Back in the ebullient days of 2002, before the iPhone became the bright, shiny object du jour, our frenzy was focused on something else: The coming of the very light jet or VLJ whose speed, affordability and ease of access were going to revolutionize personal transportation in the same way the internet rewrote the rules of communication. It was to be, said a leading disciple of the cause, “disruptive technology.” Six years later, the lavishly promoted rock star of the VLJ-the Eclipse EA500-was at the bottom of a billion-and-half dollar smoking hole with a reputation so besmirched that only one serious bidder emerged to buy the companys bankrupted assets. From the ashes, the new Eclipse Aerospace hopes to be a green shoot, hitting the timing right and offering what many people in the industry still believe is a concept that ought to work: a highly automated, small, fast, economical jet that a single pilot can easily fly. The new Eclipse is headquartered in the same place the old company was, at the Albuquerque International Airport, originally lured there by generous concessions from the state of New Mexico and the city. An investor group headed by Mason Holland and Mike Press bought the assets for $40 million, rejiggered the infrastructure to a much smaller footprint and is now busily modifying many of the existing 260 airplanes with known-ice protection and upgraded avionics. Eclipses production tooling is in storage and Holland told us the company will be ready to build new airplanes when the market is ready to buy them. For now, its signature product is a play on words: The Total Eclipse is the fully automated, fully integrated and ice-protected small jet that the original was intended to be. In support of its efforts, the new Eclipse has signed a deal with Sikorksy Aircraft for maintenance and technical support which, by the way, brings some street cred the original company never quite enjoyed, given that it entered the market with a well-show-you-how-its-done attitude.
Back in the ebullient days of 2002, before the iPhone became the bright, shiny object du jour, our frenzy was focused on something else: The coming of the very light jet or VLJ whose speed, affordability and ease of access were going to revolutionize personal transportation in the same way the internet rewrote the rules of communication. It was to be, said a leading disciple of the cause, “disruptive technology.”
Six years later, the lavishly promoted rock star of the VLJ-the Eclipse EA500-was at the bottom of a billion-and-half dollar smoking hole with a reputation so besmirched that only one serious bidder emerged to buy the companys bankrupted assets. From the ashes, the new Eclipse Aerospace hopes to be a green shoot, hitting the timing right and offering what many people in the industry still believe is a concept that ought to work: a highly automated, small, fast, economical jet that a single pilot can easily fly.
The new Eclipse is headquartered in the same place the old company was, at the Albuquerque International Airport, originally lured there by generous concessions from the state of New Mexico and the city. An investor group headed by Mason Holland and Mike Press bought the assets for $40 million, rejiggered the infrastructure to a much smaller footprint and is now busily modifying many of the existing 260 airplanes with known-ice protection and upgraded avionics.
Eclipses production tooling is in storage and Holland told us the company will be ready to build new airplanes when the market is ready to buy them. For now, its signature product is a play on words: The Total Eclipse is the fully automated, fully integrated and ice-protected small jet that the original was intended to be. In support of its efforts, the new Eclipse has signed a deal with Sikorksy Aircraft for maintenance and technical support which, by the way, brings some street cred the original company never quite enjoyed, given that it entered the market with a well-show-you-how-its-done attitude.
If the Total Eclipse represents the original idea done right, the first airplanes the company produced can fairly be viewed as “almost there, but rushed out the door.” Press and Holland say the push to develop a design capable of over-ambitious volume production-and creating a company that could produce it-almost guaranteed that early airplanes would emerge half-baked. And they did. Given the pressure to sell airplanes, prime the air taxi pump and generate revenue and buzz, Eclipse succumbed to the notion that it would be better to have incomplete airplanes delivered than to delay deliveries and finish the job correctly.
Had the original company had another year, the story might have been different. As it was, the company declared bankruptcy ahead of the market meltdown in 2008, so its troubles were not related directly to the current aerospace recession.
Eclipses original airplanes (up to serial 39) didnt meet promised range and speed parameters and the company fixed that by designing larger tip tanks. It also cleaned up some drag issues to improve speed. These airplanes became the so-called ETT models for extended tip tanks. These airplanes also didnt have approved ice protection, an upgrade that didnt become available until the eve of bankruptcy.
The original airplanes-through number 105 -also had the Avidyne avionics suite, but this was replaced by the Avio system which Eclipse developed with IS&S after falling out with Avidyne. Some 50 serials later, a newer version of this system was installed, but it still had no integrated nav GPS, so in place of a slide-out keyboard originally intended as an input device, Eclipse slotted in a Garmin 400 GPS navigator, which is what most of the airplanes are still flying with today. The latest version of AvioNG available for existing owners is the 1.7 upgrade, which
includes everything short of a fully-integrated FMS system. About 100 existing airplanes have been upgraded to this status and the company seems to be keeping busy doing the conversions as customers order them. The hangar was chock-a-block with airplanes when we visited in November of 2010.
