PC in hand, Eclipse steps up production

 - May 31, 2007, 11:52 AM

As of mid-May, Eclipse Aviation had begun construction of Eclipse 500 number 62, and numbers 15 and 16 had received their certificates of airworthiness, according to Michael McConnell, Eclipse vice president of marketing and sales. Number 14 was delivered during the week of May 7. The manufacturer received its FAA production certificate for the Eclipse 500 on April 26, allowing it to issue standard airworthiness certificates without having to subject each airplane off the production line to intensive FAA inspection.

The first Eclipse factory-owned service center other than the Albuquerque, N.M. headquarters, in Gainesville, Fla., was due to receive its FAA Part 145 repair station certificate last month, and the Van Nuys, Calif. and Albany, N.Y. facilities were due to open in July and August, respectively, according to McConnell.

At the Aviation Insurance Association conference, Eclipse Aviation president and CEO Vern Raburn said that the company plans to deliver 250 airplanes this year. That number is less than the earlier projection of 402, provided to AIN on March 5. Eclipse is busy implementing a new production process, he added, which has been spurred by new managers running the production department. This includes former Ford manufacturing expert Todd Fiero, who joined Eclipse in early March.

Equity research firm Boenning & Scattergood, in a May 11 research report on Eclipse 500 avionics display supplier Innovative Solutions & Support, questioned Eclipse’s numbers. “Based on previously published data,” the report noted, “it appears that CEO Vern Raburn has a propensity to over promise and under deliver, and while we appreciate his enthusiasm and lofty goals we need to take a more realistic view of what Eclipse can accomplish over the next year.

“Furthermore, we learned that Eclipse would not manufacture all 2,400 airplanes in its backlog; rather, it will take a more measured approach and gauge customer and market demand. We are now estimating that Eclipse will deliver 170 airplanes in C2007, 500 airplanes in C2008 and 700 airplanes in C2009. We believe Eclipse will make every effort to reach the 500-airplane-per-year mark since that is its break-even point.”

IS&S declined to answer AIN’s questions about the Eclipse contract. The Boenning & Scattergood report on publicly traded IS&S noted that it believes the Eclipse contract will provide $31 million in revenues during Fiscal Year 2008. IS&S’s most recent Securities and Exchange Commission quarterly 10-Q report did not mention the Eclipse contract or any risk factors associated with any of its avionics programs.

Pilot Training Paramount
Eclipse is currently providing type-rating training in customer airplanes at Albuquerque. Eventually training will be done in simulators manufactured by Opinicus of Lutz, Fla. Opinicus has delivered one flight training device thus far, but the company doesn’t expect FAA certification of the full-motion simulator until the third quarter.

All Eclipse pilots must undergo a flight-skills assessment, currently being administered by former Eclipse training partner United Airlines in a United Boeing 737 simulator. The assessment determines how pilots fly in the airspace system, including holding attitude, turning, flying a hold, descending to a specific point at a specific altitude and shooting an ILS approach.

New Eclipse training partner Higher Power Aviation of Dallas is taking over the skills assessment process. Prospective Eclipse pilots are also required to undergo Myers-Briggs type indicator testing, but Eclipse says this is not to weed out unqualified pilots. “It gives a good indication of how you learn,” said McConnell. More than 50 pilots have undergone Eclipse’s upset-training program in the Czech L-39 military trainer, he said, “and we’ve made only one guy sick.” As of May 8, 24 pilots had earned Eclipse type ratings, and 26 more were undergoing training.

Eclipse pilots with no turbine experience will likely require mentor pilots, according to McConnell. “Insurance companies have traditionally regulated this,” he said. “The mentor pilot is a cornerstone of our training program for owner-operators.” McConnell said that Eclipse has a stack of résumés from prospective mentor pilots.

Early last month, Eclipse provided an update on the development program for the Eclipse 500’s Avio NG integrated avionics system, which “is progressing on schedule,” according to the company. Engineering for mounting the IS&S displays in the panel is complete, as is work to install Honeywell radios, Garmin transponders and a PS Engineering digital audio panel behind the displays.

Eclipse expected to finish engineering design of the Avio NG electrical wiring and begin installing the new avionics package in the first of two flight-test airplanes by the middle of last month. Meanwhile, the company is preparing for the switchover from the original Avidyne avionics to Avio NG for the production line airplanes and for retrofit to airplanes originally equipped with the Avidyne system, including writing service bulletins and engineering work to bring the Opinicus simulators to the latest Eclipse 500 configuration.