Eclipse 550: A Jet for a Niche

The 550 is what the original Eclipse was supposed to be. Priced right, it may find takers among buyers looking for speed and economy.

The Eclipse 500 lives at two ends of the same spectrum. At one terminus, it’s the over-sold, overpromised underperformer that traditional jet operators love to hate. At the other, it’s a nifty little high-tech jewel that a small cadre of owners rave about. Somewhere in the vast gulf between, the new Eclipse Aerospace hopes to mine some jet sales.

As we go to press this month, Eclipse is touring the U.S., offering demo flights in the Total Eclipse, the factory refurb version of the original airplane and a virtual stand-in for what will be a new-production model, the Eclipse 550. 

On paper, the 550—whose components will be manufactured in Poland with cooperation from Sikorsky Aircraft—appears to be what the original Eclipse never quite was: A highly refined, sophisticated, all-weather small jet capable of flying up to four people about 1000 miles. For now, Eclipse has this tiny niche to itself and it touts a modest business plan to sustain about 40 to 60 sales per year.

We recently flew the Total Eclipse, reviewed its numbers and spoke with Eclipse CEO Mason Holland about the company’s prospects.

From the Ashes
Eclipse Aerospace is the new iteration of the original Eclipse Aviation, which managed, despite more than a billion dollars of invested capital, to end its days in bankruptcy in 2008. The Eclipse had been lavishly promoted as not just the next big thing, but so-called disruptive technology so revolutionary that it would reset the very nature of air travel. With an introductory price under $1 million, Eclipse, at one point, claimed to have some 2500 orders booked.

With nine-figure capital investment from private sources, including tech luminaries such as Bill Gates, Eclipse embarked upon an ambitious development and certification program that soon fell behind even its basic goals. The airplane’s sophisticated avionics were troubled and late, vendors were fired, performance fell short and deliveries were slipped.

As the company’s fortunes unraveled, it became so desperate to deliver airplanes to customers that they rolled out the factory door with Garmin portable GPS units  in place of the promised sophisticated FMS, no anti-icing systems and compromised brakes and tires.

Nonetheless, Eclipse managed to build 260 aircraft before escalating costs crushed the company in 2008. The assets were liquidated and acquired by what has become the new company, Eclipse Aerospace, for $20 million in cash, plus promissory notes; mere pennies on the original investment dollars.

These assets, including a number of unfinished aircraft and all of the original tooling and production equipment, form the basis of what will be new production.

Although Holland says Eclipse Aviation never quite managed to match production rates with unit quality, nor did it ever produce a finished aircraft that met the promised specs, it left one positive legacy: The basic airplane is a sound design, with reliable, economical engines and good, if not exceptional, performance for a specific mission profile. On the plus side, Eclipse Aerospace won’t have to do much expensive certification work, although it will face the challenge of finding capital to re-start what will be a modest production line.

Thanks to the fact that former Sikorsky President Jeff Pino owns an Eclipse 500, Sikorsky bought an equity share in Eclipse Aerospace, capital that provided pump-starter money to resurrect Eclipse production. Pino left Sikorsky last spring and both companies subsequently agreed that Sikorsky wouldn’t invest additional money in Eclipse.

However, the two have also agreed that Eclipse will use Sikorsky’s Poland-based PZL Mielac manufacturing base to build 550 components, including fuselages, tails and wings. Sikorsky acquired PZL in 2007 to build its international products, including overseas sales of the S-70 Blackhawk export helicopter.

Production of the new 550 started in Poland last summer, but only the empennages. Eventually, within 18 to 24 months, Eclipse plans to move at least one of its friction-stir welding gantries to PZL for production of fuselages. In the meantime, Holland told us, the fuselages will be manufactured in the company’s original facility at the Albuquerque, New Mexico, airport. All of the final assembly will be done in Albuquerque.
Eclipse concedes that the challenge ahead is not so much to ramp up, but to retool a company designed to produce hundreds of airplanes a year to one that will build but dozens.

“The challenge is ramping down something that was so massive, to bring the production down to meet the demand—or the lack of demand—in the GA market. It’s been pretty anemic across the board, not just any one model,” Holland says.

