Pilot Report: Eclipse 550

 - October 1, 2014, 3:30 AM
Eclipse 550

I pulled the Eclipse 550’s throttles back and allowed the jet to slow down. The autopilot and autothrottles were turned off, but as we neared the stall, an audio alert sounded (“STALL”), the autothrottles kicked in and automatically advanced power to maximum continuous thrust and the airspeed climbed back to a safe level as I simultaneously unloaded the wings. After leveling off, I reset the throttles and resumed normal cruise speed.

The autothrottles are just one feature that makes the latest version of the Eclipse very light jet (VLJ) a pleasure to fly, not to mention adding extra layers of safety. Another is anti-skid brakes, which I was able to try on landing and which work very well indeed.

The new owners who bought the assets of bankrupt Eclipse Aviation and formed Eclipse Aerospace have followed through on their plans to put the Eclipse jet back into production and to keep adding improvements not only for safety but also for efficiency and reliability. The result is a testament to the Eclipse team’s systems engineering capabilities and to the vision of the original company’s founder, Vern Raburn, and the diminutive airframe’s designer, Oliver Masefield (now at Pilatus leading the design of the PC-24 jet). One might even say that the $2.895 million 550, finally, is the fulfillment of Raburn’s dream of a highly integrated, compact, efficient and safe personal jet.

Eclipse Aerospace test pilot Mike Vaupell has logged more than 2,500 hours in the 500 and 550. He flies not only demos and test flights for Eclipse but also as director of operations and training for North American Jet Charter, the first operator to offer Eclipse 500s for charter. Vaupell was the primary test pilot for the FMS upgrades to the avionics and for the 550 certification program. He briefed me on the key new features of the new 550 before our flight from Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis., during the EAA AirVenture show in July.

While not outwardly visible, the autothrottles and anti-skid brakes are the most prominent new features, but Eclipse engineers have clearly spent a lot of time refining other aspects of the jet, with 60 upgrades marking the move from the 500 to the 550. And these are available as upgrade packages for existing 500 owners or in the Total Eclipse refurbished 500.

Pilots will notice the improved windshields, now made by PPG with an outer ply of glass over an inner acrylic ply instead of the stretched acrylic windshields on the original model. The old units each were fitted with two static dissipater strips, and when windshield heat was switched on, pilots could see distortion, which would worsen as the windshields aged. With the new windshields, there are no static strips and no distortion in normal heating mode and only a small amount at the high setting, according to Vaupell. “The clarity compared to the old windshields is remarkable.” The window frames are also now polished, an easy way to tell a 550 from a 500 without the updated windshields.

Also new are landing-gear actuators, an electrically powered air-conditioning system that can run on ground power, standby instruments, Avio 2.7 avionics and FMS upgrades and seamless interior panels. All the improvements on the 550 add just 10 to 20 pounds to the original jet’s empty weight.

Anti-skid Brakes

The only accident involving an Eclipse jet thus far is a runway departure after landing on July 30, 2008, which is a remarkable achievement for any aircraft manufacturer and likely a testament to the jet’s design and Eclipse’s stringent training program. The pilot was landing the Eclipse 500 at Brandywine Airport in Pennsylvania and skidded off the runway.

The NTSB reviewed data captured by the 500’s diagnostic storage unit. At 20 seconds before touchdown, the pilot selected landing flaps; the 500 was then at 147 knots, 27 knots higher than the maximum flap extension speed. Ref speed should have been about 94 knots. Nearing the runway threshold, speed was 123 knots. Crossing the threshold, the jet was at 108 knots. At touchdown, it was still going 92 knots, “which was about 14 knots higher than specified,” according to the NTSB. The jet’s skid marks started 868 feet from the displaced threshold, continued for about 2,229 feet, then stopped at the end of the runway. No one was hurt in the accident, but the airplane was substantially damaged.

The anti-skid brake system switches on when the gear is down, although the pilot can turn the system off. The system consists of anti-skid controllers mounted in the wing root, an anti-skid computer, brake-control module and wheel speed transducers on the wheels. The system compares the wheel speed to GPS-based groundspeed, so a solid GPS signal is required. At a wheel speed that is 85 percent of the jet’s GPS groundspeed, the anti-skid computer removes pressure from the brakes to keep the wheels from locking. This happens quickly and often, allowing overall braking action to continue until speed drops below 15 knots, then the anti-skid system switches off. Each wheel can modulate independently to prevent one from skidding, which could otherwise happen if one wheel were hydroplaning or slipping on a paint stripe.

