- The two best single-pilot jets on the market today are the Citation CJ4 and the Pilatus PC-24
- The CJ4, CJ3+, Phenom 300E, and PC-24 have the best-in-class avionics packages that are fully integrated and tweaked for single pilot operations.
- From a quantitative perspective, the Pilatus checks almost all the boxes that make it an easy decision to choose it as the best single-pilot jet that does the job of one of the bigger business jets.
- Both the Citation and the Pilatus are easy to fly, predictable, and have two of the lowest cost profiles in the light jet market.
With a dozen single-pilot jets on the market, choosing the best is daunting. The only way to do it, is to crunch the numbers and fly the plane.
The Pilatus PC-24, Cessna's Citation CJ4 and Citation CJ3+, and the Embraer 300E are the best single pilot jets that offer the lowest operating costs per hour per unit of load in the market and come equipped with advanced automation and avionics optimized for single pilot operations.
Being a CFII and a corporate pilot for many years, I have flown several light jets and been part of the team tasked with expanding the fleets of different companies. I’ve learned to always look at the mission, the numbers, and what I and other pilots call the “x-factor”.
Best Single Pilot Jets
There are numerous benefits of owning and operating single-pilot jets. Two that are obvious are the cost of operation and simplicity of maintenance compared to larger private jets. But there are also limitations, like the inability to travel from one coast to the other in a single hop.
In making my choice for the best single pilot jet on the market, I needed it to satisfy four simple criteria.
The first criteria are payload and passenger count. I want a sizable jet that will transport at least 5 passengers with luggage in relative comfort and a stocked galley. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that I have a family of four, excluding me. The second reason for choosing that magic number is that the average passenger load between 2018 and 2021 in the private jet market was 4-5 passengers per flight.
The second criterion is the IFR range. In my opinion, the best single-pilot jet must have the ability to fly across the country with just one refueling stop at the most.
The third criterion is that I want it to be able to fly above the crowd that is usually between FL250 and FL360.
The fourth and final criterion is that it must have an acceptable cost profile. The cost profile can be boiled down to one number that numerically encapsulates efficiency. To simplify the process, I look at the hourly cost, calculated using 450 flight hours a year as a base.
There are more than a dozen jets that can be flown with just one pilot who is type rated. All these aircraft qualify to be part of a list of the best single-pilot jets. Each has strength in different areas and can accomplish different mission parameters.
In terms of operational cost, the aircraft that provided the lowest cost per pound per flight hour is the Citation CJ4. It came in with an impressive $1.34 per pound per hour when flown with partial fuel and max payload.
As far as passenger count, the Pilatus beats the rest with 11 seats in the cabin. Since you are flying solo, it is possible to have one more occupy the seat next to you.
Now, I don’t recommend having charter customers up here, but if you fly with your family or friends, then adding one up here will result in carrying twelve passengers.
As you have also seen in the chart, the Pilatus at MTOW with 11 passengers has an endurance of just over two hours with IFR reserves.
Reducing its load down to 7 passengers gives it a range of 1270 nautical miles and allows it to go from coast to coast with just one refueling stop. The only other aircraft on the list to be able to do that are the CJ4 and the Phenom 300E.
The Pilatus is also one of four aircraft that has a service ceiling of 45,000 feet. The other three are CJ3+, CJ4, and Phenom 300.
It so happens that I am biased when it comes to these four aircraft, having flown, or flown in all of them. It’s hard to say which aircraft is the best or which is the worst. The thing they have in common is the comfort and handling they afforded. These four aircraft are what I would consider the best single-pilot jets currently in service.
Cessna announced the CJ4 in 2006. It first flew on May 5th, 2008, then entered service in 2010, selling for $9.4 million. It is designed to carry ten passengers and be operated by a single pilot, although it is fully equipped to be flown with two crew.
The CJ4 is powered by a pair of Williams International FJ44-4A engines that produce a total of 7,242 lb f of thrust and burn a total of 173 gallons per hour (1194 lb per hour) at cruise. The FJ44s are highly reliable engines, and that is what I look for when deciding on a single-pilot jet.
This level of thrust-to-weight ratio has gotten me from close to sea level up to FL420 in just under thirty minutes. During cruise and changes in flight phases, I can set it and forget it with FADEC - Full Authority Digital Engine Control - which keeps my speed setting in mind and adjusts the throttles to compensate for external conditions.
In addition to their reliability, the FJ44 has a TBO of 5,000 hours, which works out nicely, keeping the jet in the air and generating revenue for a large part of the year.
