Vern Rayburn announced at Oshkosh in 1998 that a new little airplane would change all the rules about flying and, especially, about building airplanes. The Eclipse 500 was to define a new class called the VLJ or very light jet. It was to be fuel efficient, fast and would embrace the latest technologies so it could be built inexpensively. It would also be easier and cheaper to fly than a light twin.
A full decade and a billion-plus in developmental dollars later, the Eclipse 500 is trickling if not pouring off the production line in Albuquerque; about 200 have been built. The overarching question is: Does the Eclipse really change the rules? And if it doesnt, why not? Further, whats the thing like to fly? Is the cutting-edge glass cockpit really as advanced as Eclipse said it would be? Answering these questions isnt easy. Eclipse has steadfastly refused to offer press demonstrations of the airplane and some owners just wont talk about their impressions of the airplane, giving the inquisitive person the notion that somethings not quite right here. For this report, a cooperative owner allowed us a brief turn at the controls of an Eclipse 500 so we could find out for ourselves.
Bottom line: Its fast, impressively efficient and easy to fly. But the much-vaunted integrated cockpit avionics can be generously described as incomplete. The current airplanes have no moving map or RNAV capability, so the Eclipses place in the personal air travel system is hardly the promised game changer. It may get there, but its not there yet.
Eclipses early promises seemed too good to be true and some were. The initial price offering-$837,000-was below that of a Piper Mirage for a jet with 1500-mile range, 370-knot cruise and deliveries in 2003. Target dates slipped, prices increased, there was a major setback with an engine switch from Williams to Pratt & Whitneys 610F and vendor relationships dogged the project, yet still Eclipse found private investment dollars to keep development afloat. Finally, the airplane was certified in 2006, three years late. As an aviation writer, I anxiously awaited my chance to fly this new airplane, but the opportunity never arrived. After all the extraordinary hype, Eclipse wasnt offering press demos of the airplane. How could this be? Was there something to hide?
I finally got a chance for a short flight in an EA-500 last spring. My flight was too short to represent the end-all wring-out of the airplane, but I can offer some impressions of the Eclipse 500 and, in a nutshell, theyre positive.
Walk up to the airplane on the ramp and it seems smaller than it does at air shows, where airplanes are smartly displayed on a pedestal or a red carpet. At 5995 pounds gross takeoff weight, the 500 is a small airplane. Size wise, it looks more like my B-55 Baron instead of a jet. The engines seem ridiculously small. If there were handles on them, you get the feeling you could lift them off and stash them in the trunk of your car. Id wager that two mechanics could change an engine without a hoist.
Some pre-flight pros and cons: Theres a window on each nacelle that shows an engine oil sight gauge; a cap on each tip-tank fills the entire wing with fuel-very simple. Theres no need to worry about latching the baggage door, because there isnt one. All of the bags go through the cabin, an inconvenience probably not worthy of cutting a hole in the pressure vessel and adding the weight of a door. The baggage area is behind the rear seats and appears ample.
The cabin door is big enough to allow easy entry to a cabin that has five seats and feels much larger than my Baron. The pilot seats have enough space to be comfortable in flight and are easily accessible for the first entrant, but when the
second comes forward, its a tight squeeze. However, once both are seated, the cockpit is roomy and comfortable.
If walking around a jet airplane that shares wing dimensions with a B-55 Baron didnt make it clear that this is a different class of airplane, the panel certainly does. There are three large displays, absolutely no round gauges, few switches and only a couple of circuit breakers.
Turning on the battery powers up the displays and the Avio NG pops up graphic system schematic pages like those found in airliners and these animate the operation and status of the various systems. The operations page deals with weight and balance, for instance. The cursor starts in the pilot seat, and by dialing in the weight of each occupant and the baggage area-the airplane knows how much fuel is on board-it calculates weight and balance and plots the current and projected CG on a chart, based on fuel burn. Other pages show the status of various systems and the Eclipse datalogs everything so maintainers can troubleshoot.
Whats glaringly missing is flight planning and management. The navigation function of the Avio NG system is not certified and not available, although its supposed to be later this year. Originally, the Avio was planned to be the most sophisticated, fully integrated glass cockpit in aviation.