Autothrottles

The autothrottle system had been planned for a while in the Eclipse 500, and the jet’s avionics provider, Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S), had built in that capability previously. In April 2011, IS&S submitted an application for a supplemental type certificate for the autothrottle system, and the FAA issued special conditions for certification as autothrottles aren’t covered in Part 23 regulations. The Eclipse jet is the first autothrottle implementation for a Part 23 airplane, according to Eclipse. Special conditions required by the FAA basically mirror Part 25 autothrottle rules, including quick disengagement capability, no major transient response when engaging or switching the autopilot, envelope (speed) protection when the autopilot is in use, visual and audible cues when disengaging the autothrottles and ability to move the thrust levers “without excessive force” when the autothrottles are engaged.

The thrust levers are driven by servos in the throttle quadrant and physically move along with autothrottle commands. Any movement of the thrust levers by the pilot results in either the autothrottles shutting off, which happens if the pilot holds the levers away from the set point for more than five seconds, or the levers returning to the commanded setting if the pilot lets them go after moving them for fewer than five seconds.

The basic mode for the Eclipse autothrottles is speed hold, which modulates thrust to maintain a desired speed. This is the mode used during cruise flight to lower the pilot’s workload and maximize efficiency. Maximum continuous thrust (MCT) mode is used after takeoff and after engaging the autopilot, which can’t be done until 15 seconds after takeoff.

While flying below 10,000 feet or if it’s necessary to level off temporarily, it’s easy to set a limiting speed by pushing the spd-sel button, which syncs to the current airspeed, and the autothrottles automatically adjust to maintain that speed. Otherwise during climb, MCT is the default, and the autothrottles maintain that power setting during level off and altitude capture. Speed hold is disabled when the landing gear is extended, flaps are placed in the landing position or the autopilot is shut off.

With the flaps and landing gear up, even with the autothrottles and autopilot off, envelope speed protection remains available. For example, Vaupell explained, while hand flying a circling approach before deploying gear and landing flaps, a pilot might get distracted and mistakenly raise the nose and not notice the airspeed dropping. As the Eclipse nears the stall speed (shown by a red line on the airspeed tape), a “STALL” audio alert will sound and then the autothrottles will add maximum continuous power to prevent the stall.

The pilot could override the autothrottle speed protection by preventing them from advancing power, but then the stick pusher, part of the pitch servo, would lower the nose. If speed is too high (above 200 kias) and takeoff flaps are selected, the autothrottles will move the power levers back, and again this occurs even if the autothrottles are switched off.

While the autopilot can be used to fly a coupled approach, the autothrottles disengage with gear and flaps down, so the pilot has to manage thrust during the approach. “We want [pilots] to fly the airplane,” Vaupell said. “But they love how it helps them manage speed and workload in a busy terminal area.”

Avionics

The Eclipse 550’s flight deck represents the pinnacle of avionics integration for this VLJ, and the IS&S avionics system is now a mature product that keeps getting better.

That said, some functionality is awaiting approval, namely Vnav capability and synthetic vision, expected sometime this year. And one feature that is still missing and not likely to appear soon is touchscreens. Having flown with some touchscreen controls and become familiar with a variety of mobile-device apps, I found myself occasionally trying to poke at a tab on the big IS&S displays instead of pushing a line select key on the bezel. Unlike many larger jets, the Eclipse 550 is the perfect size for reaching out and touching a screen.

The two IS&S standby display units (SDUs) may look like simple displays (one is standard, the second is optional), but they are truly standalone units independent of the PFDs and the even larger central MFD. The SDUs are driven by an independent third AHRS and they also have their own ambient light sensors for dimming adjustments and their own magnetometer and air data sensors. Thus no issue with the PFD or MFD affects the SDUs.

What is immediately apparent when climbing into the Eclipse 550 is the clean and uncluttered look of the cockpit. The sidestick flight controls open up the front office space and provide an unobstructed view of the panel. And where on bigger jets the space between the front seats is crammed with FMS CDUs, switches and controls, the 550 has just a tidy console for the power levers, flaps lever, parking-brake handle and rudder trim.

