To a degree, every new airplane introduction is the industrial equivalent of a carnival shell game. Projections are offered, promises are made, potential customers are soothed with upscale promo and given the opportunity to buy-in early at a reduced price. And then everyone holds their collective breath, wondering if an airplane will appear before the company burns through its seed cash.
Upstart Eclipse Aviation seemed to have all but mastered this high-wire act until early December 2002, when rumors about shortfalls in engine thrust were confirmed and the company announced that it had fired its engine supplier, Williams International. Williams had developed the EJ22 lightweight turbofan that was critical to the Eclipses success. The sundering of airframer and engine maker was so sudden that even the naysayers-there are many-were temporarily stunned into silence.
Although Eclipse had been perking along apparently on schedule, investors and position holders were harshly asking themselves if this Eclipse project is real or just another air castle, albeit one with extraordinarily good public relations. Thus far-and quite surprisingly-many seem satisfied to stay the course and stick with Eclipse for now.
Im up the creek anyway, one Eclipse position holder told us, I certainly cant sell my Eclipse position today. And even if he did sell, what would he buy?
There are other contenders in the personal jet market and although Eclipses setback can be seen as a windfall for the Safire S-26, the Citation Mustang, the VisionAire Vantage and a couple of other long shot proposals, none appear to be as far along the development trail as Eclipse. And apart from Cessna, do any of these companies have the money to make it through certification and actually deliver airplanes?
Frankly, we have doubts and the fact that a project as well funded as Eclipse appears to have stumbled doesnt buoy our confidence.
A Big Deal
An article of faith in new aircraft development holds that success is more likely if cutting-edge variables are kept to a minimum. The more proven, off-the-shelf hardware that can go into a new airplane, the better.
Eclipse, of course, ramped up its risk by designing a cutting-edge airframe around a new, untried engine -Williams EJ22-developed under a grant from the NASA General Aviation Propulsion program.
Although the EJ22 built on Williams success with a range of engines in the 1200- to 3000-pound thrust range, its a clean sheet design with an intended thrust-to-weight ratio greater than anything the industry has ever produced. The EJ22 weighs about 85 pounds with projected thrust of 770 pounds for a thrust-to-weight ratio of 9. For comparison, the FJ33, Williams next size larger engine, weighs 300 pounds for 1200 pounds of thrust and has thrust-to-weight ratio of 4, less than half that projected for the EJ22.
Eclipse claims on speed, range and payload-which are hardly modest-clearly depended on that high thrust-to-weight ratio. The entire Eclipse airframe, which although not frozen beyond alteration, may be too far along for fundamental rethinking, is intimately married to the size and capability of the EJ22. Williams is an investor in the Eclipse project so the marriage is both technical and financial.
As of press time, Eclipse and Williams had reportedly reached divorce terms that will keep them out of court.
Eclipse claims the EJ22 simply didnt deliver the promised thrust while Williams argues that Eclipse simply wanted more thrust than the engine was capable of. Further, complains Eclipse, theEJ22 was a developmental engine, not the near-production engine the company had hoped to have.
We found that the engine had very classic early developmental problems but this is not supposed to be an early developmental engine, says Vern Raburn, Eclipses CEO. What had become clear was that the engine had no growth potential in it. It couldnt have additional thrust without major developmental work, he adds. Although Eclipse put a positive spin on its split with Williams and said in December that two Fortune 100 companies are bidding on supplying engines, Eclipse faces hurdles on several counts.
First, the replacement engine will require re-engineering of the airframe, maybe a little, maybe a lot. Second, its certain to weigh more and have a higher specific fuel consumption, which puts range and payload claims into play.
Last, the calendar. Whatever engine Eclipse picks, it isnt an off-the-shelf item and may not even exist in flyable test article form. That means that Eclipse will have to, so to speak, cool its jet while the thing thatll make it go is designed, built and tested. Eclipse had planned 30 development test flights in 2002; it flew one, the single test hop with the EJ22s. Now, it waits for new propulsion.
And that raises problem four: money. What is a concern, says Eclipse position holder Don Morris, is the delay in getting the engines. When will they actually get them? Theyve got to figure a year-and-half. Like other investors and position holders, Morris knows Eclipse is burning through money and he asks this probing question: Who will pay for that delay?
Good point. But Eclipses Raburn says the cost wont be borne by early buyers. He steadfastly maintains that theres absolutely no way the Eclipse 500 will cost more than $1 million. (Early position holders are locked in at $837,000 in 2000 dollars.)
