Reporter Robert Nutbrown writes about the passenger experience travelling from Melbourne to Auckland in a Dassault Falcon 8X.
As we all know, time is money. The trouble is, time sometimes seems to stand still when you fly commercial.
Whether you travel frequently for work or only occasionally during the holidays, we are all familiar with the question that greets travellers on arrival: “How was your flight?”
It is asked politely, with a hint of dread. Something must have gone wrong.
You got stuck in traffic on the drive out to the airport, or held up in long queues when you finally got there. Your flight was delayed. You were seated near a shouty toddler (possibly mine).
But that common question is asked enthusiastically, and with more than a hint of jealousy, when you fly on a private jet for the first time.
There is no queuing involved whatsoever. You even have your passport checked by the friendly staff from the Australian Border Force as you sip an espresso in the comfort of the lounge.
And once in flight, cruising at Mach 0.85 at an altitude of 41,000 feet, your glass of champagne sits securely on the table in front of you as the Digital Flight Control System holds the aircraft steady.
How was the flight? When you hitch a ride on the Falcon 8X the answer is: “Smooth, ultra-smooth”.
Flying from Melbourne to Auckland
The day begins at Melbourne Jet Base, located at Melbourne Airport. It is the Monday after the Avalon Airshow and French aerospace company Dassault is giving Australian Aviation a chance to experience life in the fast lane.
Having been repositioned the previous day from Avalon Airport – where it had been on static display at the Avalon Airshow – Falcon 8X registration F-GCDP stands gleaming in the morning sunshine.
The aircraft, which is owned by Dassault and used primarily for demonstration flights, is poised to give some prospective customers a first-hand taste of what the company’s flagship business jet has to offer.
Before our departure there is time to admire the beautifully designed private jet facility, which opened in October 2018.
The stylish furnishings at Melbourne Jet Base subtly incorporate a uniquely Australian flavour, with a colour scheme that includes the deep red of Uluru and the playful addition of a koala’s face that emerges from what at first appear to be the random lines of a mural.
More obvious, and perhaps of more interest to aviation enthusiasts, is the Douglas DC-3 known as “Kanana” that is housed in an adjacent hangar. A walk through the venerable aircraft serves as a fitting prelude to a discussion about present-day luxury air travel.
We stroll out to the 8X tri-jet and are welcomed aboard by the pilots and flight attendant.
Today’s flight will take us 1,400nm or so across the Tasman Sea from Melbourne to Auckland in three hours and eight minutes.
The trip over to New Zealand’s largest city is a relatively short hop for the 8X, which has a range of 6,450nm. This means the business jet would be capable of flying non-stop from Auckland to Beijing or Los Angeles.
Derived from the Falcon 7X, which is about 1.1m shorter, the 8X has a maximum operating altitude of 51,000 feet. The newer aircraft – like its forerunner – can do Mach 0.9, though Mach 0.85 is more efficient in terms of the trade-off between higher speed and increased fuel consumption.
We soon get under way. Given the fairly short duration of today’s flight, the aircraft is operating at a relatively light take-off weight compared to its maximum.
Showcasing its ability to access shorter runways, the 8X accelerates aggressively and quickly lifts off, climbing steeply away from the airport.
From the point of view of the passengers in the rear-facing seats it is clear the seatbelt is not just for show. But after this initial burst of energy the aircraft settles into what feels by comparison like a stately cruise.
Comfort in the cabin
Looking around, it is obvious this aircraft has been designed with comfort very much front of mind.
As you converse with your fellow passengers what you notice is that it is remarkably quiet compared with a typical commercial aircraft cabin. With the level of noise while in flight similar to that of a meeting room back on the ground, Dassault says that no business jet has a quieter cabin than the 8X.
Gazing out of the window you can see the flexible wing bending, thereby reducing the effects of turbulence.
And by maintaining the cabin altitude at the equivalent of just 3,900 feet, while the aircraft is cruising at an altitude of 41,000 feet, the inevitable tiredness that passengers experience when flying longer distances should be alleviated. (By way of comparison, a modern commercial aircraft such as the Airbus A350 has a cabin altitude of 6,000 feet.)
Customers can select a cabin layout that suits their particular needs, and could even choose to equip their 8X with a shower.
Throughout the flight the refreshments keep on coming – from sashimi to macarons – but eventually it seems like time to really get down to business with a trip to the flight deck.
Dassault is keen to highlight the fact that it also manufactures military aircraft, notably the Rafale fighter.
The 8X is fitted with the FalconEye combined vision system, which has its origins in military technology and was developed in partnership with Elbit Systems.
The head-up display (HUD) blends synthetic terrain-mapping imagery with actual images captured by thermal and low-light cameras, improving situational awareness for pilots when flying in adverse weather conditions.
FalconEye has been certified on the 8X for use on approaches down to 100 feet, and approval is expected to be granted in 2020 for the system’s use in a dual HUD configuration for landing without a direct view of the runway.
But today the weather is fine and the view clear. Time flies, and it is not long before we reach the New Zealand coastline.
The aircraft is soon on the ground at Auckland Airport. We come to a stop right outside the Air Center One Corporate Jet Terminal, where the lounge is more homely than high-end.
Customs, immigration and quarantine formalities are completed with an absolute minimum of fuss inside the private terminal, and it is only a few short steps out to our ground transport bound for the city.
While today’s journey has been far from taxing, it is not hard to imagine how pleasant it would be to receive such a warm Kiwi welcome as a weary traveller jetting in from Asia or the west coast of the US.
VIDEO: A look at the Dassault Falcon 8X’s around-the-world tour in 2016 from the manufacturer’s YouTube channel.
Dassault hopes its Falcon 8X will soon have a home in Australia and New Zealand
Since handing over the first 8X in October 2016, Dassault has delivered some 55 of the jets. But none have been purchased in Australia or New Zealand so far.
There are currently about 20 of the company’s Falcon family of aircraft operating in this part of the world.
And according to Jean Michel Jacob, president of Dassault Aviation Asia Pacific, the company expects to add another five new Falcon jets of an unspecified type to this total within the next 12 months, most likely in Australia.
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