There is hardly any need for a keyboard; the IS&S avionics are controllable via soft keys, knobs and buttons, but for those who insist on keying in data, keyboards pop out of a little tray just under each PFD (the right seat keyboard is optional). There is even a little cursor control device on the keyboard, but this device’s functions are also available via the concentric knob on the bezel.

A unique feature from IS&S is the expanding label on the displays. Select an item such as the heading or airspeed bug, then turn the knob to change the setting and the bug enlarges to make it easy to see and obvious what changes are being made. This is a useful feature that forces the pilot to acknowledge making the correct setting.

A change in the 550’s IS&S Avio 2.7 integrated flight management system (IFMS) is that the FMS software runs inside the PFDs instead of the MFD as in the 500’s avionics. Each PFD also has its own GPS and antenna. In the 500, losing the MFD means that GPS input is also lost, according to Vaupell. Now, he added, “you could lose two screens and still fly a coupled approach.” With two FMSs (one in each PFD), the Avio 2.7 IFMS opens the door to RNP operations with 4-D trajectories and aircrew authorization required approaches, down to 0.1 nm precision.

While this 550 wasn’t equipped with enhanced vision (EVS), an optional Lexavia sensor mounted on the nose provides EVS display on the MFD.

An electronic flight bag is fully integrated in the Avio IFMS and makes carrying an iPad with charts almost completely redundant. Like some iPad EFB apps, IFMS allows the pilot to overlay approach charts onto the moving map, in the correct orientation. Pilots can also create a hold at any waypoint and instruct the autopilot to fly the hold. Approach charts can be viewed in full, too, with no panning needed, thanks to the large display size.

Performance features on IFMS include takeoff and landing performance calculations, and there is also a capable weight-and-balance calculator. This mirrors the design of the Eclipse QRA iPad app’s weight-and-balance function. Waypoints in the flight plan now show estimated fuel remaining, ETA and speed.

Most of the features on the 550 are available as an upgrade package on the 500, including the new windshields, anti-lock brakes, autothrottles and the latest Avio 2.7 IFMS cockpit. Owners of 500s who are upgrading are spending about $380,000 to $450,000, depending on which options they choose.

Some optional features are priced as follows:

•autothrottles $28,000

• enhanced vision system $49,950

• radar altimeter $22,950

• standby display unit (right seat) $24,950

• Stormscope $14,950

• synthetic vision $21,500 and

• traffic alerting system $31,950.

Another interesting feature on the Eclipse jets is the data storage unit, which records 4,000 parameters that can be downloaded onto a USB drive. About 240 hours of flying takes up 2 GB, and owners can submit the data via Eclipse’s website or via online services such as Dropbox or WeTransfer. Then Eclipse engineers can analyze the data to help troubleshoot any problems. For owners who sign up with Pratt & Whitney Canada’s pay-by-the-hour Eagle Service Plan, engine condition trend monitoring data is sent automatically via Iridium datalink to Camp Systems, the engine health monitoring provider for P&WC.

Eclipse Aerospace continues to improve the 550 and the upgradeable 500 models with service bulletins, such as one that extends the airframe’s service life to 20,000 hours/cycles with no calendar limit, double the earlier limit of 10 years, 10,000 hours/cycles.

SimCom is the official factory training center for Eclipse, and the 13-day training course is included with purchase. One unusual facet of Eclipse training, which has been required since the jet was certified in 2006, is mandatory upset training. Pilots can obtain the training from an Eclipse-qualified provider or get credit for military training or an aerobatics course, provided Eclipse approves of that training program. Eclipse also offers a pre-training computer-based course to help pilots become familiar with the jet before showing up at ground school.

Inside the 550

My first exposure to an Eclipse 500 was in the early days in 2007, when DayJet was trying to get off the ground. I was invited on a media demo flight with DayJet, but at that time their jets were not approved for IFR and we spent the entire flight dodging cloudy buildups along our route. The interior was rough, and during the flight the Velcro-attached ceiling panel sagged onto us passengers. What I do recall clearly from that flight was the 500’s amazing lack of noise, and this attribute was even more apparent on the 550.

The airplane that I flew at Oshkosh, Serial No. 550-263, has clearly benefited from great attention to detail. The neatly appointed interior is designed by Hillaero Modification Center and made by UTC Aerospace Systems and features more rounded surfaces to make the relatively small cabin look more spacious. Interior panels are now seamless, with no more Velcro attachments. The seating has been upgraded for added comfort, and Empower 110-volt outlets are available for powering passenger devices. Simple changes such as not painting stainless-steel screws that attach fairings and panels for maintenance access help keep the exterior sharp-looking.

