Eclipse and Safire

A 350-knot jet for under $1 million? Call us very doubtful. But for a few bucks more, someone will win this sweepstakes.

A scene from real-life at Oshkosh: Midday on a breezy Wednesday afternoon, the cavernous Raytheon/Beechcraft tent is deserted, with not so much as a straw hat or logod golf shirt in sight. No tire kickers, either.

From the looks of it, everyone is gawking at the mock-up of the new Eclipse personal jet, in a pavilion hard by Raytheons lot. A cynical journalist cant resist drawing this to the attention of a Raytheon PR person. Youll have to excuse us, says the flack, Were out building and delivering airplanes.

And so the line is drawn between the Jurassic has beens of the piston era and the would-be Walter Beeches of the new millennium, who propose to make 300-knot jets available to the common man or, at the least, the company where he works.

And frankly, the two-engine personal jet for under a million bucks seems like such a damn good idea that one can almost ignore the overarching question: Can they do it?

Tall Claims
The two most recent top contenders for the first practical mini-jet are the Eclipse and the Safire S-26, designs that look remarkably alike, which is in some ways reassuring. (On the other hand, delusional marketing concepts can be eerily consistent. And plentiful; lest we forget the VisionAire Vantage, a six-place jet thats almost three times as expensive and has been in the works for nearly a decade.)

Before comparing these jets , consider how aggressively these companies are taking on what may be a portion of their market: Pilots wealthy enough to buy new Malibus and Barons and small companies chartering or operating turboprops.

In a flight of hyperbole we havent seen since Jim Bede went into exile, how about this promotional text from Eclipses Web site: It is more economical to own and operate than all of todays turboprops and most single-engine pistons. The direct operating costs of an Eclipse 500 add up to just $.56 a mile. Thats one fourth the operating cost of a King Air and half that of a Baron.

Its also about a nickel less than a Bonanza B36TC, numbers which strain credulity. The use of the present tense in the promo doesnt go unnoticed. It almost sounds as if you could buy an Eclipse and take delivery next month. In reality, you can sit in a luxurious air-conditioned mock-up, as many Oshkosh show goers did, but the jet is three years-at least-from commercial delivery, with the first flight two years away.

Eclipse is promising a primarily aluminum airframe with a max cruise speed of 355 knots, a stall speed of 62 knots and a range with four people aboard of 1300 miles, with an extended range option. Price in 2000 dollars: $837,500. It will be powered by EJ22 turbofans developed under a NASA grant by Williams International. The jet will have an advanced avionics suite and be equipped for known icing.

In a masterstroke of marketing, Eclipse announced performance guarantees at Oshkosh in July, pledging to meet the speed and weight claims within 2.5 percent and the range within 5 percent.

Running neck-and-neck with Eclipse, is the Safire S-26, an all-composite twin-jet design to be powered by an as-yet-to-be-built 900-pound TF-800 Agilis turbofans. Agilis was formed in 1993 as an engineering and engine development company. Unlike Williams International, it has no established track record with aircraft jet engines nor does it have a running prototype.

Like the Eclipse 500, the Safire promises 330-knot cruise with a 1400-mile range and a direct operating cost under $200 per hour or about 60 cents a mile. Payload with maximum range is claimed to be 620 pounds or three occupants, including the pilot, plus baggage. With maximum payload, range is said to be 550 miles, thus a New York-to-Florida trip will require a fuel stop. Projected price for the S-26 is $800,000, with delivery in 2003.

But there’s more: Safire has two other models planned. The S-12 is to be a two-place (tandem) single-engine jet with similar range and speed, selling for $350,000 while the S-14 will be a four-place single-engine variant cruising a bit slower-300 knots-and selling for $450,000.

So, lets see here, for about the price of a moderately equipped new Piper Saratoga II SP, you could have a single-engine jet that cruises 125 knots faster, goes farther and costs the same or a little less to operate.

Has the aviation world once again come adrift from reality or are these airplanes remotely achievable?

Key to the emergence of personal jets are the engines to power them; no engines, no airplanes. Williams International reports that its development of the EJ22 compact turbofan is on schedule and, said a Williams representative at Oshkosh, NASA has independently confirmed that our numbers are realistic. Under the General Aviation Propulsion project, NASA ponied up $39 million in development funds for the FJX-2, the prototype of the EJ22. Williams contributed the rest, for a total development cost estimated to be $100 million. By numbers, the Williams representative was referring to both delivered thrust and cost, the latter being important if not a show-stopper for the sub-million dollar cost of the Eclipse. When asked exactly what the EJ22 will cost, no answer was forthcoming. But Williams has previously said that in volume, the engine would cost about what a piston engine of equivalent power costs.

