Despite a halt in production of nearly four years and the bankruptcy of its original developer, the fleet of Eclipse very light jets could soon grow again after Eclipse Aerospace was awarded a production certificate from the FAA. Eclipse Aviation achieved initial certification for the diminutive twinjet in September 2006, and over the next 17 months it built some 260 Eclipse 500s before being forced into bankruptcy at the start of the economic downturn in 2008. Eclipse Aerospace was formed by a group of investors seeking initially to ensure support for the fleet, and to complete scheduled upgrades of the in-service aircraft. The company acquired the assets of the defunct Eclipse Aviation, and stated that an eventual goal was to restart the production line for an upgraded Eclipse 550, which is based on the same airframe but features improved avionics, autothrottles, synthetic vision and a redundant flight management system.
The production approval was granted after the FAA determined that the company’s manufacturing processes and quality systems meet all federal regulations. “Armed now with a fully certified aircraft, a certified production process and an established supply chain, Eclipse is well qualified to re-introduce the Eclipse Jet to new production,” said company senior vice president Cary Winter.
Last year UTC subsidiary Sikorsky Aircraft bought a 42-percent share in Eclipse Aerospace, which last month in turn signed an agreement with Sikorsky’s Poland-based subsidiary PZL Mielec to produce major components for the Eclipse 550. PZL will manufacture and assemble the fuselage, wings and empennage in Poland and ship them to the original Eclipse manufacturing facility in Albuquerque for final assembly, flight testing and delivery. The ties to UTC extend further as Sikorsky sister company Pratt & Whitney Canada also makes the Eclipse’s PW610F engines.
In addition to investing “tens of millions of dollars” in the company, according to Eclipse Aerospace, the helicopter manufacturer has also lent some valuable manufacturing expertise. “Our Sikorsky partners came in and really streamlined a lot of the production process,” said Eclipse CEO Mason Holland. “We’re reducing the number of positions that we’ll be building the airplane in. I think we had 28 or 29 positions that the airplane went through, now they are going to go through about seven in final assembly in Albuquerque.”
But exactly when those VLJs–which are expected to carry a price tag of less than $3 million–will once again begin to roll out of the factory in Albuquerque is still undetermined. “We’re going to do this in a mathematically calculated way, as we vet out the demand and we work out the cost, the two things converge together and the magic happens,” said Holland.
Given the doldrums in which the lower end of the private jet market now finds itself, the company’s current plans suggest it is betting on a quick recovery. “The market demand is still soft but we still intend on delivering airplanes in 2013 and I’m still intending to have a full book for 2014,” said Holland, who anticipates a lead time of nine to 13 months from the time the company decides to start production until the first newly built Eclipse 550 takes flight. Given the pool of skilled aircraft workers made available due to the downsizing at other airframers, the company does not expect difficulties in attracting staff once it pulls the trigger.
Initially the company expects to build 50 aircraft a year, but Holland told AIN that depending on demand, production could increase to 120 annually without additional investment in tooling and facilities.
Holland is confident that the company has enough funding to start production as soon as the decision is made. “We’re not asking for any more cash right now from any of our investors,” he said. “I don’t know if you are ever fully funded for projects like this because you never know what you don’t know, but we feel comfortable right now.”
“Eclipse is not going to stay a one-product company forever,” he said. “We can stretch our airframe, make it a little bit bigger, put in a little more thrust and all of a sudden that might be the next thing we’ve got down the road.”