He says there are pros and cons to the smaller volume. On the plus side, a lower production rate means that assemblers can devote more time to quality, something the original company struggled with. On the other hand, lower volume and hand work means higher unit cost, thus the Eclipse 550 will sell for about $2.7 million, some three times its initial come-on price. Holland says the first production 550 will deliver in July of 2013.

The New Eclipse
The 550 will be, according to Holland, the version of the airplane the original Eclipse might have eventually delivered had the company survived. But the production and ongoing development was so chaotic that it never got to completing the avionics nor one other vital feature: approved anti-icing.

The Total Eclipse program—which will ultimately convert as many as 50 airplanes—retrofits the original aircraft with features the 550 will have, although the two aren’t carbon copies. Total Eclipses have flight into known icing, improved tires, the completed Avio avionics suite and other minor upgrades.

Although these airplanes can be upgraded with the 550’s improvements, the new production airplanes will have the next generation of Avio avionics with higher-resolution screens, a new, discrete glass backup EFIS system, anti-lock brakes, new paint schemes and other cosmetic features. The basic underlying airplane won’t change much, which is to say original Eclipses represented a substantial leap in avionics and aircraft and systems integration and that’s still the case. Virtually everything in the airplane is integrated into and controlled by the Avio avionics suite, right down to dozens of circuit breakers that are controlled electronically, not electromechanically. The airplane has a sophisticated internal data network to advise the pilot of faults and even transmit this data to the mother company for maintenance analysis.

Size wise, the 550’s dimensions are diminutive for a jet, but medium size for a cabin-class twin. Think Cessna 340 and you’re in the ballpark.

Wingspan for the 550 is 37.9 feet on a fuselage length of 33.5 feet. It might not fit into small T-hangars, but it also doesn’t require a large box hangar, either. The tail is 11 feet high. Max cabin width is 56 inches by about 50 inches high. While not capacious, it’s high enough to allow passengers into the back seats without undue strain.

The front seats are another matter. The cabin narrows toward the front, so calling the space between the front seats an aisle is generous. Getting in requires a degree of contortion that tall or heavy people might not find amusing. Mercifully, someone realized this and placed a beefy handle above the glareshield. It’s needed.

Originally, the Eclipse was touted as a six-place airplane; realistically, it’s five, with the rear seats staggered longitudinally so that only the far aft one is difficult to get into. Those seats have adequate, but not generous leg room. The seat behind the pilot’s is the most comfortable.

Maximum ramp weight for the Eclipse is 6034 pounds, so again, at 5975 pounds, the Cessna 340 comparison is apt. Eclipse claims empty weights of about 3634 pounds for a typical useful load of 2400 pounds.

That sounds like a lot and is—it’s about 600 pounds more than the aforementioned 340. However, what aerodynamics giveth, thermodynamics taketh away. Topped off with 251 gallons of Jet A, the 550 is hauling 1698 pounds of fuel for a payload of 700 pounds. That means four people with briefcases and toothbrushes or three people with all the bags they want. Full fuel promises 1125 still-air miles at normal cruise with NBAA IFR reserves or 1300 miles with plain-vanilla FAR IFR reserves.

Practically, we think 1000 to 1100 miles is a realistic number for the Eclipse, but substantially less when westbound in the winter.

Auto Everything
Fortunately, crunching the weight and payload numbers doesn’t require a calculator or even an app, although Eclipse has one of those. Eclipse demo pilot Preston McClay, who flies EA500s in charter for North American Jet, showed us how the W&B calcs work on the Avio system.

The airplane is equipped with a custom loading map with each seat depicted. The pilot simply scrolls in the weights of each passenger and the baggage—the airplane already knows how much fuel it has—and total weight and CG are presented graphically instantaneously. Try as we might, we couldn’t push the CG out of either the forward or aft limits, or even near them. McClay says he’s never encountered an out-of-CG loading problem, although gross weight is a sensitivity.

