The current status of the 259 Eclipse 500 very light jets that were delivered before the manufacturer went bankrupt in February remains tenuous. Any airplane that is airworthy can fly, whether or not its type certificate is abandoned or belongs to a bankrupt manufacturer, but maintaining airworthiness becomes increasingly difficult when no parts are available, maintenance and engineering data is locked up in bankruptcy proceedings and previously ignored problems continue occurring.
Two companies have come forth so far, offering whatever maintenance services they can to try to keep Eclipse 500s flying. Eclipse 500 Services and Eclipse Aero Solutions are both based in Albuquerque, N.M., near Eclipse’s shuttered headquarters. Eclipse 500 Services says it is staffed by people who built and maintained Eclipse 500s. Eclipse Aero Solutions includes former Eclipse Aviation employees who worked in the service center, as well as Eclipse engineers.
Two other recent entrants into the Eclipse service field include Hawker Beechcraft Services and Eclipse Service Network. Hawker Beechcraft Services is negotiating a “definitive binding agreement” with members of the Eclipse Owners Group, but the agreement depends on the group’s successful bid to purchase the assets of Eclipse Aviation. The Eclipse Service Network was founded by Ken Ross, president of Eclipse operator North American Jet of Chicago. Brigadoon Aircraft Maintenance, part of a planned new FBO complex at Chicago Executive Airport, is the network’s first platinum-level service center. Brigadoon is promising to help Eclipse 500 owners obtain installation of flight-into-known-icing modifications, although some question that capability as no one currently has access to the engineering data and parts needed for icing upgrades. AIN has been unable to determine whether Brigadoon is currently providing any services and Ross has not replied to phone calls or e-mails.
Some recently submitted service difficulty reports highlight the problems that Eclipse 500 owners face in keeping their jets airworthy. The airplane’s PhostrEx engine fire-extinguishing system is one example of an Eclipse-specific design that could have airworthiness repercussions for the entire fleet. Instead of choosing a traditional fire-bottle design like most manufacturers, Eclipse opted to design its own fire-extinguishing system using phosphorus tribromide, a highly effective extinguishing agent that also happens to be corrosive to humans as well as aircraft parts.
According to the Hazardous Substances Data Bank, “in presence of moisture, [phosphorus tribromide is] highly corrosive to most metals except lead and nickel.” In humans, the substance can cause “corrosion of mucous membranes of mouth, throat and esophagus…” However, phosphorus tribromide is water-soluble and easily washed off, according to James Allen, an environmental health physician, pilot and author of Working Healthy: a Manual on Health Techniques for Aviators, Maintainers and Aircraft Builders.
There have been complaints from Eclipse operators of leaking PhostrEx canisters. In a service difficulty report submitted to the FAA last August, the submitter reported: “Right engine fire-extinguisher cartridge leaked through discharge nozzle and exposed the engine and components to highly corrosive chemical. Engine removed for clean-up and repair by manufacturer.”
The problem with using phosphorus tribromide instead of non-corrosive compounds like Halon is that the PhostrEx system is proprietary to Eclipse Aviation, which essentially no longer exists. Any problem with the PhostrEx system grounds the airplane; the only way to keep such a system operating would be to cannibalize parts from another Eclipse 500. Eclipse Aviation may have saved money by developing its own fire-extinguishing system, but it did so at a risk to the future airworthiness of its fleet. And unfortunately for owners of Eclipse 500s, this proprietary design philosophy is found in other systems as well, especially the avionics.
Other service difficulty reports highlight more worrisome problems.
• In a report submitted on January 12, a mechanic wrote that during a second 300-hour inspection (conducted at some previous date) of Eclipse 500 S/N 24, “the horizontal stabilizer was found to have excessive free play…further investigation found forward-mount fasteners would turn by finger when another tech shook the horizontal stabilizer.” The report doesn’t mention what was done to fix this problem but adds: “There is concern that other early serial number aircraft may have or develop this condition.”
• On March 14, a mechanic submitted this report about S/N 28: “Last year…we found the main wing attach points to have excessive play on both wings when aircraft was on jacks. Engineering looked at the data we presented…and said ‘the play was within limits.’ I have worked [on] many aircraft and never seen this condition acceptable. It has approximately .020 to .030 [20 to 30 thousandths of an inch] play at main wing attach fitting, which at the wing tips equals out to about eight inches [deflection]. Engineering did not specify any additional inspection requirements. [I] believe this was a cover-up by upper management at the time so the product would not be damaged.
I am highly concerned that [it] is an unsafe condition and needs to be looked into. There are many other items on this aircraft that need to be looked into as well, such as avionics systems, fire-protection agent is severely corrosive…if the agent is not found leaking it eats stainless steel and aluminum very quickly. The right engine is affected because… the bypass switch for the fuel controller is dripped on by the agent and could cause an unsafe condition. At the time, [we] did not report it because the manufacturer scared employees with their nondisclosure agreement and termination if any information was leaked out.”
Although companies that are offering service to Eclipse owners are trying to help keep the fleet flying, parts remain unavailable. For parts manufacturers to provide parts to Eclipse operators, the supplier would have to seek FAA parts manufacturer approval on those parts, and this process can take some time. Until the bankruptcy process results in some entity taking over Eclipse’s assets, airworthiness problems will likely ground ever more Eclipse 500s.