Owners search for way to keep Eclipses flying

 - April 30, 2009, 6:25 AM

Although a number of proposals have been floated to buy the assets of bankrupt very light jet manufacturer Eclipse Aviation, none has attracted enough support or interest from the bankruptcy court to receive final approval. The efforts include: Eclipse Jet, founded by Eclipse 500 owner and reseller Mike Press as well as depositor Mason Holland and former Eclipse chairman Roel Pieper; Eclipse Services and Support, a non-profit cooperative effort launched by Eclipse operator Linear Air; Eclipse Owners Group, another non-profit co-op created by Eclipse 500 owner David Green and management company Jet-Alliance; and New Eclipse Acquisition, backed by Phil Friedman, CEO of Harlow Aerostructures.

The purpose of these efforts is to keep the Eclipse fleet flying and to offer owners the modifications needed to bring their airplanes up to the latest Eclipse standard, including full GPS and flight-into-known-icing (FIKI) capability. None of the 259 delivered Eclipse 500s meets that standard.

Friedman believes his proposal is the most likely to succeed because it requires investment in the new company by Eclipse 500 owners, operates at first in a two-year revenue-neutral phase followed by profit-making and benefits from his background running aircraft manufacturing companies. Harlow Aerostructures manufactures com- ponents from bushings, pins and bearings to large bulkheads, spars, chords and stringers.

To raise the money to buy Eclipse’s assets, Friedman proposes that interested Eclipse owners each invest $150,000 in New Eclipse Acquisition, in exchange for which they would pay “break-even” pricing for modifications to their jets. He calculates that the Avio NG 1.5 mod, which adds dual Garmin 400W navigators, and the FIKI mod combined would cost $109,000. Adding the Innovative Solutions & Support Avio NG glass panel to earlier Avidyne-equipped Eclipses would cost $210,000. Owners who don’t invest the $150,000 will be charged an additional $100,000 per jet for those modifications.

The costs don’t stop there, however. All Eclipse 500 owners would have to pay $70,000 per year for the first two years, then $25,000 per year for support. This would help pay for the 60 engineers needed to provide support, improve reliability and make the modifications possible. New Eclipse Acquisition plans to open four or five regional factory-owned service centers.

The company’s goal is to “restore the brand,” which would improve Eclipse 500 resale value to the $2 million level, Friedman hopes. Eventually, Eclipse 500 production would resume if New Eclipse Acquisition can lower the cost of manufacturing by reducing the excessive man-hours that were a hallmark of the Eclipse Aviation operation. According to Friedman, assembly time for the Eclipse 500 was about 7,000 man-hours, 3,000 more than Cessna requires for the larger Citation Mustang. Target price for a new Eclipse 500 is $2.4 million.

“Provided enough owners decide to support my plan,” Friedman wrote in a letter to owners, “I am confident we will be able to raise the additional funds to purchase the Eclipse assets and [intellectual property] and to provide our working capital needs.”

One element that Friedman doesn’t address is relations with suppliers that made parts for Eclipse. As a supplier himself, Friedman is clearly familiar with the process and he said that he turned down the opportunity to work with Eclipse early in the program. So many suppliers are owed so much money by bankrupt Eclipse, however, it is hard to gauge their interest in persevering with the program. Unsecured creditors listed in bankruptcy papers are owed $702.6 million. Eclipse wing manufacturer Fuji Heavy Industries is owed $31.8 million and empennage-maker Hampson Aerospace $31.3 million.

The Eclipse Owners Group (EOG), which claims to be vetting all potential revival efforts to make sure the owners are well served, wants to buy the Eclipse assets if no better alternative comes along. To further its work on behalf of its members, EOG signed a non-binding letter of agreement with Hawker Beech- craft (HBC) for the manufacturer’s service-center network to provide modifications and maintenance to Eclipse owners. EOG and HBC are negotiating the terms of a more permanent agreement, but nothing will happen if EOG does not buy the Eclipse assets.

HBC’s Wichita; Mesa, Ariz.; and Atlanta operations would be ideal Eclipse modification and maintenance centers, according to Bill Brown, HBC president for global customer service and support. The rest of the HBC service centers could provide light maintenance services to Eclipse owners.

HBC has already discussed Eclipse support with Eclipse vendors, some of which also supply parts to HBC. Brown says the vendors “really want to help and are eager to work with us. They trust us, especially when it comes to warranty adjudication and technical support.”

To help deliver needed service to Eclipse owners, HBC would supply engineering, planning, supply chain and maintenance support for the needed Eclipse 500 modifications “and keep the aircraft’s airworthiness intact,” Brown said. “We’re not going to rebuild the airplane; we want to keep them satisfied with the product they have.” HBC will also benefit from introducing a new set of customers to its products and services. Once they see HBC’s product support, he said, “they will choose our brand when they want to upgrade to a different model. That’s the skin in the game for me: to be able to show [them] how we treat our customers.”