Eclipse explains snags on preproduction Model 500

 - December 6, 2006, 9:14 AM

Eclipse Aviation expected to have delivered its first Eclipse 500 very light jet by the time this issue was printed, according to Eclipse president and CEO Vern Raburn. The Model 500 received full FAA type certification on September 30, although flight-into-known-icing approval remains pending and some avionics functionality will not be available until next year. Eclipse expects to deliver four to six airplanes by the end of this month, Raburn told AIN, adding that delivery delays were due to an especially stringent inspection process associated with the company’s attempt to obtain a production certificate by the end of this year.

As the first delivery to buyer David Crowe neared, Eclipse revealed some problems with the airplane, although the company did not expect these issues to hamper initial deliveries. Eclipse described the problems in a new document called a Customer Technical Communication. “This is not an Eclipse Aviation service bulletin,” Eclipse pointed out in bold lettering at the end of each of these documents.

The first three communication documents cover an issues with a wing rear attachment fitting bushing on preproduction airplanes, premature windshield and cockpit side-window cracking and an explanation that seeks to dispel any confusion about c.g. issues at maximum takeoff weight.

Communications Problem
In a letter attached to the customer documents, Raburn admitted that the focus on certification caused customer communications to suffer. Kenneth McNamara, who joined Eclipse on October 16 as vice president customer care and product support, is leading the effort to improve customer communications. McNamara was previously COO of SkyPlus Technologies, an aviation operations management and software-development company. Michael McConnell, who was Eclipse’s vice president of sales and customer support, is now vice president of sales and marketing.

In a letter accompanying Raburn’s customer letter, McNamara wrote, “With FAA type certification in place, it is understandable for you to expect an abundant flow of information, clearly defined production schedules and information about the Eclipse 500 aircraft.”

The customer documents are one change that McNamara has made, and he promised to continue communicating via these documents “on a regular and ongoing basis. We have no secrets. We will share information with you and we ask in return for positive dialogue and feedback.” A new customer care knowledge department will answer customer queries, replacing an unwieldy system in which customers were asked to send questions to Eclipse upper management. The new system should either answer a question within 24 hours or provide a date by which the customer can expect an answer to complex questions.

In Customer Technical Communication 2006-11-001, Eclipse Aviation explained that technicians found a loose bushing on a rear wing attach fitting while modifying a flight-test airplane for the larger tip tanks that will each hold 16.5 gallons per side, up from seven gallons. The loose bushing was caused by improper installation during assembly, according to Eclipse, which decided to ground the flight-test fleet until the problem is resolved.

“This wear condition is not due to a loading exceeding any design expectations,” the letter stated, adding, “Our investigation uncovered that the bushing was not installed correctly.” The bushing fell out of position during assembly and consequently wore out some of the fitting material. The repair involves installing a larger bushing and adding spacers to keep the bushing from moving, but this applies only to the flight-test pre-production airplanes. Production Eclipses show no evidence of this problem, and Eclipse has modified the installation process to make sure this doesn’t occur on the assembly line.

Windshield Cracking
The window-cracking issue will have a significant effect on operations until Eclipse can obtain longer-lasting transparencies from its vendor, Nordam. Flight-test airplanes have had seven cockpit windshield cracking incidents and seven separate cockpit side window cracking episodes, according to Eclipse, “due to a combination of thermal and pressurization loads causing a fatigue failure of the outside layer of acrylic. The ‘fail-safe’ interior layer of acrylic was undamaged in all cases.”

Cracking occurred at drilled holes that are used to attach the windows to the fuselage. The result of these cracks is a significantly accelerated windshield and cockpit side window replacement schedule, which is now part of Chapter 4 of the Eclipse maintenance manual. The manual’s requirements are mandatory, according to the Eclipse 500 type certificate, which states “The Eclipse EA500 shall be maintained according to: Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM), No. 06-117751, latest revision.”

Under the new requirements, windshields must be inspected every 50 flights and replaced every 100 flights. Cockpit side windows have the same inspection interval but have to be replaced every 250 flights. These intervals are “extremely low,” said Jim Perkins, president of replacement window manufacturer Perkins Aircraft. A typical Learjet windshield, he said, lasts until the airplane’s 12-year major inspection, and he has seen Learjet windshields last more than 30 years. Some manufacturers use aluminum bushings and rubber spacers in the drilled holes, which help reduce stress in those areas, Perkins noted. “They add a shock-absorbing apparatus along with a stiffening effect.”