As though pulling a rabbit out of the hat, Eclipse contacted owners in mid-December with more information on how the company will engine the Eclipse 500.
Without naming the manufacturers, Eclipse said in a letter to customers that preliminary specs on the two engines being considered call for about 900 pounds of thrust. The two candidates are very similar to each other in physical dimensions and weight.
The fan diameter of both engines is identical to the EJ22 and both are slightly shorter but fatter due to placement of some accessories in a more traditional and serviceable location. Both choices would represent a weight increase above the EJ22 engine and also each would burn about 10 gallons more fuel under our range-guarantee scenario, with four people on board.
Eclipse told its customers that both potential engine suppliers will have to produce engines that have minimal effect on the aircrafts existing systems, which have been largely completed.
Although we dont know the weight of the new engines, theyre significantly heavier because Eclipse says it will move them forward 9 1/2 inches and its relocating the vapor cycle unit from the wing root to the nose. Maximum weight for the newly engined airplane will be about 5500 pounds, according to the letter Eclipse sent to customers, up from the 4725-pound gross previously promised by Eclipse.
This represents an 18 percent increase in gross weight which, while still yielding an airplane lighter than many piston twins, is a significant hit. The Eclipse started out being a bit lighter than the single-engine turboprop New Piper Meridian which could be seen as a competitor. Suddenly, its nearly 700 pounds heavier.
Although absolute gross weight is not necessarily a driver in marketability, range and payload are. While its true that heavier engines deliver more thrust, its also true that they have to carry their own weight and the weight of additional fuel. Engineers have often found that the thrust/payload/range curves come together, tightly boxed in by the airframes structural limitations in fuel tankage.
Enlarging the airframe is an option, of course, but one that Eclipse probably cant afford. The overall fuselage size has been determined and because its not a continuous round cross section, altering it at this stage may not be practical, let alone doable. An extended range version of the EJ22 Eclipse had wing tip tanks as an option and we wouldnt be surprised if these tanks now become standard equipment.
Eclipses Raburn brims with confidence that the new engines will yield an improved Eclipse with range and payload close to the original proposal, with additional speed due to higher thrust.
In his letter to position holders, Raburn told customers, We now believe that with either engine choice, we can achieve 377 knots TAS in high-speed cruise. Rate of climb will be 2993 feet per minute and we will see an improved safety margin with a single-engine rate of climb at 1100 feet per minute. The useful load will increase above the 2000 pounds we guaranteed you to accommodate the need for additional fuel, without impacting your ability to carry passengers and cargo.
Soothing talk, to be sure, and nearly bordering on bravado, in our view. Yet Raburn is well aware that the world-and many Eclipse investors and position holders-are watching with what can generously be described as growing concern.
Despite the fundamental setback, we havent seen any evidence of what Eclipse most fears: an utter lack of confidence in the project leading to massive cancellations of orders. Buy-in terms for position holders are multi-tiered and complex but many would-be customers have their deposit money escrowed, so its not sunk into a developmental airplane that may never reach certification or market. Clearly, Eclipse wont meet its original delivery goals but just how far off the mark it will be is anyones guess.
I can talk about the revised schedule all day, says Eclipses Raburn. What we now have to do is deliver. Our sense is that many position holders are willing to remain aboard for now. Im in wait-and-see mode, says position holder Russ Oasis, a radio station owner from Miami. I dont see too much risk at this point. Our money is in escrow. Oasis has a late buy-in position, with delivery in 2006. He plans to hire a pilot and use the airplane for personal travel. He says hes less concerned about gross weight and speed than overall performance, sales price and cost per mile.
That last item, cost per mile, seems certain to increase if Eclipse selects a heavier, more fuel-thirsty engine. Increases in power and thus speed rarely offset higher fuel burn to yield better specific efficiency. Go faster and youll pay.
Another Eclipse customer, Peter Rogers of Marthas Vineyard, told us weight and size do matter to him. If the Eclipse swells to the size of a Citation, hell want out. I dont want a larger airplane. I want a small jet thats affordable. I wouldnt be interested at all if the airplane gets that large. Id stick with my Bonanza, Rogers told us.
Yet all three Eclipse buyers we spoke to express confidence that the company will deliver, even if the airplane is larger and heavier and perhaps with less payload than originally promised. In the wake of such a stunning setback for Eclipse, why such loyalty?
Partly because customers want Eclipse to succeed and believe it will and partly because the company has been upfront about its difficulties. They are very good about communicating with customers. Theyre good with the Web site, which is updated often and if you have a question, they get right back to you. Ive been very happy with the company so far, Rogers says.
