Judging the Eclipse 500 is like trying to change a flat on a moving car-just as you get the lugs lined up, the wheel spins out of place. Consider some of the comments we heard from Eclipse owners we contacted:
“This thing flies like a dream.”
“Eclipse bends over backwards to support the airplane.”
“I was prepared not be impressed, but I was.”
But also these:
“Eclipse really blew it on the avionics.”
“The brakes and tires need work.”
“You just cant find out anything from Eclipse about promised upgrades.”
“A lot of people just dont appreciate how mammoth this undertaking was. In hindsight, that [complexity] was a mistake.”
Further straining any attempt to nail down an evaluation of the Eclipse is the companys rubbery delivery promises. It has slipped schedules so many times, made volume predictions that havent materialized and, in our view, delivered an airplane short enough of its original promise that its tempting to focus solely on these shortcomings rather than the airplane itself.
Eclipse has been masterful in promoting itself but, in our opinion, reluctant to let the aviation press see what the airplane will really do. Curiously, some owners are nearly as secretive. With Eclipse refusing press demos, we asked several owners for test rides. Only one agreed, because he loves the airplane and wanted to show that it could strut its stuff.
Other owners agreed to speak to us but only if we promised not to use their names. Why such worries? One owner said he was worried that Eclipse wouldnt deliver on promised upgrades if he beefed about the airplane in public; another said he just didnt want the hassle, but would answer all of our questions. One fleet operator did speak to us on the record.
Ignore the Hype
Setting aside the hyberbole and the ire with Eclipses delays, how does the airplane measure up against its original promise? Frankly, quite well and certainly not badly enough to sequester the airplane from public demos, in our opinion. In the vast river of promotional words Eclipse has disgorged is this original mission statement:
“The goal of Eclipse is to bring the word personal into aviation, making it possible for commercial air passengers to move directly between cities on a quick, affordable and convenient basis. It will also allow pilot owners to enter the world of jet-powered aviation.”
You can argue with the details and the degree of success, but given its low purchase price-especially for early buyers-and its fuel efficiency, the Eclipse meets this design brief. It simply doesnt have much operational experience to color in the details and the air taxi business on which its economics were based hasnt flowered yet.
Where Eclipse falls short, in our estimation, is on the rest of its mission statement. “Eclipse Aviation is in the business of…producing modern, affordable jet aircraft that will revolutionize the transportation market. The company is applying advanced electronics systems, manufacturing and business practices to produce aircraft that cost less than a quarter of todays small jet aircraft, will be significantly safer and easier to operate than those of today, and will have the lowest cost of ownership ever achieved in a jet aircraft.”
Breaking this statement down, theres actually more truth to it than not, in our view. Even with its recent price hikes, ballooning from an entry price of $837,000 to $2.15 million base price now, the Eclipse is still the lowest cost new jet available and operating costs appear to be modest. But the Eclipse is now 80 percent of the price of its closest competitor, the Cessna Mustang and its ease of operation compared to the Cessna is debatable.
Eclipse said it would drive down production costs with high volume and automotive-inspired manufacturing techniques, but its unclear if the volume is there to support this strategy long term. At times, Eclipse has claimed an order book as great as 2500 aircraft, but DayJet, a promising air taxi startup, has recently retracted expansion plans and another big early order from the Nimbus Group evaporated when the company was restructured. Eclipse CEO Vern Rayburn has conceded that production costs were higher than anticipated and volume lower-the recent price increase is an apparent attempt to keep these two curves from converging.
Eclipse has made much of its digital, highly integrated systems and avionics, the so-called Avio system, which is woven into the fundamental fabric of the airplane. But completion of Avio has proven a major stumble for Eclipse. As we go to press, it has delivered (or soon will) about 200 airplanes, none of which have fully functioning avionics suites-no GPS area nav capability, no in-panel datalink weather and no moving maps. In short, a new Cessna 172 with a G1000 has more in-panel capability than an Eclipse.
The fix for this is planned for later this year when Eclipse will certify the installation of a pair of Garmin GNS400W navigators to drive the displays, to be slipped into the panel where two Avio keyboards now reside.
Eclipse has pledged to upgrade all of its existing aircraft, but owners we spoke to complain that the company hasnt been clear about when and how this will happen, although they praise the company for stepping up.
Eclipse appears to have delivered on two of its original performance claims: speed and fuel economy. Its original marketing outlook promised north of 350 knots as a maximum speed and owners confirm that the latest Eclipse versions deliver that speed at altitude and then some.
Fuel burns in cruise are reported between 55 and 60 GPH-frugal consumption for a jet. When it was specing the airframe in 2000, Eclipse estimated max range as much as 1500 miles, but its Web site now claims 1125 miles with NBAA reserves,
with a pilot and three passengers aboard. Our peeks at FlightAware find some Eclipse trips in the 1000-mile-plus range, but owners say with the seats full, its more of 600-mile airplane. One charter operator told us 500 miles is the economic sweet spot. “Most of time, after two hours, you want to look to land,” said another EA-500 pilot.