In the diagram accompanying Customer Technical Communication 2006-11-002, the windshield is shown without any spacers or bushing, confirmed Siegfried Hastings, Nordam vice president and general manager, Transparency Division. “We are working to come up with a fix,” Hastings told AIN, “that does include potentially a different bushing design and potentially making the window thicker, the outer ply.” The cracking incidents have affected only the outer ply, he noted, “around one or two bolt holes. The inner layer has been intact in all cases, as designed. There’s no real safety issue, and that is why Eclipse has put in the inspection and replacement intervals until we make some design changes.”

The Eclipse customer communication went on to say: “Eclipse is not accepting this inspection interval as permanent, and we are working very aggressively to revert to [an] inspection interval [that conforms with the schedule for] the rest of the aircraft.” Eclipse’s Web site notes that windshield replacement takes six hours, but the communication document did not say whether the extra inspection and replacement work would be covered under warranty.

In the diagram accompanying Customer Technical Communication 2006-11-002, the windshield is shown without any spacers or bushings.

Eclipse’s Web site notes that windshield replacement takes six hours, but the communication document did not say whether the extra inspection and replacement work would be covered under warranty.

The final issue, in Technical Communication 003, seeks to clarify what Eclipse characterizes as a “general misunderstanding of the Eclipse 500 center-of-gravity envelope listed on the FAA Type Certificate Data Sheet.” With a 120-pound pilot and at maximum takeoff weight of 5,760 pounds (with original seven-gallon tip tanks), “ballast will need to be added to the forward portion of the aircraft.” About 60 pounds of ballast would be required to bring the c.g. within limits. “Fuel burn has no effect on the landing c.g.,” according to the document.

A chart shows the c.g. envelope for the Eclipse 500 with standard tip tanks and how various loads fall within or outside the envelope. At maximum takeoff weight, the lowest pilot weight that will keep the c.g. within the aft limit is 180 pounds. From two to six occupants, the load stays within the envelope, although the chart shows that with five or six standard-weight occupants, the load exceeds the maximum takeoff weight of 5,760 pounds. The chart doesn’t make clear whether it includes a full load of fuel, but that appears to be the case.

Eclipse’s official NBAA IFR range with the original smaller tip tanks is 1,055 nm, and that number climbs to 1,125 nm with the larger tip tanks.

When the new tip tanks are installed, the maximum takeoff weight will climb to 5,920 pounds and fuel capacity to 243 gallons. Each larger tip tank holds 16.5 gallons, up from seven gallons. The 160-pound increase in mtow includes 128 pounds for the extra 19 gallons of fuel in addition to the increased weight of the tip tanks and associated structure. The LX option, which includes leather seats, AC power outlets in the cabin, extra soundproofing, work/dining tables and other amenities, adds 48.5 pounds to the empty weight.

‘A Self-induced Delay’
At the NBAA Convention, Raburn had said that the first Eclipse delivery would take place during the week following the show. Subsequent delays, he explained, are due to Eclipse’s desire to obtain its FAA production certificate by year-end, an ambitious goal as production certification is a difficult step once a company achieves type certification. A production certificate allows a manufacturer’s employees to inspect and certify the airworthiness of each airplane as it rolls off the assembly line and out of flight-test. Without a production certificate, the manufacturer relies on FAA inspectors to inspect each airplane, adding to delivery delays.

“Production certification,” Raburn said, “is a complex process that most people aren’t even aware of. We’re going through a much more extensive inspection process with the FAA than we would have if we just said, ‘Here, give us a C of A [certificate of airworthiness] on this particular airplane. And so, this is a self-induced delay. We just plain flat underestimated the amount of work.”

Avionics functionality that remains to be completed by vendor Avidyne is due in two stages, beginning with the Avio suite’s FMS, moving-map, weather radar and GPS WAAS functions. The autothrottle, e-checklists, TCAS, TAWS and satellite weather software-based systems won’t be available for another 6 to 12 months. “That’s not delaying deliveries,” Raburn told AIN. “There’s been no more accomplished by Avidyne. Avidyne as usual is late, late, late, late, so we’re at the same place that we were when we were at Oshkosh in terms of avionics functionality, but that’s not [the cause] of the delay of delivery.”

As of mid-November, there were 32 production Eclipse 500s “in various stages of assembly,” said Raburn. “We will fly the third and fourth airplanes probably this weekend or early next week. It’s a production ramp, and we never said we were going to deliver more than a handful of airplanes in the first three months. We always said the number would be in the four, five, six range, so we’re very much on target for doing that. The start of when we deliver has slipped a little bit to the right.”

The announcement of the wing attach fitting problem came amid speculation that the Eclipse fleet had been grounded. “The production fleet is not grounded at all,” Raburn explained, “and some of our test airplanes are having modifications done on them. If you haven’t figured it out by now, there are really stupid people out there who are willing to say anything about us because they decided they hate us, but that’s the way it goes.”