NBAA Convention News

The ‘little jet that could’ just became the jet that did

 - November 6, 2006, 8:52 AM

Eclipse Aviation received FAA type certification for the Eclipse 500 on September 30, becoming the second very light jet manufacturer to achieve the milestone approval behind Cessna, which had the card for its Citation Mustang VLJ punched a few weeks earlier.

Depending on your perspective, you’re eagerly awaiting or pensively dreading the entry into service of this new breed of super-light business twinjet. For most of the attendees here at NBAA’06, the mood probably leans heavily toward the excitement end of the scale.

The Eclipse type approval was originally planned for December 2003. It also came nine months later than planned after the company announced in early 2003 that it would have to switch from the Williams EJ22 turbofan engine to Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PW610F. (The little Williams engine wasn’t producing the anticipated power or good enough reliability, prompting Eclipse to sever the relationship.) Officials for Eclipse blamed the latest delay on the aircraft’s Avio avionics system, which has been plagued throughout its development–first by supplier changes and more recently by vendor delays, attributable primarily to Avidyne and Meggitt, according to Eclipse.

Now, technical problems are holding up full certification of several major systems aboard the airplane. The type certificate clears the Eclipse 500 through the full operating envelope for single-pilot, day/night and IFR/VFR operations and group RVSM approval, but not yet for flight into known icing. Software updates for the Avio’s FMS, moving map, weather radar and GPS WAAS functions are expected to be available this month, while autothrottle, e-checklists, TCAS, TAWS and satellite weather functionality will be added over the next year through software updates.

“In spite of the hurdles we’ve encountered and those that still lie ahead, this is a day to reflect on what has been accomplished,” said Vern Raburn, Eclipse’s president and CEO, on the day the FAA granted the airplane’s type certificate. “We successfully launched a new aviation company, developed and certified a truly revolutionary aircraft and created a whole new market segment that helped return relevancy and growth to general aviation.”

History likely won’t remember which of the competing VLJ manufacturers crossed the finish line first. The Citation Mustang received FAA approval on September 8, allowing Cessna to take the checkered flag and the glory. In years hence all anybody is likely to recall is that the FAA granted type certificates to both airplanes in the same month. (Eclipse obtained “provisional” certification in July at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., but that exercise was little more than a presentation orchestrated for the benefit of the lightplane enthusiasts in attendance. In practical terms the approval meant little.)

Despite that fact that both airplanes carry the VLJ title, the Eclipse 500 and Mustang are very different machines in terms of capability, size and price. While the Mustang can be considered a downward extension of Cessna’s CJ line that happens to weigh in at less than 10,000 pounds mtow (the cutoff point between very light and merely light), the Eclipse is a true microjet, epitomizing the new generation of turbine-powered compact GA airplanes.

Priced at about $1.5 million, the Eclipse 500 to date has recorded close to 2,500 orders, virtually cementing the airplane’s place in aviation history as the spark for what most believe will be a revolution. Whether the air-taxi market catches on the way Raburn and others hope remains an open question, but even if it serves only as a personal VIP transport and in light corporate duty, the airplane will soon become a familiar site at airports around the world.

With such incredible promise so close at hand, it’s small wonder that airlines are beginning to look upon the little jet with trepidation. They know the Eclipse 500 could very well steal even more customers than bizav has managed to siphon already. Airline executives are beating their war drums, trying to convince anybody who’ll listen that the coming VLJ “invasion” will wreak havoc on the U.S. airspace system and lead to nightmarish delays.

But interestingly, the FAA publicly disagrees with that prediction. Agency officials say VLJs might actually provide some delay relief by transporting passengers between secondary markets rather than via the airlines’ hub-and-spoke routes. Either way, the first two VLJs are here, and several more (from Adam, Embraer, Honda and others) are only an FAA stamp of approval behind. It won’t be long before reality will replace the bluster and the world will know for sure the full impact of the very light jet.