But its development has been so fraught with delay that Eclipse has been delivering airplanes without panel-mount GPS. Later this summer, its supposed to certify and install a pair of Garmin GNS400W navigators, which some buyers have taken to
calling the “Gavio” system. For the time being, operators are using Eclipse-provided Garmin GPSmap 496 portables for supplemental navigation. Legally, the Eclipse is currently a VOR-only airplane. Also missing is an approved deice system, although Eclipse announced certification for this in late June. In all, 15 “virtual” circuit breakers on the electrical status page were displayed graphically with a collar on them because those uncertified features are disabled in the software. GPS, flight management and downlink weather are other features not yet enabled. Theres a small drawer directly in front of each pilot that has a cute little keyboard for data entry, but without the FMS, theres not much data to enter.
Two knobs on the overhead panel start the engines. Its almost too easy. Like the Cadillac commercial, you dont really start the engine, you turn it on. Its totally automatic and just like the commercial, the question remains, “Does it return the favor?”
The airplanes taxies like, you guessed it, a Baron. Little thrust is required to break out and get rolling. The residual thrust is low, but occasional braking is required to prevent acceleration. The before- takeoff checklist has only a few items and once these were checked, we took to the runway.
Initial acceleration is distinctly non-Baron like. With 1800 pounds of thrust pushing a 5950-pound airplane, the thrust-to-weight ratio is .3 to 1. Its not Learjet-like either, but far better than the light twins and turboprops the Eclipse is competing with. Push the thrust levers to the stops and the FADEC sets maximum power for the atmospheric conditions. (Dont push too hard, though-one crew did and the throttles stopped responding to commands. Eclipse had to write some new software to correct the problem.)
The Avio system calculates Vr and displays it on the PFD. A tug on the sidestick and the airplane rotates. The gear is still controlled by a switch instead of a soft key, but its one of the few flight functions that has a dedicated control. Nearly
everything is controlled by and displayed on the Avio NG system and nearly every pilot action is executed by a computer in some way. With the gear up, the airplane climbed well. Pull the thrust lever back off the stops and the FADEC automatically sets the little Pratt & Whitneys at MCT or maximum continuous thrust.
The PFD is simple and straightforward. There are trend vectors for airspeed and altitude, but no flight path guidance or velocity vector information, so its functionality is less impressive than, say, a Garmin G1000 or Avidyne Entegra.
These features might become available when the GPS/FMS system circuit breakers get uncollared, but for an airplane thats supposed to change the paradigm of general aviation, the thing should tell us where we are and where were going in addition to where we are pointed.
Where we were pointed was up and in a few minutes, we leveled off at 10,500 feet for some airwork. The PFD may not be a paradigm shift, but the fuel flow gauge sets a new standard. Start up, taxi, takeoff, climb to 10,500 feet and the fuel totalizer rolled over 110 pounds burned as we leveled off. Sixteen gallons-the airplane looked even more like a Baron.
Steep turns and slow flight were simple, with no surprises. The airplane flies…unremarkably, with control forces about what you would expect. For an emergency descent, pull the power, put the gear down and push forward on the stick and the airplane absolutely falls out of the sky at nearly 10,000 feet per minute. It should fall even faster at higher altitudes where the air is thinner.
With the GPS/FMS disabled, the autopilot will only track the heading bug and capture an altitude. Navigation is currently limited to VORs and the Garmin 496 so single-pilot IFR in a complicated airspace is high workload, something owners have confirmed. We entered the pattern and the Avio displayed a Vref of 90 knots. The Eclipse is clean and it has no speed brakes, so its hard to slow down and, frankly, 90 knots feels too slow in any airplane that size, much less a jet. Once the flaps are down and the power is stabilized, the airplane settles into a groove and feels solid at Vref.
The landing is done with minimum flare-Cirrus drivers will feel right at home. The nosegear is far from the pavement in the landing attitude so theres little danger of an unintended three-point. The trailing link gear grabs the ground and the airplane stays down. Unless theres a gust of gravity, there should be no need for landing excuses, although stopping is another matter.
