Eclipse struggles to stay aloft in turbulent skies

 - December 1, 2008, 4:39 AM

Despite intensified speculation about an impending collapse, Eclipse Aviation remained in business as this issue went to press, with company leaders still seeking new sources of funding and anticipating the long-awaited FAA certification of the Garmin 400W navigator upgrade and European Aviation Safety Agency certification of the airplane.

On November 13, workers at Eclipse Aviation were told they could continue working without pay or go home, according to a November 14 Eclipse Aviation statement, because Eclipse was “unable to meet its payroll obligations.” The following week, Eclipse workers returned to work on Monday “like normal,” a spokeswoman told AIN, and the workers were paid for their previous pay period. Eclipse was still facing financial challenges, the statement said. “The board of directors and executive management of the company continue to work diligently on a long-term financial solution for its business.” The amount needed is in the $200 to $300 million range, but the company would not provide any more information about its financial status or the current level of activity at the factory.

Eclipse did confirm to AIN that training partner Higher Power Aviation of Dallas had stopped providing training in the Eclipse 500, but Eclipse “continues to give recurrent training and if necessary initial type training in aircraft.”

According to the FAA, Higher Power Aviation still holds its Part 142 certificate but the FAA removed the Eclipse 500 authorization. “The FAA determined the Eclipse 500 jet training that Higher Power was providing did not meet the ‘equivalent manufacturer’s program,’” an agency spokesman told AIN. “The Eclipse 500 flight manual contains specific mandatory training requirements. If an outside party such as Higher Power provides Eclipse training, its 142 training curriculum must be equivalent to the manufacturer’s program.” At press time Higher Power Aviation had not responded to AIN’s request for more information.

Meanwhile, the number of lawsuits filed against Eclipse Aviation for non-refunding of deposits or non-delivery of airplanes has grown rapidly, with seven filed in November, one in October, three in September and one each in August and July. A group of deposit-holders has been discussing whether to spend more money to try to force Eclipse Aviation into involuntary bankruptcy but, as of November 19, had not made a move.

According to group member Alex Amor, who said he spoke with Eclipse management early last month, “Eclipse is unwilling or unable to provide any assurances that any assets [intellectual and otherwise] have been transferred or are in the process of being transferred to other parties. In addition, it is our group’s understanding that certain ‘privileged’ individuals received refunds (both 60 percent and initial). Once again Eclipse refused comments on the refund topic.”

The group had hoped that forcing involuntary bankruptcy might elevate the deposit-holders higher up the list of creditors, if any money remained after an Eclipse bankruptcy. But whether that actually could happen is not assured, and trying to force the bankruptcy issue could result in the group members paying for legal expenses and getting nothing in return.

For owners and operators of the more than 250 Eclipse 500s delivered thus far, the big question is what happens to their airplanes if Eclipse is unable to obtain additional funding. Pilots love the airplane, and it delivers on performance promises, although the lack of known-icing capability (FAA certified but not yet installed in any customer airplanes) is a serious drawback, as is the final pending certification of the Garmin navigators.

With such a large installed base of airplanes, it’s likely that a company would form to provide product support. That the Eclipse 500 fleet needs support is evident in submissions to the FAA’s service difficulty reporting system database. There are 109 Eclipse 500 entries in the database, 103 of which were submitted by DayJet for its fleet of 28 Eclipse 500s. The remaining six reports are from other operators and highlight some of the ongoing problems Eclipse 500s have suffered. Most of these reports are, like the DayJet reports, from commercial operators, which are required to submit data to the FAA database. Part 91 operators are not required to do so, therefore it is difficult to assess the number of problems that these operators are experiencing.

Reported Problems

According to the FAA database, Eclipse 500 N568EA experienced “a popping noise coming from the vicinity of copilot’s window.” The window’s side retainers were replaced. In N136EA, the same popping noise resulted in replacement of the pilot’s window.

N575CC experienced a leaking PhostrEx fire-extinguisher cartridge on the right engine, which “exposed the engine and components to highly corrosive chemical.” The engine was returned to Pratt & Whitney Canada for repair.

Problems continue with pitch-trim actuators, according to a submission for N875NA, which “experienced a pitch-trim malfunction on takeoff accompanied by a warning message.” The pilot declared an emergency and returned to base. After duplicating the problem on the ground, the actuator was replaced but the “defect still existed. Further troubleshooting revealed that the control tubes connect[ing] the actuator to the control surface were not similarly adjusted. This condition caused a binding of the sys[tem] mechanics and subsequent failure. When the control tubes were similarly adjusted, the system operated correctly on ground and in subsequent operational check flight.”

N568EA experienced a bleed-air temperature overheat CAS message in flight, which was found to be due to non-actuating air-conditioning doors in the engine pylon area. “A possible cause was a misaligned door actuator. There was also moisture collecting in the fairing below the actuator motor. This could contribute to moisture collecting in the actuator.”

During a flight from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Tulsa, Okla., the pilot of N164MW diverted to Eclipse headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M. “Autopilot disengaged violently at [FL]410 and [yaw damper] off. Refer to QRH, reset [circuit breaker]. Autopilot back on at [FL]390. Forty seconds later, autopilot and YD disengaged. Unable to reset CB. FL 370, autopilot back on and 30 seconds later disengaged again. Remained off for the rest of the flight. YD recovered at [FL]280. Airspeed disagreed at [FL]370. Referred to QRH. ADC source used and still giving airspeed disagree. Disappeared at FL250 and 265 knots. Aircraft is being worked on at factory service center. Unknown cause at this time.”