Bear market delaying Eclipse 500 program

 - May 19, 2008, 9:53 AM

Eclipse Aviation displayed a new mockup of its redesigned Eclipse 500 at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., last month, but first flight of the genuine article has been pushed back 30 days (to next July, rather than June) and certification pushed back six months to December 2003. Just before Oshkosh, Eclipse Aviation president and CEO Vern Raburn told AIN, “To be prudent, we have revised our development program in light of the current financial environment. The revised plan reduces our investment requirement to reach first flight and results in modest schedule changes.” Raburn said he was unable to comment further on development funding due to constraints imposed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The projected selling price of the six-place, Williams FJ22-powered twinjet remains at $837,500.

An investment analyst for a major financial company told AIN that, while private placement funding is still available in today’s market, it is difficult to find funding for speculative ventures. He said the swing toward the bearish side of the scale came after the failure of dot-com firms to produce revenues, as well as rosy promises. “It depends on the sector,” said the analyst, who asked not to be identified, “but investors are looking for bottom-line fundamentals: cash flow, a tangible product and a good business plan.”

Raburn did say that the existing development funding has been shifted to concentrate on getting the number-one flying prototype in the air. Previous plans called for simultaneous production of the next two airframes, earmarked for static and fatigue testing. Assembling those aircraft has been pushed back until the first airframe takes to the sky.

Raburn also said that as of July 1, the airframe development program has been operated solely by Eclipse, rather than by Williams International, the Walled Lake, Mich. manufacturer of the 770-lb-thrust EJ22 engines destined to power the Eclipse 500. Raburn minimized the importance of the move, saying that it was planned to happen eventually anyway, and amounted to hiring three of the 11 Williams employees who had been dedicated to the project. He said Eclipse currently employs 123 people.

Raburn said that by November the entire engineering team will be in place at Eclipse’s Albuquerque, N.M. facility, with employment expected to increase to 170, including the first assembly workers. The company expects to cut metal on the first parts for the conforming airframe prototype by the end of this month with assembly of the structure to begin in November. According to Raburn, Eclipse plans to have 200 employees by Christmas.

He cited philosophical differences between Williams International and his company. “Williams is highly vertically integrated, typical of an aerospace company,” Raburn said. “Eclipse is the opposite.” As part of its infrastructure realignment, Eclipse has implemented the first stage of an enterprise resource planning architecture from Intelligence Inc., a unit of SAP AG, Walldorf, Germany. SAP is a dedicated provider of Internet e-business solutions and Intelligence is said to be one of the largest authorized U.S. resellers of SAP’s software products and services. Human resources and material resource-planning software were installed and implemented in just 60 days, according to Eclipse.

Design Refinements

While the company was undergoing structural changes, engineers were tweaking the Eclipse 500 airframe on their computer screens. Raburn told AIN that the 4,700-lb (mtow) mini business jet is being designed with the same processes–including Dassault Systemes Catia CAD/CAM/CAE software–used to develop the Boeing 777, but with current technology the computing power required cost him about $2 million, rather than the billions paid by Boeing years ago. Technical changes to the Eclipse 500 include:

• Reworking the pylons and moving the engines 19.5 in. forward due to increased FAA concerns over structural damage to the vertical stabilizer internal structure in case of a rotor burst. “The change cost us four weeks’ work by six engineers–and a couple of floppies,” said Raburn.

• Redesigning the tail structure as a result of the engine repositioning.

• Moving the door from the right side of the fuselage to the left and redesigning the seating configuration.

• Redesigning the windshield and front side windows, providing improved visibility and saving 20 lb.

• Redesigning cockpit and cabin seating based on customer input.

• Replacing the wing-mounted speed brakes with a single tail-mounted unit.

• Reshaping the dorsal fin strake to energize airflow over the rudder at high angles of attack.

• Changing the wing-root shape and fairings for improved stall performance, more room for fuel and better placement of systems outside the pressure vessel.

In addition, Eclipse has made the third primary flight display (PFD) standard equipment rather than an option (though other significant details on the BAE Systems/Avidyne avionics package have yet to be released), and also added Michelin radial tires to the standard equipment list. Previously, buyers had the option to select regular-size bias-ply tires for paved runways, or larger bias-ply tires for use on unimproved runways. With the expanded footprint of the standard-size Michelin radials, operations on paved and unimproved surfaces are approved.

FAA Comfortable with FSW

One unique aspect of the Eclipse 500 is the use of friction-stir welding (FSW) rather than riveting or bonding to assemble the aluminum airframe components. The process is standard on many other aluminum structures, such as storm windows and some missiles, but the Eclipse would mark the first time the process will be used on aluminum skins as thin as those on the airplane.

Eclipse purchased and installed its $1 million friction-stir-welding gantry at contractor MTS Systems in Eden Prairie, Minn. The Cincinnati milling machine will have its
conventional milling head removed and replaced with an FSW head. In that configuration, the computerized mechanism will weld the formers and stringers to the three separate fuselage sections laid out on jigs under the moving gantry. Individual pieces will be hand placed on the jigs for automated welding. According to Raburn, an entire fuselage shipset of sections can be constructed in one work shift (the FSW machine can join metals at the rate of 24 in. an hour). After eight shipsets of fuselage sections have been constructed in Minnesota, it is planned that the gantry assembly will be disassembled and moved to Eclipse’s production facility in Albuquerque.

Raburn reported that the FAA is “comfortable with the process” of friction-stir welding. Eclipse is currently conducting a “barrel test” in which aluminum panels of various thicknesses and configurations are joined together and curved in a circular “barrel” section the diameter of the Eclipse fuselage. The assembly is then expanded and contracted to simulate pressurization cycles. The test schedule calls for 160,000 cycles, eight times the projected life limit of the airframe.

By mid-July some 34,000 cycles had been completed with no problems noted. In addition, the tests included introducing a pair of 2-in. cracks at strategic locations on the barrel. At 34,000 cycles, the cracks had grown minimally–to 2.14 inches in one case–and Raburn said that the crack introduced at one of the weld points had propagated into the virgin aluminum rather than the weld, indicating that the weld is stronger than the aluminum.

To date, the FAA is satisfied with progress on the friction-stir-welding tests, said Raburn. Ultimate static testing to final loads on a complete airframe is scheduled for the second quarter of 2003.

Interior Refinements

The new mockup introduced in Oshkosh incorporates the redesigned cockpit (with increased knee and head room) and the “semi club” seating arrangement in the cabin. The sixth seat, located in the third row on the pilot’s side of the cabin, is an option on the Eclipse 500. In the standard configuration, the second seat on the left side slides far back on its tracks to allow entry and exit from the airstair door behind the pilot’s seat and ahead of the wing (the seat is required to remain all the way back for takeoff and landing). The right seat in the second row can be turned 180 deg to face aft, providing the semi-club configuration.

Also, for single-pilot operations, the copilot’s seat slides forward and its back can be folded forward to provide a platform for charts, computers, clipboards and other pilot paraphernalia. This also gives more room in the aft cabin. Raburn said customer research has shown that most owner-pilots’ families or other passengers prefer sitting together in the back. Also, the single-pilot, semi-club configuration is a bow to the Eclipse’s anticipated role as an aerial limousine. The cabin is also large enough to accommodate a stretcher and the door was expanded with aeromedical transportation in mind.