““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Cessna Citation Excel
The idea for the Cessna Citation Excel was not new: Combine light jet economics and runway performance with a comfortable, stand-up cabin. For the Excel, Cessna stuck to its time-tested potion of evolutionary development based on simple and robust systems.
In other words, it went to the parts bin.
The fuselage was a hacked-off version of what the larger, faster Citation X employs. The airfoil and horizontal stabilizer were basically borrowed from the smaller Citation Ultra and Citation V. A pair of new Pratt & Whitney PW545A engines were selected to power the aircraft. The glass-panel avionics were of the era: Honeywell Primus 1000.
Most Excel customers already were firmly in the Cessna camp and were trading up from a Citation V, Ultra or Encore. The Excel hit the sweet spot and the market responded: Cessna delivered 308 between 1998 and the end of 2002 and at its peak produced more than 100 a year. The rush to get airplanes out the door led to some quality-control problems regarding the paint and interior.
Most were minor, but any Excel closing in on its 10th birthday will likely need paint and/or interior refurbishment. Nate Klenke, a completion sales rep at Duncan Aviation in Lincoln, Neb., estimates a full paint job for the aircraft in the $80,000 range and a "soft goods" interior refurb–new seat leather, floor carpet, headliner and sidewall coverings–at $150,000 to $200,000, depending on the materials.
Updated variants of the airplane, the XLS and XLS+, also have sold well. The Excel has held its value comparatively well and good used ones can be had for less than $4 million.
For that price you get a lot. The Excel features seating for eight passengers, 90 cubic feet of luggage space (80 of that is external), nearly 1,800 miles of range (with four passengers) and cruise speed that is only a few knots slower than the slipperier Learjet 45A. And you could blast off from runways as short as 3,500 feet and climb directly to 41,000 feet on your way up to 45,000 after you burn off a little fuel. Time to initial cruise altitude can be as little as 15 minutes.
Down low, the airplane is a rocket. However, the engines tend to run out of blow up high and the speed can drop by 35 knots, but the fuel economy is good once you get there. Concerns about adequate thrust prompted Cessna to go with clunky-looking pneumatic de-icing boots on the horizontal stabilizer as opposed to a system that used engine bleed air there.
The trailing link main landing gear softens the initial touchdown, but thanks to the hefty brakes and big thrust reversers, landings in the Excel can feel like traps on an aircraft carrier. The tail section of the airplane actually shakes more than just a little after the reversers are deployed. Initially, passengers may find this a bit disconcerting, but rest assured that nothing has fallen off the back of an XL yet and the aircraft has an excellent safety record.
Excels were available with a variety of floor plans but the most popular one features a forward galley and closet, side-facing two-place divan (see many of my other aircraft reviews for my take on the uselessness of this type of seat) followed by six single executive seats.
Overall, the cabin measures 18.5 feet long, 5.7 feet tall (in the trenched center aisle) and 5.7 feet wide, yielding 461 cubic feet of space. That's more than you get on a pricier Learjet 60, but less than on a Hawker 800. It's a truckload more than what the Beechjet 400A (278) offers.
The six single executive seats are pedestal-mounted and slide and swivel and recline. The degree of recline depends on where they are in the cabin. The seats are arrayed in a forward club-four with two additional single seats behind them that face forward. The aft forward-facing single seats have the least amount of recline. The seats are styled similar to those on the longer, more expensive Citation Sovereign and Citation X models but are two inches narrower.
On early Excels, full-length seat rails were an option that allowed the seat positions to be moved to suit individual preferences; however, this option was not selected often. Rails are standard below the two forward-facing club seats. This allows them to be pushed back to create a generous amount of legroom for the club-seat occupants–albeit at the expense of the hapless passengers in the two seats behind them.
The cabin is well-appointed but not too plush: The window shades are basic pull-down, the lighting isn't overly subtle and the basic in-flight entertainment system is an early iteration of the Rockwell-Collins Airshow–moving map, speed, estimated time of arrival. Many operators of used XLs are opting to refit them with cabin Wi-Fi at an average cost of around $170,000, according to Klenke. These systems allow users to access communications or entertainment onboard the aircraft using their carry-on electronics.
The galley is basically good for beverages, but warming ovens and microwaves were available by special order and can be retrofitted. However, as the Excel's maximum missions will run around four hours and the typical flight is about an hour, the need for an extensive galley is minimal.
The air conditioning and the lav are two areas where buyers need to pay attention as not all Excels were created equal. Most early ones came with standard vapor cycle air conditioning that proved to be anemic in warmer climates. A more powerful, auxiliary-power-unit-driven system was optional. An APU is essentially a small jet engine stuffed in the tail cone that's used for generating electrical power and it was optional on the Excel. It adds 108 pounds. Most Excels not originally equipped with APUs have been retrofitted with them and you really do not want an airplane without one. Conversely, the aircraft's price doesn't really justify doing an APU install at this point.
An externally serviced, right-side lav is an option on the Excel and was ordered by most who took later serial numbers. If you have a left-side lav, it means some lucky line worker gets to don a hazmat suit and unceremoniously carry the bowl up the aisle and out of the airplane.
There weren't a lot of cockpit options for the Excel nor do operators seem to be in a mad rush to update the instrument panel. An exception is an updated flight-management system that allows the airplane to fly modern WAAS/LPV approaches that utilize Global Positioning System signals. This upgrade can run $150,000 to $200,000. Original factory options included a second flight-management system, TCAS II anti-collision warning system, high-frequency radio for operations over oceans or in remote areas and an extra automatic-direction-finder radio for approaches into more primitive airports.
The landing gear handle could be optionally located on the copilot's side of the cockpit. This was an option because Cessna originally envisioned the XL as a single-pilot aircraft but dropped the idea after customer demand for it failed to materialize.
"It didn't have the same appeal to the single pilot [airplane market] as a [smaller Citation] CJ would," according to Mike Pierce, Cessna's director of product marketing. Many other Citations have been approved for single-pilot operations, including the Mustang; CJ series; and members of the 500 series including the I, II, V, Ultra and Encore.
The follow-on models to the XL, the XLS and XLS+, have addressed the XL's minor perceived shortcomings. The XLS delivers updated avionics, more thrust and a 200-pound gross-weight increase. The extra engine power eliminates the need to step climb to the aircraft's maximum 45,000-foot cruising altitude. An externally serviced lav also is standard on the XLS. The XLS+ offers a restyled cockpit and still newer avionics, a new cabin sidewall and two-inch wider cabin seats, a less aesthetically challenged nose cone and computerized fadec engine controls that help the airplane hold speed better at altitude.
These improvements come with a price. According to Vref Publications, a used 2008 XLS will fetch $7.8 million while a new XLS+ rings the register for $12.5 million. Those numbers make the XL look even better.