Eclipse outgrowing its teething troubles

 - September 29, 2010, 10:41 AM

I’ve been waiting quite some time to fly the Eclipse, a dozen years in fact, since the then revolutionary very light jet (VLJ) was first announced in 1998. The term very light jet–originally coined to ­describe the Eclipse specifically–came to be applied to a number of small jets, although a precise definition seemed to depend upon an aircraft manufacturer’s marketing department at any given time. The assumption was that a VLJ would be small and light. Some thought the term fit the 8,730-pound Cessna ­Citation Mustang while others applied it to the 10,472-pound Embraer Phenom 100. Of course, neither Cessna nor Embraer called its aircraft a VLJ, preferring the title entry-level jet. Only the 6,000-pound-mtow Eclipse EA-500 seemed to really embody the VLJ philosophy.

Certainly the smallest of the twinjets, the Eclipse is also ­easily owner-flown at high ­altitudes and can land and depart from relatively short runways. Only the Eclipse arrived on the scene with a teeny and significantly premature price tag of less than $1 million when first announced. Eclipse claimed a higher airspeed (370 knots) than the Mustang (340 knots), but it would lag the Phenom (390 knots). It also claimed to be a fuel miser. Both the ­Mustang and the Phenom deliver cabins larger than the Eclipse’s, but those cabins come with much larger price tags and operating costs. All are RVSM-certified, unlike the single-engine jets coming down the line such as the Cirrus Vision or PiperJet.

Cracks Begin To Show
Almost from the first, the Eclipse seemed a bit too good to be true. In mid-2008, the Eclipse line shut down as the company slipped into bankruptcy, while Mustangs and Phenoms continue to roll off the lines of established manufacturers as the orders come in (Cessna did recently slow the Mustang line but expects to have it back up to normal as we go to press).

Troubles for the Eclipse began long before the 2008 bankruptcy, however. Much of the turbulence stemmed from founder and then-CEO Vern Raburn’s love/hate relationship with owners and the media. Many critics believe the Eclipse 500 was rushed to certification with a number of unresolved hardware and software
issues in a bid to maintain the ever more demanding cash-flow required to keep the factory doors open. Many aircraft left the line not yet certified for flight into known icing, or with no GPS ­integrated into the aircraft’s navigation system. Owners accepted their aircraft with an IOU entitling them to completion of these and many other items at some unspecified later date. Much of the work was never completed.

Information leaks from within Eclipse’s Albuquerque, N.M. manufacturing plant spawned the famous Eclipse Critic blog, which delighted in revealing ­details about the alleged inner workings of Eclipse Aviation that Raburn and his managers would have preferred had been left unsaid. It was not uncommon for a blog post to draw a hundred comments in a single day. Raburn and his staff never directly responded to what ran on the blog, leaving owners wondering about the ­accuracy of the posts.

The Eclipse 500’s real problem, though, was that all the ­information from Raburn’s office became suspect, to the point that almost no one understood what was happening with the aircraft. Confidence in the aircraft and its support plummeted, as did the hull value of the machines that had already left the assembly line.

Certainly from the start, most of the original technical issues were never in question, merely the method and the timing of the repairs. The shutdown of Florida-based DayJet–Eclipse Aviation’s largest customer–became the final straw for the company, and the factory halted production in mid-2008. Later plans to reemerge with fresh financing also failed, and the company liquidated early last year. Raburn and other former Eclipse executives were sued by a number of owners who claimed they had been duped. A new iteration of the company–now called Eclipse Aerospace–emerged last fall under the leadership of South Carolina businessman Mason Holland, an original Eclipse ­deposit holder who lost his $1 million initial deposit.

The new Eclipse Aerospace promised owners of the 260 airframes in existence that they would finish their aircraft and deliver a product like the one ­Raburn and his team had promoted, no small challenge. The concept of restarting the production line has also been bandied about. Thus far the company has updated seventy-six 1.7 version Eclipse 500s. Owners do have to pay for the upgrades–the old IOUs became invalid after the original Eclipse Aviation went bankrupt.

Holland said he was initially motivated to try and recover some of his money, but quickly realized there were dozens of owners who loved the product but disliked their experience with the old Eclipse Aviation. Holland decided to listen to what owners had to say as he decided the future of Eclipse. “I met more than 300 owners in 27 cities in 15 days.” What he tried to impress upon owners was not to lose sight of the fact that this was a revolutionary clean-sheet economical aircraft with 260 completed airframes to date. “Our goal from the start was to commit to customers on repairing that 15 percent of their ­aircraft’s missing capability and also to deliver the Total Eclipse, the factory-refurbished Eclipse 500 with a factory warranty, for $2.15 million. There will never again be another twin-engine jet aircraft for less than $3 million.”

The FAA has published a ­proposed Airworthiness Directive affecting some Eclipse models with the Avio 1.3 and 1.5 version avionics based on reports of ­uncommanded changes to the communications radio frequency, altitude preselect and/or transponder codes. Holland responded, “It affects only about 30 airplanes. All the others have complied with the SB it relates to, which has been out for almost two years.”

Eclipse Aerospace engineers developed a series of upgrades–most recently Version 1.7, which adds Nexrad, approach plates and SafeTaxi–that will turn all modified Eclipse 500 airframes into truly useful aircraft. Eclipse says that the 1.7 upgrade has eliminated most of the nuisance problems with the airplane. The company also offers aircraft to owners not yet in possession of an Eclipse airframe. The new Total Eclipse–which includes all the 1.7 upgrades–will also carry a new aircraft type ID (the TE-500) to distinguish it from the original airframe.

The only outstanding Eclipse issue is service ceiling. All airframes are currently limited to FL370 due to an engine bleed-air issue that Eclipse believes will be solved soon, although no firm date has been announced. According to Ken Ross, the company’s president of service network and support, once that engine ­issue is fixed, the Eclipse will easily climb to FL410 from takeoff at max weight. The altitude restriction demands only a slight penalty, according to Ross. “If you climb to FL410, you save about 25 pounds of fuel per side per hour.” SimCom has been selected as the official factory training ­organization and both full-motion simulators, built by Opinicus, will be operational in Orlando this fall.

Mason Holland spoke to a crowd of Eclipse owners at Oshkosh. Read about their ­experiences at