisfying on the trailing-link landing gear. Strong braking power was in evidence, but once again the brakes were a bit grabby during the rollout.
What to Make of the Phenom
Flying the Phenom 300 was a pleasant experience and gives every reason to think that owning and operating one would be a sensible choice. The Phenom 300 is a competitively priced and capable light jet from a company that is clearly playing for keeps. I would guess the only people that wouldn’t enjoy the Phenom likely live in Kansas. Its generous and nicely appointed cabin, well-equipped cockpit and gentle handling qualities position it for considerable success in the light jet market.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, Rob Erdos is an experimental test pilot licenced for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. In addition to being an engineering graduate from the Royal Military College, and holding a masters degree in aviation systems research, Rob is a former Canadian Air Force SAR pilot. An avid airplane builder, and a passionate flyer of historical aircraft for Vintage Wings of Canada, Rob flies such iconic planes as the Spitfire and Hurricane.