When Eclipse was still in bed with Williams International on the aborted EJ22 engine, it predicted direct operating costs of about 54 cents per mile. Switching to the Pratt & Whitney 610F seems to have yielded a reality of about $1.40, adjusted for the $5 Jet A that Eclipse couldnt be expected to predict.
Eclipses competitive analysis sets the Cessna Mustang per-mile cost at about $2.30, using Eclipses protocol. Cessnas competitive comparison, on the other hand, again adjusted for $5 Jet A, has the Eclipse at $1.65 per mile, the Mustang at $2.18.
While the Deltas between the two costs are colored by each companys biases, Eclipse is clearly the more efficient of the two. Cessna also concedes that the Eclipse is at least 10 knots faster than the Mustang. These numbers may not matter to individual owners, but to the budding air taxi industry, a 60-cents-per-mile operational Delta can make or break a business.
If the Eclipse has a glaring durability weakness, it would appear to be tires, judging by owner comments. An EA-500s tires appear tiny in relation to the rest of the airplane and appear more suited for the lighter airframe the airplane was once supposed to be. Owners also seem to pine for anti-lock brakes.
Bill Herp, CEO of Linear Air in Boston, operates four EA-500s and estimates tire wear costs them $12 per landing, leading him to joke about adding a tire surcharge. (Eclipse is planning a tire upgrade.)
Herp and other operators we spoke to characterize the airplane as generally reliable and dispatchable, especially considering the highly integrated nature of it, in which virtually all of the major systems have digital involvement in a sensor-rich architecture. Linear Airs two later serial numbers (136 and 168) have proven less maintenance hungry than the first two (16 and 75) leading Herp to believe Eclipse has and is making progress. Like other owners we spoke to, Herp told us Eclipse service, support and responsiveness have been excellent. Two owners told us their aircraft were AOG in remote locations and Eclipse dispatched an overnight maintenance team to repair the airplane.
“I think,” one owner told us, “that Eclipse is trying as hard as they can to support this airplane. Theyve done a terrific job.” Herp agrees with that view, but he says
Eclipse needs to get its entire staff reading from the same playbook and not have one department say one thing and another say something else. The only significant complaint we heard from owners was lack of clear schedules on promised upgrades. Minor stuff, says Herp, who adds that he continues to be impressed with the bulk of Eclipses design decisions.
As for training, one owner we spoke to who took his training in the airplane without benefit of a simulator described the process as “rugged,” dogged by weather and delays. Eclipse initially tried a line-oriented training protocol that proved difficult for owners to negotiate. Launching a training program was one of many stumbles Eclipse suffered. Its initial plan called for a joint training venture with United Airlines, but that deal fell apart in early 2007. Later in 2007, Eclipse opened its own training center at Albuquerques Double Eagle Airport, offering simulator based training combined with hands-on flight training. Two owners who trained at this facility characterized the training as excellent, although complex, given the airplanes sophistication. Mastering the stick and rudder is easy, but learning the Avios layers requires study.
Ignoring the missed schedules and developmental immaturity of the Avio system, Eclipse has to be recognized for at least conditionally delivering on its mission statement thus far. The EA-500 is inarguably fast, economical and sophisticated, what one owner described as “a hell of a neat little airplane.” It has speed, a comfortable, well-appointed cabin that passengers like and range adequate to its task.
If it existed in a vacuum, only one word could describe the Eclipse: impressive. But it doesnt exist in a vacuum. It shares an increasingly crowded segment in which a company like Cessna sets a high standard for delivering completed airplanes, on time, with no significant performance shortfalls or IOUs and no asking customers to wait while it finishes the airplane. Against that yardstick, Eclipse is less impressive and its fair to point that out, especially since when it burst upon the scene a decade ago, it promised to show the world how airplanes should be built .
So far, that hasnt happened, in our view, despite an enormous capital investment. Throughout our conversations on the Eclipse, owners said they wish Eclipse hadnt gotten mired in the problematical Avio but had instead engaged Avidyne or Garmin to build a cockpit suite to a simpler set of specs. In some ways, we think the Eclipse is the aeronautical version of a bridge too far-the company simply attempted too much too soon and is now struggling to catch up.
The larger question is whether Eclipse can retool its grand business plan to reflect the lesser reality of VLJ demand while also retaining its position as the lowest cost jet. The European market is seen as a big driver here, but Eclipse hasnt proven that with EASA certification, which is pending. If Eclipse cant hold the line on costs, it may find itself competing with Cessna with very little price difference and lesser avionics. In other words, we think Eclipse has far from proven its airplane/business concept.
Higher fuel prices now sharply favor single-engine jets and although Eclipse has one under development-the EA-400-it will have plenty of competition from Cirrus, Piper, Diamond and, were quite sure, eventually Cessna. Startup aircraft companies have never had it easy and Eclipse hasnt broken that mold.