Annual inspections are quick at the field I fly out of, as are 100-hour inspections. TBOs take a little longer and I typically set the plane down to coincide with all three requirements whenever possible.
The CJ4 ranks as one of the best single-pilot jets for a lot of pilot-specific reasons, but also for cost-based reasons as well.
Unlike typical light Citations, the CJ4 has a swept-back wing, albeit a mild one at 12.5 degrees, giving it good short-field performance and an improved max cruise speed. One of the benefits I believe in having a light jet with big jet capability is that it allows me to go into smaller airports.
The idea of getting to smaller airports is crucial to reduce the last-mile problem. Whether you are flying your family on holiday, yourself for business, or customers for hire, the last mile represents the distance from the airport where you land, to the destination you want to get to.
Whenever I take passengers into Teterboro, they still have a 40-minute car ride into Manhattan. But those who chopper into the East 34th St heliport have a five-minute cab ride into midtown. One has a 40-minute last mile, the other has a five-minute last mile.
With the CJ4’s short field ability to land within 2,940 feet, take off in 3,140 feet, and have a balanced field length of 3,412 ft, it opens up a lot of rural airports to the CJ4 and reduces the last-mile distance significantly.
Of all the jets in the market, and the ones that are single-pilot rated, the CJ4 is one of the four I am comfortable with. Whether I am climbing onto the flight deck as a single pilot or as part of a two-pilot crew results in me focusing on different concerns and therefore requires a different mindset for each.
It is obvious to me that the single-pilot mindset was very much the center of focus for Cessna's designers when they crafted this model.
Across the spectrum of private jets that span from light jets to heavy jets, the CJ4, while technically being a light jet, seems to straddle both with light jet handling and large jet capabilities.
While not being able to stretch its range across the continent, it does have the ability to carry 9 passengers and have a two-hour-plus endurance, or trade payload for fuel and extend the duration to more than three hours with just five passengers.
With its T-tail configuration and 12.5 degree-swept back wings and trailing-beam main gear, the Cessna CJ4 uses tried and tested designs to accomplish a smooth and solid flying feel in the CJ4.
Certified for known icing, the CJ4 has both anti-ice and deicing capabilities using compressor-stage bleed air that is channeled inside the leading edge of the wings and horizontal stabilizers via piccolo tubes behind the chrome plating of the leading edges.
The CJ4 also has de-ice capabilities on the engine nacelles that also use bleed air. All this can be controlled via the de-ice panel located just off to the pilot’s right. I like where this is located as flying single-pilot requires everything to be within arm's length and a tight field of vision.
Even though the de-ice system uses bleed air, it does not drain as much energy from the engines as I’ve experienced in other aircraft. Having the de-ice engaged in a climb, I’ve hardly noticed a reduction in performance.
I believe the true test of a single-pilot jet is the ergonomics of the cockpit and the layout of the aircraft in general. With just one person pre-flighting, even where the battery is located helps in laying eyes on preflight items during the walk around.
Cessna first announced the CJ3+ on March 20, 2014. FAA certification came later that year. A new one from the factory currently sells for $9.9 million. The used market is fairly vibrant having an approximate 160-day turnover.
Priced between $5.4 and $5.9 million, a used CJ3+’s price depends on a number of factors and not just its age and total time. A key pricing component aside from accident history is its avionics package.
The Garmin G300 flight deck is different from the Rockwell Collins ProLine 21 that comes in the CJ4. Flying one for some time, then hopping into the other takes just a minute to reorientate. It’s not too much of a problem once you get used to it, but getting used to it is a must if you plan on flying both as the sole pilot on board.
Just like the CJ4, the CJ3+ can rise to FL450. It also has one-and-a-half cabin zones with the galley separating the flight deck and the cabin.
The CJ3+ is powered by a pair of Williams International FJ44-3A. If you recall, the CJ4 is powered by the FJ44-4A. The 3A engines produce a total of 5,640 lb f of thrust (CJ4’s engines produce 7,242 lb f) and burn a total of 150 gallons per hour (1005 lb per hour) at cruise.
While both the CJ4 and the CJ3+ qualify as one of the best single-pilot jets in the market, there is still a slight difference between them in terms of performance.
The CJ3+ has a speed disadvantage, topping out at just 416 ktas, while the CJ4 tops out at 451 ktas. Those 35 extra knots may not seem like much, but it adds up over time.
The CJ3+ however does not get its reputation of being a workhorse for no reason. I am a fan of the CJ3+’s payload ability and its space for ten passengers.