Like most light twins, the airplane has passive hydraulic brakes, but the difference is theres no propeller drag and to slow the airplane, you must apply the brakes and hold them much longer than in a piston twin. This is true of all jets without thrust reversers, but most jets have anti-skid. The Eclipse does not. If you lock up a brake, the best case scenario is a square wheel, the worst is a blown tire. Owners we interviewed reported that brake and tire longevity are an Eclipse weak point.
The fun was over too soon and it was my turn to ride in the back. The airplane is quiet. Incredibly quiet. It can have six seats, but the example we flew had five, which is one too many, in my view. With four seats installed, my Baron is comfortable, the Eclipse is spacious. Six people in either airplane would be just too cozy and the fuel load would be critical. One charter company we interviewed said passengers like the cabin and find it spacious.
Sitting in back with the owner, whom I trust, I was told the airplane burns 55 gallons per hour at FL400, with true airspeeds of 350 knots. Thats more than 7 statute miles per gallon, the same as my B-55 Colemill Baron, but at a speed 180 percent faster, hauling a similar load a longer distance. Although Eclipse cost-per-mile is the least expensive of any jet, it doesnt meet the 54-cents-per-mile cost Eclipse initially promised, even when adjusted for current fuel prices.
So, does the Eclipse change the rules? It changes one for sure. The old rules said you had to burn lots of gas to go fast, but thats not true for an Eclipse. The airplane is incredibly fuel efficient by any standard. Each engine burns less fuel than the APU on mid-size bizjet. While its not a Mach .80 airplane, the Eclipse is still fast.
Two legs will make West coast destinations doable by lunch from the midwest without getting up early. Point A to B travel at 350 knots without the hassle and humiliation of airport security is faster than Mach .80 in a Boeing 757 between
nearly any city pairs in the country. Give Eclipse its due for this. While the systems integration of the Avio NG is impressive, the concept is not revolutionary. Airliners have used animated graphic systems schematics for years. The Eclipse is unique only for having this capability in an airplane smaller than an airliner.
Eclipses claim of revolutionizing aircraft construction remains muddled, in my view. The economic model was driven by the proposed production volume, but that hasnt materialized. Yet. Eclipse prices have climbed and the question remains if they are going to climb higher. At $2.15 million base price in todays dollars, the Eclipse has plenty of headroom against the Cessna Mustang at $2.9 million. But if its price escalates, that may mean lower volume and higher unit costs until both jets cost about the same. If that happens, Cessna may clobber Eclipse.
How the Eclipses impressive integration impacts the ease of flying is unanswerable at this point. New technology has little effect on the stick-and-rudder flying of the airplane and at that, the Eclipse does well. Any competent light twin pilot with proper training should quickly become comfortable flying VFR.
But flying in the flight levels is a different story. Single-pilot operations without an integrated GPS or a well-qualified copilot is beyond the skill set of many owner-pilots and many professional pilots, for that matter.
Even with GPS/FMS, some corporate flight departments that routinely fly single-pilot in turboprops require a second pilot when operating in crowded skies. Unless the second pilot is a spouse or a business associate, a copilot takes a bite out of the payload and increases operating expenses and the hassle factor considerably.
When it finally gets the ability to navigate, will the Avio NG FMS set a new standard in the human machine interface that fundamentally changes the way the pilot relates to the airplane? In industry, this is called the human machine interface or HMI. The aviation equivalent is the pilot vehicle interface-PVI. Garmin and Avidyne have set the current bar high. Something that could be called revolutionary compared to those products is a tall order and Eclipse simply hasnt delivered on it yet, in my view. And that, more than anything, may explain why Eclipse and its followers dont want the press muddling around in this thing.
Time will tell if Eclipse can improve the navigation PVI to a level where a single pilot can consistently perform to the level needed to safely operate in the busy skies in the southwest and northeastern U.S. For the time being, my view is that it hasnt yet.
Doug Rozendaal is a frequent contributor toAviation Consumers sister publications, IFR and KITPLANES. He lives in Iowa.