New cockpit coming for Eclipse

 - March 28, 2007, 11:24 AM

Only time will tell if Eclipse Aviation’s decision to sever ties with Avidyne and bring in a new team of avionics suppliers for the Eclipse 500 will satisfy buyers, but an early glimpse of what’s coming to the VLJ’s front office looks promising. Perhaps the bigger question should center on whether Eclipse can indeed integrate all the pieces of the retooled cockpit on the aggressive schedule company founder and CEO Vern Raburn outlined last month.

Speaking with reporters on a conference call on March 5, Raburn said “significantly fewer than half” of the 402 Eclipse 500s scheduled for delivery this year will include the original Avio integrated avionics system containing the old Avidyne hardware. The remainder will be fitted with Avio NG avionics, the next-generation package containing displays and select software from Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S), flight management system software from Chelton Flight Systems, dual IFR mode-S transponders supplied by Garmin, navcom radios from Honeywell and a digital audio panel produced by PS Engineering.

Airplanes delivered with the Avidyne equipment will go back to Eclipse for upgrade to Avio NG after the successful integration and certification of the new hardware and software. Avionics retrofits are anticipated to take about 10 days per aircraft, with Eclipse picking up the tab for the modifications. Raburn said the “initial release” of the system will be ready in June, with some additional functionality delayed until later this year and early next year. The postponed functions will include autothrottle use, FMS holding patterns, electronic checklists, XM satellite weather, certain electronic performance management functions, radar altimeter and Avio NG’s integrated electronic flight bag.

Raburn claimed that Avio NG has been in the works for “many months,” even though senior managers with the new supplier team say their companies have been involved only with some preliminary engineering work. That has led observers to question whether Eclipse can possibly gain certification for Avio NG this summer.

The primary and multifunction displays for Avio NG will be identical in size to the previous screens, but their pixel resolution has increased for sharper pictures and improved side-angle viewing, Raburn said. The IS&S displays incorporate level-A EFIS software and the Chelton FMS uses a proven architecture flying in a variety of airplanes from light piston singles to business turboprops.

Eclipse envisioned Avio as a “total aircraft integration” suite, capable of handling nearly every conceivable electronic systems management task, from the automated flight controls to heating and air conditioning in the cabin. Avidyne could never quite make its hardware and software interface with the rest of the system, even after years of trying, Raburn contends.

For anyone who has seen the original Avidyne-based Avio cockpit up close, it never seemed on par with the airplane’s promise of technological pre-eminence. One source who has seen the new hardware said it appears far more befitting of an airplane with sidestick controls and fully integrated digital systems.

It will be interesting to see whether Eclipse 500 buyers feel the same way.