I’ve been able to fully load it up for short flights, but if I need to extend its range, like taking the plane from coast to coast with a stop in between, I can’t do it with all the seats filled. But I can pull it off with just five passengers.
Another aspect of comfort that tips my scales toward the CJ4 instead of the CJ3+ is the cabin altitude. The CJ3+ cabin altitude at FL400 is 8,000 feet while the CJ4 is only at 6,600 feet. On long-haul flights, higher cabin altitudes do have an impact on fatigue levels.
The CJ3+ does come out on top when it comes to runway performance, beating the CJ4 by at least two hundred feet on both the landing and takeoff rolls. With greater thrust available for takeoff from the slightly more powerful Williams engines, the CJ3+ also has better Balanced Field characteristics than the CJ4.
The CJ3+ does have good slow-speed handling, giving it stable final approach characteristics even when hand-flying the glide slope down to minimums.
At airspeeds below 200 knots, lowering the gear, extending the flaps, and deploying the speed brakes, the CJ3+ feels like it grips the surrounding air and just stops mid-flight. Slowing it further and waiting for the stall is not as harrowing as other jets as the CJ3+ tends to keep its wings level even in slow flight.
All the way to the point when the stick shaker activates, the aircraft remains at your command. It's a very stabilizing feeling, especially for new jet pilots who still have not gotten adequately in front of the airplane. I still believe strongly that the CJ3+ is one of the best platforms to transition into jets.
Whatever dislikes I may personally feel about this aircraft in other areas are quickly forgotten when I remember how it handles in marginal conditions.
Personally, I prefer the CJ4 over the CJ3+. But that is a personal preference and it has nothing to do with the quality and the performance of the CJ3+.
Maybe it's the slightly smaller cabin that changes my perception. The CJ3+ has a 56-inch cabin height to CJ4’s 57 inches. Or maybe it's the slightly louder hum in the cabin than the Pilatus or the CJ4.
The CJ3+ has the Garmin 3000 touchscreen system. With the 14.1-inch displays, it gives each pilot their own PFD with split screen support and an additional Multi-Function Display in the center which is programmable to display a host of information at the pilot’s discretion.
There are two 5.7-inch displays that look like smartphones in the center console that act as the input interface, giving you additional functionality to pull up menus and program the avionics and control the systems.
Embraer’s light jet, the Phenom 300E, measures 51.97 feet in length, has a wingspan of 52.2 feet, and a height of 16.73 feet. The total baggage and stowage volume is 82.5 cubic feet, while the maximum payload capacity is 2127 lbs.
Putting aside their specs and features, it is clear to feel the difference from the moment you step up into a Phenom. There is a fresh philosophy inside the aircraft, one that is represented by clean lines, and spacious interiors. There is meticulous attention to detail and craftsmanship in the cabin with a galley that separates the flight deck from the passenger cabin.
With the ability to fly into known icing, and the extra power on tap to make the ascent up to 45,000 feet, the Phenom behaves like a large jet but has the cost benefits, agility, and flexibility of a light one.
The Phenom 300E has a pair of Pratt & Whitney PW535E1 engines that produce 6,956 lb of thrust in total while burning 158 gallons per hour (1090 pounds.) The swept-back laminar flow wing is aerodynamically efficient, allowing the Phenom to reach a maximum cruising speed of 453 knots. This is just a little higher than the CJ4’s 451 knots.
While the top speed is not a huge difference between the Phenom and the CJ4, what I like about it is that the Phenom achieves this feat by only burning 158 gph compared to the CJ4’s 173 gph.
Like the CJ3+ and the CJ4, the 300E comes with a fully integrated FADEC. While two-pilot flight deck crews agree this is a valuable luxury, single-pilot operators know that this is an essential component of safety in a single-pilot environment. Not just during emergencies, or the potential of one, but in terms of reducing the pilot’s workload.
While flying at FL400, the cabin altitude is a comfortable 6,600 feet. This also goes a long way in preserving alertness just like the CJ4. As a comparison, a G550 maintains a 6,000 ft cabin altitude at FL510.
When it comes to runway performance, the Phenom can get off the runway in 3,200 feet while needing just 2,600 feet to land. In this respect, it can get in and out of smaller airports with relative ease. I am a fan of short runways and always look at the runway performance of every aircraft I fly.
At an MTOW of 18,300 pounds, during standard conditions, the Phenom has a balanced field length of 3,643 feet. Compare this to the 3,354 ft balance field and MTOW of 13,800 lbs of a CJ3+ and the 3,412 ft and MTOW of 17,100lbs of the CJ4 implies that the three aircraft have similar braking energy.