That every flight begins with diddling with the Avio is telling because the entire flight will consist of diddling with the Avio. Although it’s neither too fast nor too complex for a mere mortal to fly, the Eclipse is clearly designed to be flown as an automated airplane. Even starting it is automatic. Just flip the start knobs to on/start and watch the turns and temperatures come up. We would say listen, but the cabin is so quiet—even in flight—that aural cues are deceiving. The Pratt & Whitney 610F FADECs even oversee a hot start, stopping the sequence if necessary.

The engines are near the centerline, so differential thrust for taxi turns is minimally effective. But steering with the nosewheel is positive and precise and there’s just enough residual idle thrust to require an occasional tap on the brakes.

Acceleration for takeoff is what you’d expect, if you expect a brisk gather up and not quite being slammed back into your seat. At rotation—about 87 knots at mid-weight—it takes a firm tug to lift the airplane off the runway. What’s not expected is relatively heavy control forces, especially in roll. The Eclipse may look like a sports car, but it doesn’t steer like one. The angle and position of the sidestick controller means that left turns require more perceived effort than right turns, because the arm’s musculature favors contraction, not extension. From the right seat, it’s the reverse.

What this means is that in flight, the Eclipse is exceptionally stable in roll. Left alone, it won’t depart much, even if disturbed by turbulence. It’s less so in pitch. It’s not squirrelly, but in normal cruise at altitude, it’s not pleasant to hand fly because the tiniest pitch inputs will translate to 100-foot or more altitude excursions. Better to let the autopilot fly it and manage the airplane through Avio.

Although we didn’t dig deeply into the Avio system, it’s obviously a fully integrated, capable FMS with a enormous center MFD and two PFDs. In the current airplanes, a backup ADI appears in the upper left corner of the MFD, but the 550 will have a dedicated glass backup EFIS. (See photo inset, page 5.)

Power setting in the 550 is as simple as a pair of P&W FADECs can make it. Just advance the throttles to the desired speed and/or climb rate or pull them back, as necessary. In cruise, the FADECs calculate max continuous thrust and display this as a carat.

After takeoff, the Eclipse accelerates quickly and if you’re not careful, it will bust 250 knots when you’re leveling for a step climb. We noted 2500 FPM-plus on initial climb and maintained 1200 FPM into the teens. McClay told us the 500’s sweet spot is in the mid-30s, truing 360 knots in high cruise on 440 pounds total fuel flow. In long-range cruise, the speed drops to 310 knots on 357 pounds.

The airplane was originally certified to 41,000 feet, but was subsequently restricted to lower altitudes because of carbon build-up in the engine combustion liners. Pratt engineered a fix and all but a few of the airplanes have been upgraded.

On a previous Eclipse 500 flight, we tried some engine outs and found them to be non-events, although from high-altitude cruise, the airplane will have to drift down to a lower altitude. Following an engine failure, the FADECs automatically increase thrust by 10 percent on the operating engine, unless it’s already producing full thrust.

Cirrus owners ought to be right at home in landing the 500/550. The final touchdown works best with a relatively flat sight picture, just like an SR22. We flew the approach into Orlando Executive at Vref plus 10 knots or 102 knots and about 90 knots over the threshold. The touchdown feels fast, but brakes down easily without too much drama.

Eclipse says with anti-lock brakes, the airplane can stop from touchdown speed in 700 feet. Given its cabin size, Eclipse is after a specific slice of the market: Owners who want a jet, want to go fast, but don’t care much about carrying a lot of people or stuff. Would someone considering a TBM also look at an Eclipse? We’re not so sure. They appear to have different market appeal.

At $2.7 million, the 550 appears to us to be more right priced than not. Even at a distance, the original company’s business plan of low price and high volume drew skeptical comments from industry insiders and even some buyers.

In our view, Eclipse Aerospace has put the pieces back together for a credible program. We’ll see if the idea sticks this time and if they can generate operating capital to make it go.

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Paul Bertorelli
Paul Bertorelli is Aviation Consumer’s Editor at Large. In addition to his valued contributions to Aviation Consumer, his in-depth video productions on sister publication AVweb cover a wide variety of topics that greatly contribute to safety, operation and aircraft ownership. When Paul isn’t writing or filming, he’s out flying his J3 Cub.