When the new company won the assets at auction, it got all of the production equipment and related physical plant, plus about 30 airframes in various states of completion-some were still on the line, others were callbacks from the DayJet air taxi project. These airplanes have been or are being converted into the current state of the art, the Total Eclipse. Furthermore, Eclipse is buying some airframes on the open market and converting them to the Total Eclipse.
These airframes will have full known-ice protection, upgraded interiors and, eventually, a version of the AvioNG which includes GPS and the fully integrated FMS system. The Garmin 400 is removed in favor of the original keyboard, which slides in and out from a spring-loaded drawer under each pilot display. When Eclipse resumes production-and Holland insists that its “when” not “if,” new airframes will have all of these upgrades and perhaps some new ones going forward.
Geared for Volume
The original vision for Eclipse was a high-volume, high-utilization, low-cost airframe
and it is designed and built accordingly. In Hollands view, Eclipse got that part of the equation exactly right. “Aerodynamically,” he says, “nothing else on the market can touch this airplane. We couldnt be happier with this airplane. Its not the best thing for every mission, but 70 percent of flights out there are 750 nautical miles with three people. This airplane does that.”
At 370 knots max, the Eclipse is a little faster than the Cessna Mustang, although even with the larger tip tanks, it lacks the Mustangs range by 200 miles. Pilots who have flown it rave about its handling, the spiffy sidestick and ease of operation. During the early promotional phase, much was made of the friction stir welding used rather than riveting to assemble the fuselage. At the time, the Eclipses level of integration-especially the graphic synoptics for the airplanes systems, its crew alerting messaging for faults and internal diagnostics for maintenance were considered a great leap forward for small jets, although such technology has been available in transport airplanes.
But how will all that complexity play out in a market where the new Eclipse will probably build a small fraction of what the original company once envisioned? Press thinks the equation favors small production just as well as volume. For one thing, the investment in the friction stir setup is sunk money-all of its paid for and the new company got it for what may be the fire sale price of the century. Second, efficiency is efficiency.
“Its not going to require large volume to make this pay,” Press says. “With the welding, we can build one fuselage in one day. Its lighter and its three times stronger. If that fuselage was riveted, the cycle time would be in weeks.” But doesnt the jigging have to be kept busy to pay for itself? See above … its already paid for. Initial concerns about longevity are being addressed, Press said, in a second round of load testing to prove the airplanes life cycle out to at least 20
With tooling already proven and paid for, Holland sees a viable company with volume in the 50- to 150-airplane range, at unit prices above $2 million. Despite Eclipses early claims that the airplane would sell for around $1 million or a little under, Holland said it was always at least a $2 million airplane, if not more.
After initial teething pains-which were fewer than might be expected with a design this sophisticated-the airplanes complex integration has generally been viewed favorably by operators. Theoretically, things like brushless motors, a lack of hydraulics, automatic everything and sophisticated, always-on system monitoring is supposed to reduce the routine maintenance load. Early beefs about short tire life were addressed by replacing radial tires with the bias-ply tires generally used on aircraft.
One thing unique about the airframe is that it doesnt require an annual inspection, but a 300-hour or two-year extensive maintenance inspection. There are too few fleet hours thus far to prove how this will play out in the long term, but its telling that there are only six ADs on the airframe, none of them related to major structural or aerodynamic issues.
The most recent was a software fix to address uncommanded frequency changes in the AvioNG system. Theres also an AD limiting Eclipse operation to 37,000 feet (from the 41,000 feet originally certified) due to carbon build up on the PW610F-A engine static vane. This led to engine surging, but the altitude restriction evidently addresses this. Press told us Pratt & Whitney is working on a fix.
Otherwise, just as Pratt predicted, the engine has proven reliable and has met maintenance expectations. Owners say it is easy to service and Pratt has backed up the product with a reliable parts chain. We know of no failures in about 60,000 fleet hours and the fleet time leaders are just coming up on the first hot sections.
The Eclipse was conceived as a highly integrated, highly automated airplane designed to rid the airframe of mechanical and electromechanical devices. It would also give the pilot an unprecedented real-time glimpse of navigation data and especially aircraft systems status, making it practical and easy for a single pilot to fly.
Did it succeed? Mostly yes, although only with the Total Eclipse program and AvioNG FMS can the airplanes navigation system be considered as measuring up to the state-of-the-art of Garmins G1000 or Avidynes Release Nine in self-contained navigational capability. With Garmin GPS400Ws providing the nav source, the 1.7 version is fully functional, but lacks the FMSs full integration and keyboard interface.