I haven’t had as much time in the cockpit or any time as a single pilot in the Phenom 300E but flying in it was certainly a positive experience. I think it is one of the best jets in the single-pilot category purely because it checks all the boxes I consider important in choosing a single-pilot jet.
Anytime I get a cockpit that allows me to sit back with the soles of my feet flat on the floor and just oversee everything, the less tired I am when I get to the Final Approach Fix at rush hour and there are scattered thunderstorms in the terminal area.
The cockpit of the 300E I usually fly in comes with the Garmin 3000 that is similar to the CJ3+’s except the Phenom comes with the Prodigy Tough enhancements that seem to supercharge the single pilot ops of the Phenom.
Prodigy Touch ties together the most advanced technologies available in flight management and avionics-pilot interface. It gives the Phenom cockpit three 14.1-inch displays.
A PFD for each pilot and an MFD in between like the CJ3+. Split screen support allows all three displays to be configured to information each pilot wishes to overlay on the core data. All three provide touchscreen support.
In addition to that, the Phenom cockpit also has two controllers that are themselves 5.7-inch displays and replace keypads that are typically used as the primary input interface.
The Pilatus straddles both worlds. I can take it up to rarefied air and speed past slower traffic, or I can land out in the country on dirt fields. Being versatile opens up a lot of smaller airports and that increases my options. None of the other jets can do this. My philosophy is that the best jet to fly is the one that can get you the closest to where you are going.
When flying as a single pilot, the one thing that becomes apparent is the sudden increase in workload. Even when everything is going smoothly, there is a lot to do when you are coming into the Metropolitan New York area during rush hour. You have traffic going into La Guardia, Newark, and Kennedy, and it gets busy.
If you then add on bad weather in the area things start to really fall apart, and all that is assuming you don’t have any kind of problem with the aircraft. I had a bad gear light coming into Kennedy once during rush hour and it was something I would never forget.
The thing about single-pilot flying is that a lot of what makes it possible is the caliber of the avionics and the level of automation that is on board. This is where I find that Pilatus has just done a superb job.
Personally, if you are like me, who balances quantitative numbers and qualitative features when choosing the best jet, you will see why the Pilatus makes it to the top of my list. And it's the only one of the four that has that x-factor that exceeds definition.
The Pilatus PC-24 has two Williams FJ44-4A engines that are identical to the ones on the CJ4. With the same thrust and same fuel burn, the Pilatus can ascend to the same service ceiling of 45,000 feet and cruise at a top speed of 440 ktas.
If your aircraft can get in and out of 3200-foot paved runways, then you have almost 11,000 airports around the world that you can access. That's pretty much the potential for the CJ3+, the CJ4, and the Phenom 300.
If your aircraft needs a little less - just 2950 feet, you now have an additional thousand airports (approximately) where you could land around the world.
But what if you could land within 2950 feet on an unpaved surface? Automatically, the CJ3+, CJ4, and Phenom 300 E have to stop there. But if they could, it would open another 10,000 landing opportunities, and that is where the Pilatus beats the others. It significantly reduces the last mile distance and that alone changes the game in its favor.
Of the four aircraft listed here, only the PC-24 can take off from soft fields and dirt runways. It is usually unheard of for a jet but I’ve witnessed it first hand, going in and coming out of 1Z1, a 4500 foot strip near the Grand Canyon.
I would never consider taking a Gulfstream there, or even the CJ4. But the PC-24 was not a problem on its chip seal surface that had a 500 ft dirt portion at the start of the runway.
The Pilatus PC-24 calls its integrated avionics system ACE - the Advanced Cockpit Environment. ACE provides the pilot with precise situational awareness and workload management using airline-grade automation, integration, and superior situational awareness that delivers fluid workload management.
All of that technology was customized for the single-pilot flight deck.
It includes safety and redundant systems that seamlessly integrate to provide a three-dimensional perspective of the flight environment via Honeywell's SmartView Synthetic Vision system as well as the Interactive Navigation (INAV) which includes traffic display overlaid on terrain, airspace, airways, airports, and weather information in one intuitive display within your primary field of view.
Large LCD screens present data in a way that is intuitive and timely for the pilot and supports efficient decision-making. Every button, menu, and piece of data is presented in a concentrated but uncluttered fashion. And, as with the other three jets, it comes with FADEC that allows me to set it and leave it for most of the flight.
Robust de-icing and anti-icing features allow the Pilatus to fly into known icing.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood