Eclipse takes delivery of first flight-ready autopilot for VLJ

 - October 23, 2006, 10:23 AM

Marking an important milestone on the Eclipse 500’s development path, Meggitt last month delivered the first flight-ready autopilot hardware to Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque, N.M.

The gear-up landing last month of N505EA, an Eclipse beta test airplane, was not expected to alter the schedule for autopilot testing, according to Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn, who said the Meggitt automatic flight control system is slated to fly aboard a different airplane, N506EA. Raburn attributed the belly landing on September 10 to pilot error and not a malfunction of the landing gear system.

Conceding that Eclipse has not met its goal for flight hours logged on its fleet of five test airplanes, Raburn said the company has accelerated the test schedule and that he remains “90 percent certain” that the Eclipse 500 will be certified on time by the end of March.

“If we miss our target date, we’re talking about a delay of days, not months,” he said.

Engineers at Meggitt’s S-Tec autopilot division in Mineral Wells, Texas, have developed a digital automatic flight control system for the Eclipse 500 featuring “smart” servos that contain all the associated electronics fitted alongside their associated brushless electric servomotors instead of in a central computer.

TSO Deadline Approaches

Meggitt/S-Tec president Michael McMillan explained that the autopilot for the Eclipse 500 is unique in that three separate mini-computers control roll, pitch and yaw servos and communicate directly to the main avionics system via a controller area network databus. Besides expected gains in reliability, the design, he said, is unusually light, weighing less than 13 pounds.

With the type certificate for the Eclipse 500 expected by the end of next year’s first quarter, TSO data for the autopilot needs to be sent to the FAA in early January, McMillan said.

While conceding that the schedule is tight, McMillan asserted that January is a realistic goal in view of the close integration work already performed with Eclipse and the FAA.

During the final three months before certification, Eclipse plans to begin work on production airplanes, but it won’t need the first Meggitt production hardware until April because the autopilot is one of the last systems to be installed, McMillan said.

Concurrent with development of the Eclipse 500 automatic flight controls, Meggitt/S-Tec also recently finished its portion of the certification of the Adam A500 autopilot and is now preparing to do the same for the A700 very light jet. McMillan said Meggitt/S-Tec has also signed a contract to supply the autopilot for the PC-21 military trainer, bringing its involvement with new aircraft programs to a record level for a company known until recently primarily as an aftermarket supplier.

Until its purchase by Meggitt, S-Tec was focused squarely on the aftermarket, with the OEM segment of the autopilot market almost totally ignored.

Expanding Beyond Aftermarket Business

While the company still boasts a commanding lead in aftermarket autopilot sales, producing 1,200 to 1,300 systems per year, its focus has shifted in the last few years toward securing long-term OEM contracts. Today, the company’s autopilots are in every new Cirrus; every Columbia; all the Pipers, including the Meridian turboprop; and every Mooney, integrated into the Garmin G1000 cockpit.

Extrapolating data from the latest GAMA delivery numbers, McMillan said Meggitt/S-Tec today holds 43 percent of the piston OEM autopilot market. Of course, with more than 1,000 autopilots produced each year for aftermarket sale, Meggitt/S-Tec’s share of the autopilot retrofit market is around 90 percent.

The company is one of 35 designated alteration stations in the country, and it has used that FAA approval to its advantage. For example, Meggitt/S-Tec recently completed a retrofit program for the Cheyenne II, bringing to the cockpit of the twin turboprop its digital autopilot and Magic EFIS displays with dual air-data attitude heading reference systems.

Meggitt/S-Tec also holds an STC related to the Twin Commander Renaissance program that includes its autopilot and the Magic EFIS.

While the Magic cockpit can no longer be considered state-of-the-art in light of the more advanced systems available from Avidyne and Garmin, McMillan added that Magic remains a good choice for buyers who are looking for a certified retrofit upgrade that brings newer capabilities and better reliability to the cockpit at an affordable price.