Eclipse sees light of day as prototype preps for first flight

 - April 21, 2008, 9:39 AM

Under a bowl of scorching blue New Mexico sky, Eclipse Aviation rolled out the first Eclipse 500 at its Albuquerque facility on July 13–one big step toward confounding the skeptics who insist the startup company will never be able to deliver a certified six-seat twinjet at the promised price of $837,500. The next step will be first flight, possibly before you hold this magazine in your hands.

In stark contrast to the heated criticism his project has attracted from the established airplane builders, Eclipse founder and CEO Vern Raburn coolly continues to avow that everything is on schedule and in line with original plans set in motion when the Eclipse 500 was initiated three years ago.

He told AIN that even if he sells only half as many aircraft as he anticipates, he would have to raise the price to only $950,000 to provide his investors with the same return on investment. “But we’re sold out for the next three years already, so the current state of the market is not a worry,” he said.

Just how many airplanes that order book represents is something Raburn chooses not to divulge yet. Speculation ranges wildly from 250 to 2,000, and the official line from Raburn for now is that the actual number lies somewhere between those two. The Wall Street Journal placed the figure at “more than 500” in an article published on the eve of the rollout.

The airplane that rolled out last month conforms to type design, but it is not FAA conforming–a subtle difference recognizing that while the first example (S/N 100) is not pressurized and has no interior or gear doors, “it is the aircraft we expect to put into production,” said Raburn. “Three-quarters of it is FAA conforming, but since it is not 100 percent it does not have FAA conformity. It’s like a chain of evidence: break it and you can’t use it.”

The second aircraft (S/N 101) will be fully conforming structurally and will be pressurized. The third example (S/N 102) will have conforming systems, and number four (S/N 103) will be the avionics and deicing test specimen.

One of the guests at the rollout was Dr. Sam Williams, whose diminutive EJ22 turbofan engines are propelling Raburn’s vision. They each weigh a mere 85 lb and produce 750 lb of thrust, for the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any civil engine. Another notable guest was Eclipse board member Brian Barents, who has held top spots at Galaxy Aerospace, Learjet and Cessna.

At the outset it was Raburn’s intention to have Williams’ Walled Lake, Mich. facility act as the designer, builder and overall integrator of the first airplanes (possibly as many as 200), as well as interface with the FAA. However, those plans changed not long after the two teams set about the task, and all work on assembly of the first Eclipse 500 has been performed at Eclipse Aviation’s Albuquerque headquarters.

Three underlying factors strained relations between the two companies, an Eclipse source told AIN: “The first was cultural. Williams’ business practices are from the 1950s and 1960s–very need-to-know and control-oriented–and we had a hard time working together. Second was the cost of doing business with Williams, which is used to working with the government on cost-plus contracts. And third, Williams’ company lacked the necessary sense of urgency.”

That sense of urgency has been driving Eclipse Aviation’s employees (currently 200) from the outset, and particularly this year. At the rollout a number of employees remarked to AIN, with a weary smile, that they had not had a day off this year. Raburn’s drive is intense. At daily 7:45 a.m. meetings with key people he insists that decisions be made immediately. Mañana is apparently on the list of banned vocabulary, alongside WCSYC–we couldn’t so you can’t (the Eclipse Aviation take on what it perceives as the general aviation industry’s distaste for risk).

“A lot of technical value came from the relationship with Williams, and it also facilitated our relationship with the FAA,” Raburn noted, adding that the FAA’s Chicago office remains the certifying agency for the airplane; the FAA’s San Antonio office will be the certifying agency for Eclipse’s production processes.

Among the incentives that drew Raburn to establish his facility at Albuquerque was the availability of 100,000 sq ft on Sunport International Airport (ABQ) at a monthly rent of 10 cents per square foot. The speeches of Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) at the rollout underscored the potential importance ascribed to Eclipse by New Mexico’s two most senior politicians. Albuquerque mayor Martin Chavez was also an enthusiastic speaker at the rollout.

The FUD Factor

What Raburn calls the “FUD” directed at Eclipse by the establishment has focused on the number of new technologies that the startup company is gambling will come together successfully on one airplane. “FUD” stands for “fear, uncertainty and doubt,” and certainly the Eclipse 500 is breaking (and then some) the number-one rule of the successful airplane-manufacturing industry: never try to certify a totally new airplane with a totally new engine.

The Eclipse 500 not only combines a new one-pilot plus four/five-passenger airframe with new Williams jet engines; it is also relying on a new manufacturing technique (friction-stir welding, to eliminate much of the labor-intensive element of assembling airplanes) and on a groundbreaking electronics system.

The friction-stir welding (FSW) process was approved by the FAA for use on the Eclipse 500 a couple of months ago, and the skin of the airplane rolled out last month certainly appeared smooth for the most part. Friction-stir welding, Raburn pointed out, does have one drawback in that, unlike rivets, it cannot compensate for a less than optimum fit between the two components being joined. The curves of the two have to arc precisely, otherwise the “weld” (Eclipse now prefers to call the process friction-stir joining) cannot make a sturdy joint.

Unlike FSW, laser welding would have required the use of heavier 6000 aluminum, which would have wiped out any weight saving gained by eliminating conventional construction, according to v-p of engineering Oliver Masefield.

