It’s been a bit more than three years since Eclipse Aerospace was awarded the assets of bankrupt Eclipse Aviation in August 2009, not quite enough time, perhaps, to fully separate conversations about the former from the mixed record of its predecessor, but Mason Holland, CEO of Eclipse Aerospace, told AIN the company is weary of “Phoenix rising from the ashes” stories and declared it has made considerable progress updating and improving the Eclipse 500.
The most recent sign of this progress came in June, when Eclipse Aerospace started production of the Eclipse 550, a significantly revised version of the original very light twinjet. Resuming production was the last of Holland’s three primary goals for Eclipse Aerospace, following the Albuquerque, N.M.-based company’s successful implementation of a supply and support network for the existing fleet of 260 Eclipse 500 jets and developing programs to upgrade those airplanes to the latest comfort and technological standards.
The most significant upgrade Eclipse Aerospace offers for the Eclipse jet is the revamped panel, developed by Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S) and dubbed the Avio integrated flight management system (IFMS). (Development of the IS&S panel began before Eclipse Aviation went bankrupt.) The Avio IFMS fulfills the functionality promises the former company struggled to meet, including full moving-map navigation capabilities, GPS-coupled autopilot and XM WX satellite weather. Command entry keyboards–part of the original Avio system but subsequently removed by Eclipse Aviation to make room for a Garmin GPS400W-based interim FMS–have also returned to the panel.
The Avio IFMS is a retrofit option for existing Eclipse 500s and standard on all Total Eclipse refurbished variants of pre-owned aircraft. A dual-redundant Avio IFMS version will also be standard on all new-build Eclipse 550s.
Referring to the numerous placards that once littered Eclipse 500 cockpits, Holland said, “Only one inoperable sticker remains–that for autothrottles. That system is currently in flight test and will be ready for production on the Eclipse 550, along with synthetic vision.” An optional infrared enhanced-vision system is also in development, though it “may or may not be ready by [the first Eclipse 550 delivery], but all aircraft will be provisioned for it,” he said. “As a guy who lost a lot of money with a company that made promises it couldn’t keep, I’m very sensitive about promising only what I know we can realistically deliver.” Holland was a deposit-holder for an Eclipse 500.
The Eclipse 550 will also feature fit-and-finish and revisions to the engine pylon assembly that improve cabin heating at altitude. Additional refinements under consideration include reducing the size of the large isotropic paint patches surrounding the dual static ports atop the nose–required for flight-into-known-icing approval–and a lighter windscreen heating system.
Retains Much of 500’s Features
Despite those changes, the Eclipse 550 will retain much of what made the original VLJ an attractive proposition for many buyers, including an airframe and cabin largely indistinguishable from the Eclipse 500. Like that aircraft, the 550 will also be powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofans (P&WC is a United Technologies subsidiary, as is Sikorsky Aircraft, a minority investor in Eclipse Aerospace). The 550 is expected to have the same flight characteristics as the 500. Eclipse Aerospace will also continue to employ the friction-stir welding technique pioneered by Eclipse Aviation in fabricating the new jet’s aluminum fuselage.
Though wary of comparisons to “the old Eclipse,” Holland is quick to express appreciation for the work performed by the former company. “The aircraft is crazy-good. From the beginning, we’ve been able to focus on improving the details and fulfilling the airframe’s promise. The economics, flight qualities, speed and payload enabled us to start off with an incredible foundation.”
That foundation includes the training program that Eclipse Aviation developed, and the Eclipse Aerospace training curriculum draws heavily from it. Pilots are required to undergo a type-rating training regime that includes familiarization, a detailed systems review and emergency procedures training at factory-authorized training provider SimCom. The program also includes upset training, conducted by the old company with an Eclipse-owned L-39 Albatros, though Eclipse Aerospace has authorized training providers to use various aircraft for that purpose.
“The Eclipse 500 has flown more than 200,000 hours without major incident,” Holland said. “The Eclipse jet is often easier to fly than the single-engine piston aircraft, from which many of our customers are transitioning.”
Deliveries in Mid-2013
Holland expects the first Eclipse 550 to be delivered in the middle of next year, allowing Eclipse Aerospace to vet the assembly process as that aircraft moves down the production line. Each step is being “checked and improved upon where needed, and revalidated,” he said. And while he wouldn’t reveal the exact number of deposits his company has for new Eclipse jets, he seems comfortable with that total so far.
“We have about 70 to 80 percent of the Eclipse 550 orders we want to deliver in 2013, and 60 percent for 2014,” he said. “We’re talking about selling only 50 to 60 Eclipse 550s each year, which shouldn’t be a huge task, especially at this price point. We’re the last and only twin-engine jet in the world below $3 million.”
The first several Eclipse 550s will be produced in Albuquerque, with production of the wing, fuselage and empennage assemblies transitioned to Sikorsky subsidiary PZL-Mielec in Poland once those processes have been proven. Holland said that arrangement is another benefit of Eclipse Aerospace’s partnership with the rotorcraft manufacturer.
“We’re not saving any money by having Mielec perform [fabrication] work,” he added. “What we are doing is leveraging the manufacturing experience of a company that’s been around for nearly 100 years.”
NBAA’12 attendees may sample the Eclipse 550’s Avio IFMS at the Eclipse Aerospace display (Booth No. 2954). A Total Eclipse 500 jet is on static display at Orlando Executive Airport.