Eclipse gathers itself for projected first flight

 - October 3, 2007, 5:06 AM

“Its time has come,” predicted Eclipse Aviation CEO Vern Raburn. “It” refers to the entry-level twinjet known as the Eclipse 500, currently priced at $837,500 (2000 $). And if all goes as planned, Raburn will see his bold vision take flight before next month ends.

The first of eight test Eclipse 500s is quickly coming together at the company’s Albuquerque, N.M. plant. At press time, S/N 100’s fore and aft fuselage had taken shape, and the first set of wings were under assembly. A set of engines are to be delivered this month.

“There are no big snags in the Eclipse 500 program–the airplane will fly as planned this summer,” he told AIN. According to Raburn, the FAA is fully on board with the friction-stir welding technique Eclipse is using to bond together much of the minijet’s aluminum structure. And unlike other fledgling startup aircraft manufacturers, program funding doesn’t seem to be much of a problem either.

“I wouldn’t say it has been effortless–it’s surely been hard to raise funds since September 11,” Raburn said. “But as the project moves closer to certification, the easier it is to get money.” And the Eclipse CEO doesn’t have much farther to go–he has already raised $220 million of the more than $300 million needed to bring the aircraft to the end of the certification trail.

Raburn noted, “The program is moving along precisely at the pace we expected.” That pace includes rollout and first flight next month, followed by certification late next year and deliveries commencing in 2004.

He said S/N 100, the first flight-test clipse 500, will conform to the type design, though not all of this aircraft’s systems are “type-design conformed.” When asked to expand on this, Raburn told AIN that the first iteration will be “descoped,” meaning it will not be pressurized. The CEO further said S/N 100 is being built as “mission specific,” since it will be relegated to exploring the low-speed handling and stall characteristics of the twinjet, with no need for the aircraft to fly above 9,000 ft.

However, the rest of the flight-test aircraft will be more or less type conforming. S/N 101 will be used to perform structures and flutter tests, and to explore the high-speed envelope; S/N 102, systems; S/N 103, avionics and interior; S/N 104, static article; S/N 105, ground fatigue; and S/Ns 106 and 107, function and reliability. Raburn said a new numbering convention would be created for the first production Eclipse, “probably starting with something original, such as a ‘P.’”

Raburn told AIN that the production rate of the Eclipse will exceed 200 aircraft per year, adding that he’s confident in engine supplier Williams International’s ability to keep up with such a rapid pace. “In fact,” he said, “we have the ability to scale the production process to 10,000 airplanes a year, but I have no plans to build that many per year.” While Raburn declined to reveal how many aircraft have been sold so far, he pointed out that production is already sold out well into 2006.

Although he wishes the Eclipse’s “engine was certified at this instant, meaning less program risk,” the Williams EJ22 appears to be on schedule. According to Williams, the engine was expected to start airborne trials last month aboard a Sabreliner testbed in anticipation for certification next June. Raburn said the EJ22 is meeting its performance goals, including a target weight of 85 lb and a thrust rating of 770 lb–giving it the highest thrust-to-weight ratio ever for a commercial engine.

Williams will ship the EJ22 powerplants complete with nacelle and all accessories. “This way,” Raburn noted, “it takes only 30 minutes to install an engine on the Eclipse 500. It’s kind of like plug and play.” He expects the first set of engines to be shipped to Albuquerque this month.

David vs Goliath?
While the Eclipse 500 is generally viewed by many as a replacement for high-end piston twins and low-end twin turboprops, Raburn believes the Eclipse 500 will be a competitive threat to nearly all aircraft–even narrowbody Boeings and Airbuses. “We found a new market niche nobody is addressing,” he said, “and by opening it up we’re creating many new markets.”

He cited Nimbus’ air-taxi concept as one of those new markets. While the source of funding behind Nimbus has been nebulous, Raburn said the firm has a sales contract (which he described as “more than just a letter of intent”) for 1,000 Eclipse 500s for use as low-cost air taxis.

And the airplane’s estimated operating costs of 56 cents per nautical mile could put air-taxi flights nearly on par with the cost of first-class airline tickets, especially with five passengers aboard. Further giving this concept fuel is the current state of the airlines, including the inefficient hub-and-spoke system, flight delays and intrusive airport security, not to mention service, or lack thereof, once aboard the airliner.

If this air-taxi concept comes to fruition as planned, Raburn is betting that many top-paying airline passengers could flock to this new service, possibly causing a chain reaction of higher coach airfares to make up for these passengers’ absence and the ensuing lower yield factors. And lower yields would most likely prompt the airlines to cut service, which eventually would lead back to Boeing’s and Airbus’ doorstep in the form of fewer aircraft orders.

Regarding the more traditional threat to the piston twin, turboprop and business jet market, Raburn again airs some daring predictions. The introduction of the Eclipse 500, he said, will force manufacturers to cut prices for new production airplanes, especially pistons and turboprops. Raburn also expects some price erosion on the business jet side, though that will mostly be limited to the entry-level jets.

But Raburn’s most courageous prophecy is that the pre-owned market for general aviation aircraft will suffer a “major collapse five years after the Eclipse 500 is certified.” This, Raburn said, will apply to nearly all pistons and turboprops, as well as many older business jets.

“The pre-owned market is artificially propped up because there aren’t any real replacements. As such, aircraft currently live on and on,” he noted. “A viable alternative such as the Eclipse 500 could severely weaken prices and return this market to a classic economic lifecycle of equipment. These older aircraft would then be relegated to a life as antiques or simply scrapped.”