Raburn is confident that the speed with which the first airplane came together will further de-fang the skeptics’ rhetoric. The first assembly tooling was installed at the Albuquerque facility on January 17 this year, just six months before rollout. Assembly of the right wing began on May 15, and the left wing on June 23; fore and aft fuselage mating was accomplished in 30 min on June 18; the first EJ22 turbofan arrived on June 28; the left wing upper skin was installed on June 29, as was the left engine; and the right wing was installed on July 1 in a 60-min process, followed by the left wing four days later. On the same day (July 5) the airplane stood on its gear for the first time.

Raburn said that S/N 100 was handed over to flight test six hours ahead of schedule, at 9:45 a.m. on July 8, noting the handover date and time set one year ago: July 8 at 3:45 p.m. (The second EJ22, however, did not arrive until July 10.)

Raburn is as scathing of the established manufacturers as they are skeptical of his project: “This industry has forgotten the word ‘risk,’ and it has died between the ears. If you’re not taking risk, you’re not moving forward. If you’re not moving forward, get out of the way. We have accomplished more in a shorter period of time than any other general aviation company in 40 years. Oliver [Masefield] is a genius at understanding the process of building an airplane.

“Criticism that we are an inexperienced company is bunk. We’re new, but anything but inexperienced. I’m the most inexperienced aviation person in this company.” (That last claim, too, could be classified as bunk, despite the high-flying qualifications of his key players. Raburn–pilot, EAA board member and Lockheed Constellation and Twin Commander owner–has been an avid observer and participant in aviation for most of his life, and his background of success in the computer and software industry is testament to his technical savvy.)

Avio and the All-electric Personal Jet
Consistent with Raburn’s elec-tech background, the Eclipse 500 will bring to the top end of GA and the bottom end of business aviation a level of electronic sophistication and integration that has never before swooped this low down the totem pole. “The Global Express, 777 and A340 come close,” Raburn ventured, “but no civil project has taken integration as far as the Eclipse 500 does.”

The Avio “intelligent flight system” is Eclipse Aviation’s name for the integrated suite of avionics and aircraft systems management that will mastermind and coordinate most of the Eclipse 500’s functions (see box at left). Key players in the Avio package are Avidyne, BAE Systems and General Dynamics, and their products are integrated to provide electronic control of the major systems on the aircraft, including Fadec, FMS, communications, autopilot, autothrottle, flaps, trim, landing-gear actuation and environmental systems. Flight controls, however, remain manual (rods and cables), and the brake lines are the only hydraulics on the airplane.

The Eclipse will have cards that plug into the innards of the PFDs (one each side) and MFD (one in the middle) in the panel and replace the bulky remote boxes that reside just downstream of the radar antenna on a conventional business jet. Just as on a big-budget business jet or airliner, “Avio replaces the dozens of expensive instruments and gauges typically found in today’s airplanes with a streamlined glass cockpit that integrates multiple functions and is tied into the electronics systems throughout the aircraft,” according to Eclipse.

Avio also captures health-monitoring data from the airplane’s systems, creating a history of the performance of each system and providing the potential for early warning of impending failures. All critical functions are duplicated, with components physically separated and powered by separate buses and sources. The system uses electronic circuit breakers almost exclusively, for higher reliability and tighter tolerances than provided by mechanical breakers. Micro-switches have also been eliminated, replaced by proximity switches with a MTBF of 450,000 hr.

“Avio reduces the number of boxes by an order of magnitude, cost by two orders and weight by one order,” said Raburn. “This much functionality from Honeywell or Collins would cost a million dollars. Avio is driven more by the computer industry than by the avionics industry.” Added Don Burtis, lead coordinator for avionics and electronics at Eclipse, “We are not obligated to force-feed an existing system into our airplane.”

The three aircraft to be used for certification flight testing will be fully instrumented for real-time data telemetry back to base at ABQ for monitoring by engineers. The first aircraft will have 500 channels, the second and third 300 each, and the telemetry system at ABQ will be able to handle two aircraft in the air simultaneously. Results of test cards will be apparent immediately, and a test pilot can be asked to redo a test on the same sortie if necessary. Eclipse is confident this will allow each aircraft to make two flights a day, thereby speeding the process toward its goal of FAA Part 23 approval by the end of next year.

Raburn expects to build “fewer than 1,000” Eclipse 500s in the first two years after certification. “We need 200,000 square feet to build three aircraft a day. The biggest single cost is overhead absorption, and the company that taught this to the world is Dell Computer, which has 62 inventory turns a year. Cycle time is key: controlling the time an aircraft spends in the factory is more important than focusing on the number of manhours spent per aircraft. This is the main reason there are no composites on the Eclipse. You cannot automate–that is, speed up–the autoclave process.”

So far Eclipse has raised $238 million in private equity, following the announcement on rollout day of another $18 million of funding. Raburn still maintains he will need a total of “somewhere north of $300 million” to certify the Eclipse 500 and establish production, and he remains confident, in light of the extensive publicity the project has received in recent weeks, that it will not be too hard to find the remaining $80- to $100 million still needed. As of June 1, the 160 “Platinum” order deposits (each $155,000) are released from escrow, raising $24.8 million of working capital.

“There are still challenges. We don’t know what the road blocks are,” Raburn concluded. Design engineer Masefield added a closing word, too, “We have no legacy, no factory full of existing technology that we have to use, but we’re not an underfunded, shoestring startup. This train is running at 100 mph, and we’re laying the track as we go.”