A Falcon 900 needs more maintenance than a Twinjet, but burns less fuel than

Dassault Falcon's 900LX

A very good airplane is about to get better. The wide-cabin Falcon 900 trijet combines unequaled performance and versatility

A very good airplane is about to get better. The wide-cabin Falcon 900 trijet combines unequaled performance and versatility with a design that has remained popular since deliveries began in 1986. More than 400 are in service. Next year, Dassault Falcon will begin deliveries of the latest iteration in this series, the $41 million (2008 dollars) Falcon 900LX, featuring improved range and modernized avionics.

Compared with its predecessor, the 900EX, the new model will use less fuel and have an extra 300 nautical miles of range-a boost to 4,800 nautical miles-thanks to Aviation Partners' composite blended winglets, which reduce drag during climb and cruise flight. In the cockpit, the Honeywell Primus Epic-based EASy (Enhanced Avionics System) Phase II avionics will have increased capabilities, including synthetic vision for landing safely in extremely bad weather or at airports surrounded by difficult terrain. (Besides being standard on the 900LX, EASy Phase II will be available as an upgrade to all EASy-equipped Falcon airplanes.) These capabilities will come at relatively modest additional cost, around $800,000 more than you'd pay for today's 900EX. For those who don't need the 900LX's long legs, Dassault began delivering a shorter-range variant, the 4,100-nautical-mile, $36.85 million Falcon 900DX, in 2005.

When Dassault announced the 900LX last year, it claimed that it would "feature 55- to 70-percent better efficiency than other airplanes in its class." Perhaps this was a bit of marketing hyperbole because there really isn't anything else in this airplane's class and never has been. A Gulfstream G450's cabin is narrower and longer and a Challenger 604/605's is wider and shorter. Comparing cabin volumes, the G450 has 1,525 cubic feet, the 900LX has 1,264 cubic feet and the 604/605 has 1,150 cubic feet.

Because of the Falcon's unique three-engine design, nothing else this heavy (48,300 pounds at maximum takeoff weight) has the same safety margins when blasting off short runways or traversing protracted stretches of water. Departing from a 4,000-foot runway, for example, is less of a concern for the 900 than for the twinjets. When one engine fails in a twin, you lose half your thrust; but when one goes in a trijet, you lose only one third of your power. With one engine out, a 900 can still climb 2,200 feet per minute.

While that third engine means the Falcon will need more maintenance than a twinjet, a 900 will burn considerably less fuel than the longer and heavier Gulfstream and get you in and out of runways you wouldn't dare try on a hot day with the Challenger, especially in places like Aspen, Colo., or Toluca in Mexico. Pilots who fly the 900 praise its brisk climb rate, agility and low-speed handling.

Perhaps because of Dassault's experience with building hot-rod fighters like the Mirage, Falcons have always been a little different. The Falcon 20 twinjets of the early 1960s were so overbuilt that many of them continue to soldier on to this day with revised engines or in the expedited air-freight role. Federal Express actually began with a fleet of Falcon 20 freighters. That design was expanded upon in the 1970s to create Dassault's first trijet, the transcontinental, 3,000-nautical-mile-range Falcon 50. That aircraft remained in production for nearly 30 years. However, by the early 1980s, Dassault noted a demand for a business jet with even greater range and a larger, more comfortable cabin.

How Dassault engineers designed the airplane is a story in itself. They developed 3-D interactive software called CATIA that is now the standard for designing not just airplanes but automobiles and even commercial buildings as well. CATIA helped put the 900 on the fast track. There was no need to build a prototype and the time from first flight to certification was less than two years-an astonishing feat even by today's standards.

Borrowing from fighter architecture, Dassault also incorporated strong, lightweight materials such as carbon fiber, Kevlar and titanium into the 900, giving it an excellent thrust-to-weight ratio and a zero fuel weight of just 25,080 pounds. Initially, three Honeywell TFE731-5 engines (4,500 pounds of thrust each) powered the aircraft, but Dassault replaced them with the more powerful Dash 60 engines on the EX in 1996.

The 900's flat-floor cabin is comfy, but not perfect. A traditional cabin layout features a galley opposite the main entry, a small forward closet, a forward club-four grouping of larger executive seats bifurcated with folding sidewall tables, then four narrower seats arrayed around a hi-lo conference table across the aisle from a credenza/entertainment center. Aft of that through an optional pocket door is a three-place, side-facing divan with berthing top that converts into a bed across the aisle from an executive work station. Behind that is the lavatory with another small wardrobe closet and through the lavatory passengers can access the baggage compartment in flight.

You can outfit the cabin with many in-flight entertainment and information goodies, including satcom and high-speed Internet. Natural lighting comes from 24 smallish windows. My only criticisms of the cabin concern the window size and the height of the seat bases. (For taller folks, they are a little short.) Otherwise, it is airy, light and elegant.

In the cockpit, the EASy Phase II system offers pilots not only synthetic vision but also a runway-awareness system (no wrong turns on the ground, even in fog); XM weather; digital datalink; electronic approach and en route charts; and the ability to make precision GPS approaches, potentially opening up access to hundreds of new airports. The 900LX will be as close to a go-anywhere airplane as any large corporate jet can get.