One reason that the cockpit is so devoid of clutter is the use of electronic circuit breakers. There are just 10 mechanical circuit breakers; 127 are electronic and accessible via the MFD.

Flying the 550

The Fadec-controlled, 900-pound thrust Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610Fs started at a cool 680 and 610 degrees C. With just Vaupell and myself on board, the 550 weighed about 5,300 pounds, 700 less than the 6,000-pound maximum takeoff weight. The tanks carried 1,110 pounds of fuel.

Once past the gauntlet of ground controllers motioning with their paddles, we were directed on to Wittman’s Runway 27 and quickly cleared for takeoff. The Avio AFMS warns if certain parameters are not correct and gives a green “OK” when the takeoff configuration is satisfied. Parameters include correct flap and trim settings, engines running, temperature entered in the avionics, parking brake released and door latched. I pushed the power levers in a little too quickly, and Vaupell cautioned me to start with about half power then slowly advance the levers all the way once the engines spool up. The 550 accelerated rapidly and lifted off smoothly at our rotation speed of 85 knots, and we quickly reached the 1,300-foot ceiling limit for departing VFR during AirVenture, which allows arriving traffic to slot in overhead.

We climbed to 14,500 feet for some air work–3,000 fpm at 200 kias–using the autopilot’s pitch-hold mode. During the climb, Vaupell pulled one engine back to idle, and at 11,000 feet we were able to maintain more than 1,000 fpm at 180 kias. To return to a normal climb, syncing up the power levers was just a matter of pushing the autothrottle button on the power lever, and the idled lever moved to match its mate.

Leveling off at 14,500 feet, the autothrottles did their thing and moved aft to maintain our selected speed, which was still 200 kias. Vaupell showed me how the autopilot enters a hold, then how easy it was to dial the speed back to 130 kias and watch the autothrottles move back to 43 percent N1 to maintain that speed.

We were lucky to be assigned to land on Wittman’s long Runway 36 instead of 27 with the colored dots; typically during flights at AirVenture, demo pilots usually want to do the landing if told to land on one of 27’s dots. Our Vref was just 88 knots after flying for nine tenths of an hour and burning 440 pounds of fuel. The landing was completely normal, but as soon as the nose dropped onto the runway, Vaupell told me to stand on the brakes so I could feel the anti-skid system working. I pushed on the brakes as hard as I could and immediately could feel them “popping” as the 550 abruptly but smoothly came to a stop.

Flying with the sidestick immediately felt completely natural, and the Eclipse jet is one of those airplanes that wraps itself around the pilot and makes the pilot feel at one with the airplane. But when I hand-flew the 550, I was a little surprised to find that the handling was not as light as I expected. The 550 has always looked like a sporty jet, and it is, but the flight controls are definitely not sporty-feeling and could even be described as somewhat heavy although certainly harmonious. Such handling characteristics aren’t bad, however, and probably have a lot to do with the Eclipse models’ stellar safety record. This is, after all, an airplane targeting owner-pilots who are moving up from much less sophisticated airplanes.

While it isn’t designed to carry large loads over long distances, the 550 is capable transportation for the typical business aviation flight of fewer than two people. Eclipse Aerospace’s excellent QRA iPad app makes weight-and-balance and performance calculations simple and is also a great way to get to know the airplane’s capabilities. With three 180-pound people on board, for example, the 550 can carry a full load of fuel and 60 pounds of luggage. At this weight and fuel load, the 550 could fly 1,000 nm at long-range cruise of 317 ktas at 37,000 feet, with one hour of fuel remaining at the destination. Block fuel burn would average a tad more than 400 pph for both engines. Time to climb to 37,000 feet is about 21 minutes in ISA conditions, and this is an efficient altitude for the 550, although it can fly at up to 41,000 feet. At high-speed cruise (360 ktas), fuel burn at 37,000 feet is 425 pph and at long-range cruise it drops to 342 pph.

Make no mistake, the Eclipse 550 is not a toy; it is every bit as sophisticated as many larger jets, and pilots need to make sure they’re properly trained and current. The IS&S Avio 2.7 flight deck is as complex and capable as any of those in the newer Part 25 jets, if not more so.