Eclipse fires BAE Systems and names new suppliers

 - March 16, 2007, 9:42 AM

BAE Systems is out and a number of new suppliers are in, according to Eclipse Aviation officials, who announced the signing of long-term contracts with six additional vendors for the avionics and digital automatic flight controls on the Eclipse 500 after reshuffling the original supplier team.

Joining Avidyne and General Dynamics on the project are a hand-picked group of suppliers that have only just begun the task of integrating systems for the sub-million-dollar airplane after Eclipse fired BAE Systems for what it described as contractual issues primarily having to do with rising prices of key aircraft components.

The new partners on the program, said Eclipse, now include Autronics, Crossbow Technology, FreeFlight Systems, Harco Laboratories, Hispano-Suiza and Meggitt Avionics.

When asked about the split, Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn said the decision to part ways with BAE Systems stemmed from an inability on the supplier’s part to hold prices to levels agreed to when the companies first began designing the Eclipse 500 cockpit five years ago.

“The nonrecurring costs had escalated significantly and the recurring costs had escalated even more,” he said. “So in other words, they didn’t conform to the contract.”

Named Avio, the Eclipse cockpit has been described by Raburn as an “intelligent flight system.” Tasked with managing most of the Eclipse 500’s functions, including FADEC, FMS, communications, autopilot, autothrottle, flaps, trim, landing-gear actuation and environmental systems, the integrated package is the central nervous system of the airplane. It is not outside the realm of possibility, then, that changes to the supplier team this late in the program would be viewed skeptically by some Eclipse 500 buyers, who have witnessed firsthand the turmoil that can accompany a complex aircraft development program.

The announcement that a major supplier with strong ties to the defense industry had left the program was reminiscent of the situation that arose between Eclipse and engine maker Williams International last January, when the two parted company after disagreements over the performance and reliability of the Williams EJ22 turbofan.

Eclipse has since picked the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F to power the airplane after interim engines were selected to allow aerodynamics flight testing to continue. Raburn said Eclipse plans to be back in the air with the PW610F engines this December, adding that the airplane’s projected certification for the first quarter of 2006 is “totally on schedule” despite the most recent avionics supplier issues.

“We’ve had to scramble to hold the schedule, there’s no question about it,” Raburn said, “but the good news is the cockpit has been defined, and so we were able to tell the new vendors that they have to make their boxes interface with our existing system. We have the definition of the cockpit, and now it’s more a matter of going ahead and designing the boxes to meet that definition.”

The Eclipse will use cards that plug into the two PFDs and one MFD, replacing the bulky remote boxes that reside in the avionics bays of conventional business jets. Avio is designed to replace dozens of stand-alone instruments and gauges with a streamlined glass cockpit using redundant computer systems and power-distribution systems to monitor and control all aspects of the airplane, from engine controls and avionics to fuel system management and cabin reading lights.

The different systems that are being handled by the new suppliers are assigned as follows: Autronics of Irwindale, Calif., is building the aircraft computer system; Crossbow Technologies of San Jose, Calif., the attitude and heading reference system (AHRS); FreeFlight Systems of Waco, Texas, the WAAS-capable GPS receiver; Harco Laboratories of Branford, Conn., the RVSM-compliant air-data computer; Hispano-Suiza, based near Paris, the FADEC; and Meggitt Avionics of Mineral Wells, Texas, the digital automatic flight-control system.

Meggitt expects the autopilot to receive FAA approval by the middle of next year. It will incorporate brushless motor servos for high reliability and lower weight. The computers will be located at servo locations rather than in the instrument panel to save weight. The firm already offers autopilots for a number of turbine-powered aircraft.

The price for the Eclipse 500 is $950,000, but this figure is scheduled to increase later this year to $1.175 million. When announced in June 1999, Eclipse set the price for the airplane initially at $837,500.