The airplanes integrated systems monitoring and synoptics-presented on a large color display in the center of the panel-are well designed, readable and relatively
easy to use. With absolutely no training and after seeing it twice, we could begin to grasp its logic. System status for everything from fuel, to engine to environmentals are viewable at a glance.
When we visited Eclipses Albuquerque shop in October of 2010, the company had more than a dozen aircraft in various stages of repair and upgrade, but none were available to fly so we contacted owner David Green, whose EA500 is based at our home airport, Venice, Florida. Green is also head of the Eclipse Owners Club, an owner organization that has been exceptionally active and involved, primarily because it has had to be.
Green owns serial number 129, which was delivered in 2008 lacking the known-ice package, the improved windshields and tires and other upgrades. He has since added those items and considers the airplane perfect for what he uses it for: personal transportation. He gave us a brief demo flight from Venice to Ocala, Florida.
The EA500 is hardly a large airplane, so getting into the cockpit is a bit of a squeeze, which we would liken to entering a Piper Mirage or any cabin class twin. On the windshield center post is a beefy hand grab that aids the process of levering into the seats. Once youre in, the seats have nice adjustors for height and fore and aft positioning.
Whats most striking about the cockpit is how quiet it is, both on the ground with engines off or idling and in the air. Theres a lot of carpet and leather to soak up the noise and, we suspect, sound deadening insulation throughout. The most noticeable noise comes from the air conditioning system, which is excellent, keeping the cockpit at a comfortable temperature without subjecting the occupants to gales of blowing air.
As intended, Green operates his Eclipse by the book, using the Avios center screen to step through pre-start, then backing that up with a quick sweep through a paper checklist. Most of the pre-start effort involves flightplan input into the navigators, checking the weight and balance and reviewing the synoptic displays for any abnormals. The Avio is capable of displaying dozens of crew alerting system messages so what the pilot misses, the airplane wont. Startup is entirely automatic. Just flip the overhead switch to start, then monitor the temps as the engines spool. Even when they light, its difficult to tell from the cockpit, given how quiet it is.
Piston drivers stepping up to the Eclipse will be challenged by two things: the need to master the avionics and the airplanes speed and acceleration. This is noticeable on the runway as the thing bolts toward rotation speed (under 90
knots), requires a sharp tug to 10-degrees pitch up and then just keeps accelerating. Right off, the climb rate was 2000 FPM at 180 knots and in a brief level out awaiting clearance for higher, we rapidly touched 240 knots. Pitching up out of that speed yielded climb rates as much as 4800 FPM; we easily sustained 2500 FPM to FL200.
Like most owners, Green transitions to the autopilot shortly after takeoff, then flies the airplane from the AP panel under the glareshield. For a small airplane, the Eclipse has surprisingly high control forces in both pitch and roll. Rolling right (from the right seat) is stiffer than left mainly due to physiology: You get more torque with an inward arm motion than an outward one. As in a Cirrus, you learn to position the arm to get effective leverage. High control forces have one benefit: Control inputs are well damped so the ride is silky smooth, with little tendency to overshoot pitch or bank targets.
Because the engine thrust lines arent far apart, theres not much yaw from differential thrust, thus an engine out is a non-event except for the lost performance. Green demonstrated this by scissoring both throttles while on autopilot; the airplane barely noticed.
FL200 is not the most efficient altitude for the EA500, but 370 is. It will true in the 360-knot range burning about 180 pounds (27 gallons) per side. Green told us the Eclipses range is about 1000 miles eastbound and 800 miles or a little less westbound, with a generous fuel reserve. If he wishes for anything, he says, it would be for another 300 pounds of fuel to extend the range.
For now, Eclipses mark on aviation history is an epic failure; a case study in overpromising, underdelivering and overspending. But that had little to do with the airplane itself, which by all accounts and confirmed by our impression in flying it, is more right than wrong. Although it falls far short on its original price objectives, its a credible performer with good speed and adequate if not exceptional range. In short, its a fast, easy-to fly-airplane thats comfortable and efficient.
Its now up to Mason Holland and company to rebuild the brands reputation, wait for the market to turn and resume production at realistic volumes and sane prices.
Estimates on what “sane” is vary, but its likely to be around $2.5 million, which would place the new Eclipse in a price niche of its own, competing well below the Cessna Mustang and a bit under the single-engine Piper Altaire, recently bumped up to $2.6 million.
For now, Eclipse has to maintain a delicate dance with current owners to sustain itself through the upgrade and support business, a venture with a limited future. Beyond that, it will need to find demand for new aircraft, restart the line and sell airplanes.
Our guess is that if it does everything right-controls costs, buffs up the reputation, delivers on promises at a profitable price-it has a good chance of success. Evidently, Sikorsky thinks so, too.