Thats a difficult comparison, since no one makes a piston aircraft engine in the 400 to 500 horsepower range. As for volume, Eclipse initially envisions about 200 airframes per year or at least 400 engines, perhaps as many as 500 or 600, allowing for other applications and spares. Safire says profits will accrue between 150 and 200 airframes a year.

For reference, Lycoming makes about 4000 to 5000 engines a year, many of them overhauls, while Continental produces about 4000, with a lower percentage of those as new engines.

Williams is a principle in the Eclipse development and has been contracted to design the airframe. Both companies report that the EJ22 is so integrated into the airframe design that the aircraft cant work with any other engine.

At 85 pounds in weight, the engine is designed to be easily removable for maintenance and is small enough-about the size of a large wastebasket-to be overnight shipped back to the factory for repairs, if necessary. Thus far, for its millions invested, Williams has at least four EJ22 test engines, with production set to begin in two years. A Williams official told us that the program is on schedule, with no surprises thus far, not that we would expect otherwise in this, the sunshine phase of development.

The Agilis engines for the Safire are a larger unknown. Agilis has never certified a jet engine and has nothing running yet. But Safire still plans to fly a prototype on the same schedule as Eclipse, in 2002. (Actually, Eclipse plans to skip the prototype stage, building a confirming airplane right out of the blocks.) Williams has the advantage of NASA-funded research on the FJX-2, which Agilis will have to do on its own.

Moreover, Williams is doing the heavy lifting on the design of the airframe as well, no doubt drawing heavily on its experience with the Rutan-designed experimental V-Jet, which used off-the-shelf Williams engines in a composite design that essentially proved the flight envelope of what will become the Eclipse and silencing the critics who say these jets cant be done.

Metal vs. Glass
The Eclipse/Safire build-off promises to be one of the most decisive comparisons between conventional metal construction and whats supposed to be high-volume composite construction. The two jets are similar in size, weight and available power. As paper goes to metal and plastic, the industry will get a glimpse of how quickly and efficiently each makes it through the certification process-if they make it through the certification process.

Given the perception that the Cirrus SR-20 has put composites permanently on the map, Eclipses decision to use conventional aluminum construction is surprising. But Eclipse says aluminum offers the advantage to use the sort of high-volume production techniques used in the auto industry, which may be the only way the company will ever hit the sub-million dollar price point.

Curious that no other companies have figured out this high-volume stuff so far-say, Cessna, flushing out 500 Skyhawks a year-what exactly does Eclipse have in mind? The details are sketchy but apparently Eclipse plans to use the highly automated methods-robotics and so forth-found on automobile assembly lines. This has been done to a limited degree in the transport aircraft world but not in GA. It requires enormous investment and, above all, considerable volume to pay off that investment.

Aluminum has another advantage over composites: The FAA understands the stuff. There’s a long history of pressurized aluminum airframes but not so many composite examples and no six-place jets. The Raytheon Premier, now completing certification, is the first bizjet class aircraft to employ a composite fuselage. It still has metal wings.

Whether this is a factor in certification cost and time is debatable. Safire argues that composites are now old hat, since Boeing, Diamond, Cirrus, Lancair and Raytheon have educated the FAA on the finer points of building plastic airplanes. In theory, both plastic and metal come out of the blocks equally, despite Safires insistence that composites are superior. But metal has proven to have a slight advantage in overall weight control in small civil aircraft, an edge that could evaporate as more is learned about composites.

Ramping up for high volume in either composites or metal has proven difficult for manufacturers, not because they cant figure out how but because it takes a huge investment with a long payback period.

Both Cirrus and Lancair-especially Lancair-are struggling with this equation and the outcome is far from assured. Eclipse faces the additional challenge of convincing the FAA to approve its proposed highly automated production methods, which is what CEO Vern Raburn refers to as a disruptive technology.

The Money Game
Certifying any airplane through a type certificate and production is a challenging technical feat but it pales in comparison to the most critical element of any airplane project: The need for money, great pots of it.

Time and time again, great airplane ideas have perished at the hands of bankers, private investors and venture capitalists who awake one morning wondering why they ever thought a start-up airplane company was an investment opportunity.