Eclipses major stumble could be calculated to reap hoots of joy from its competitors, all of whom can be said to be far behind in varying degrees. Eclipse ignited what may become a significant personal/air taxi jet market at least partially on the strength of its $837,000 initial asking price. In that price range, it has one serious competitor: the Safire S-26, with a price of $800,000 in 2000 dollars.
At the $2 million mark or above, theres the VisionAire Vantage and the recently announced Cessna Mustang. Dark horses include the Century Jet 100 ($2.7 million) and the Aerostar FJ100, a re-engine of the Ted Smith piston design with Williams/Rolls FJ33 fanjets. As a measure of how aircraft certification schedules are written in sand, the FJ100 was supposed to fly in December 2001 with deliveries a year later. It hasnt flown yet.
The Cessna Mustang was announced last September, with deliveries sometime in 2006. (Reality check: add a year to that.) And the Mustang, at $2.3 million, can be considered to be in another price class.
That leaves the Safire S-26. Compared to Eclipse, which has celebrated every developmental milestone with a Web page and a press conference, Safire has worked virtually underground. Anyone who follows aviation casually knows its out there but you have to look to find meaningful progress reports.
Interestingly, although Safire appears to be far behind Eclipse-it has no flying prototype-it appears to have followed a similar path as Eclipse. Since first announcing the project in 1999, Safire has since revised the design to be larger, heavier and faster, with a max gross weight of 5900 pounds and a pair of 1000-pound thrust turbofans, up from the 900-pound powerplant originally planned. The revised design also carries more fuel.
Although a start-up company called Agilis was supposed to supply the engines, that deal is apparently in limbo, with the Safire engine announcement still pending. In November of 2002, Safire announced it had rounded up funding to get it through its first flight. That was supposed to occur in 2002, in parallel to Eclipse. It didnt happen. Safire now says it hopes to fly a prototype in February of 2004.
Is This Possible?
New airplane projects unravel for a variety of reasons: lack of capital, unrealistic performance claims, pie-in-the sky cost estimates, a non-existent market, immature technology and bad market timing to name a few. Add one more: the blasted thing may be physically too small or light to adhere to the laws of physics and thermodynamics.
Eclipse has obviously fallen victim to two of those pratfalls-immature technology and unrealistic performance estimates. Not only did the Williams engine not deliver the thrust, says Eclipse, but related systems such as starters and fuel controls were too early in their developmental cycles to be practical for production airplanes. Further, given Safires parallel decision to use larger engines, we suspect Eclipses expectation that 770 pounds of thrust per side would be sufficient was unrealistic at the outset. And the fact that Safire has made its airplane larger also makes us wonder if Eclipse can still make the smaller airframe work.
Considering that Eclipse was so far wide of the mark on this most fundamentally important calculation to the success of the project, were understandably doubtful that simply ramping up the thrust with bigger, heavier engines will make it all work out.
Even with the new engines and higher gross weight, the Eclipse remains a small airplane and if volume in the structure can be found to carry the additional fuel, we wonder how much payload will be left for passengers, or, if theres weight capacity for passengers, what the new airplanes range will be.
Further, from the beginning, we doubted Eclipses claim that it could deliver the airplane for under $1 million, even if the Williams engines were successful. The new engines will probably weigh more than twice as much as the proposed EJ22. How can they cost the same?
When last we examined the Eclipse numbers, we predicted a stable price in the $1.1 million range and well take the opportunity now to revise that upward to at least $1.5 million. Thats still a bargain in the jet market and potential customers weve spoken to dont seem scared off by that number. We also predicted the airplane would be at least a year late to market but we now suspect Eclipse will do well to hit deliveries within two years of its original proposal.
If Pratt and Whitney is the engine supplier-and we predict it will be- thats a good sign. But the PW600 is a new engine, not an off-the-shelf item.
If Eclipses misstep with the Williams engine doesnt put the entire notion of the personal jet into jeopardy-if the concept simply isnt beyond the ability of the available technology-the company is still better positioned than any other manufacturer to deliver first. It has an actual airplane with systems designed and built if not well tested. It has an impressive, fully tooled production facility thats apparently ready to roll out airplanes once the design is certified and, it claims, it has a full order book.
Giving Eclipse the benefit of the doubt on its new engine, its most daunting challenge will be surviving another developmental test period and finding the money to finance the delay.
As weve noted before, however, Eclipse is nothing if not well financed. The next 24 months may reveal if its well financed enough.