The latest company to suffer such a fate is VisionAire, whos six-place, single-engine Vantage jet has been the better part of a decade in development and underwent major retrenching last year for both weight and financial issues. VisionAire is still in the game but nearly three years away from certification.

Eclipse estimates it will need $300 million to certify and fund production, a sum which industry insiders say is realistic, perhaps even generous. (VisionAire, by comparison, has already spent $100 million and will need a total of $200 million. ) According to Eclipse officials, the company has raised $60 million through private investors and venture capital is seeking more cash.

Safire, on the other hand, hasnt disclosed how much money the S-26 project will require, where it will come from or how much has been raised. A spokesman promised an announcement soon. (See the sidebar on page 20 for the buy-in details.)

Were sure some of Eclipses money will come from the high-tech sector, since Raburn is a former senior exec at Symantec and Lotus Development and was an early employee at Microsoft. (Hes also a pilot, with some 5000 hours.) Reportedly, Bill Gates is an investor. Both companies are making much of the fact that theyve brought in automotive heavy weights to apply car-guy thinking to the problem of building airplanes.

Eclipses chairman is Harold Poling, retired CEO and chairman of Ford. Safire has hired Carl Hahn, former chairman of Volkswagen. These associations represent shrewd thinking, since investors are soothed by management with blue-chip industrial experience and this tends to knock the gimcrack edge off new airplane projects.

And deep down inside, most pilots with experience in the airplane industry secretly believe airplane guys are too dumb to make the dollars work. Being rescued by the car guys is thus reassuring.

Yes or No?
Will these intriguing airplanes come to pass or just prove another ill-financed but well-promoted dead-end business plan? In our view, both Eclipse and Safire have about the same chance of success as any previous start-up, which we would guess is 60/40 in favor. Despite brimming confidence, these are still airplane start-ups.

Eclipse is the most interesting of the two, in our view, because the company is essentially kicking open the barroom door and declaring that it will show the world how to build airplanes that all but rewrite the laws of physics and certainly toss conventional airplane economics out the door with yesterdays newspaper. Safire, on the other hand, says its just working with available technology and there’s nothing developmental about the S-26. (The FAA may feel otherwise.)

In their favor-at least for Eclipse-is that the company sees the jets as expanding the lower threshold of the charter and corporate bizjet market, allowing companies that wouldnt consider a $4 million to jet to set up a flight department with an airplane costing less than a fourth as much, perhaps dramatically less in network or partnership ownership. In that sense, the term personal jet may be a misnomer. Although we think their claimed direct operating costs will prove overstated, even if an Eclipse or Safire proves the operational cost equal of a King Air class turboprop (or a bit less), were sure companies who wish to charter such airplanes wont lack for customers.

As it is now, many of those companies wont put employees on piston twins, for insurance reasons, and turboprops are too slow and too expensive. If airline service continues to deteriorate, some companies may have no choice but to charter.

The timing could be exquisitely perfect. Further, in the event of the inevitable economic downturn, businesses may dump their $3 million jets, favoring something cheaper, such as an Eclipse or Safire.

Eclipse marketing boilerplate mentions Piper Mirages and Beechcraft Barons, but we wonder if private ownership will sustain either company. The big numbers may have to come from the commercial sector. At this point, no one really knows.

Its anybodys guess when or if these airplanes will materialize. At the moment, Eclipse has a leg up with visible financing and the all-important engine within sight of delivery. Safire appears to us to be more an unknown, with confident on schedule reports but no smell of burnt kerosene. Not to say Safire isn’t a contender, but the project appears less developed than Eclipse.

Last, our prediction: Eclipse will make it into production, but despite the latest in high-tech computer-aided design, we think it will fall slightly short of its speed and payload guarantees and will arrive at least a year later than promised. Why? Because the airplane business has always been full of surprises for manufacturers and we don’t think this has changed much. Its Eclipses task to prove otherwise.

After the euphoria of the initial pricing abates, we think the stable price will be at least $1.1 million. If all of this transpires, Eclipse will still have fundametally reshaped general aviation.

Were preparing a place setting for a steaming plate of crow if Eclipse proves us wrong. Stranger things have happened. After all, a car guy named Henry Ford dabbled in airplanes in 1925 and although were not flying Fords today, he left an indelible mark on the industry.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Dawning of New-Age Jets and Sunset for Pistons/Turboprops.”
Click here to view “Want a Piece of the Action? Safire Has the Friendlier Deal.”
Click here to view Addresses.

by Paul Bertorelli