Flying the TE-500

 - September 29, 2010, 10:51 AM
This AIN pilot/reporter had an opportunity to fly the Eclipse on two different occasions, once on a short cross-country trip in March between Chicago and Nashville and again to Rockford, Ill., for some approaches, landings
and airwork. My instructor pilot was North American Jet Eclipse instructor Mike Vautell.

As I approached the Eclipse, it was clear once again just how compact the airplane is by today’s standards. The ­aircraft measures just 11 feet from the ground to the top of the tail, 38 feet from wingtip to wingtip and 33 feet from nose to tail. The Beech Baron’s wingspan is just under 38 feet and it stands just under 10 feet high. At mtow, the ­Baron weighs in at 5,500 pounds; the Eclipse weighs 6,000 pounds. Eclipse’s friction stir welding process produced a smooth, sleek airframe with only a few items–such as the landing gear and AOA probes–sticking out in the slipstream.  
Powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F-A turbofans, each pumping out a solid 900 pounds of thrust–950 if the automatic power reserve kicks in on an engine failure–the Eclipse carries a maximum of 1,698 pounds of fuel. The walk-around is light-twin simple as the pilot pulls the chocks, snoops under the fuselage to check the gear and be sure the hard landing indicators are not showing and that the oxygen blowouts have not popped. Oil level checks are just below eye level.

The inside of the aircraft we flew, S/N 255, was beautiful–leather seats–although a bit ­spartan by some jet standards. This is not a Falcon or a Gulfstream, but it is a clean, attractive design. Our ­aircraft had five seats, although the type can seat as many as six. I can’t believe anyone would jam that many people into the cabin, though. It’s simply too tight. This is a solid four-place aircraft and no more, except perhaps on a short trip. Maximum baggage capacity is 260 pounds.

The panel on the Eclipse is well organized and similar to that of a larger jet, with everything, right down to the audio panel, controlled through the multifunction display. Much like the dual Waas-capable Garmin 400Ws, the Avio NG avionics system on the Eclipse translates into lots of button pushing and knob turning. It didn’t take long to get used to it though. And of course, the Eclipse’s sidestick control gives the pilot plenty of extra space to move around. Pull and turn the start switches and the two tiny Pratts were soon spinning nicely.

We weighed in at just under 5,500 pounds for takeoff on the run to Rockford for approaches, and about 1,000 pounds of that was fuel. The maximum useful load on an Eclipse is 2,235 pounds. With three hours of fuel–about 1,400 pounds–that leaves room for four people and a little baggage. ­Under no-wind conditions and ISA up high, the Eclipse could just make Miami from Chicago nonstop. From Aspen on an 80-degree day, the Eclipse will fly to ABQ with four passengers. The aircraft will climb directly to 37,000 and 41,000 off the ground at mtow as well. At 37,000 feet the 8.7-psi differential translates into a 5,500-foot cabin.

Takeoff uses the first notch–or 17 degrees–of flaps. With a temperature of 82 degrees F, and the thrust levers firewalled–the Eclipse uses dual Fadecs–the Eclipse sped down Runway 34 at Chicago Executive and was off the ground in less than 2,500 feet. With the gear retracted, it quickly accelerated to about 140 knots for the climb. Chicago ­departure stopped us at 4,000 and pointed us west, and Rockford Approach assumed control with a block of airspace to handle our airwork. Inside the airplane, the cabin is quiet, even in cruise.

This is an airplane designed to be flown by one pilot. ­Everything–gear and light switches and even the icing controls–is easily in reach of the pilot’s right hand. But while I loved the smoothness of the Eclipse, I didn’t like the sidestick control in lateral movement, at least not this one. The sidestick connects directly with a torque tube that actuates the control surfaces through cables and pulleys. Later in the flight, after a number of steep turns, I found my wrist aching as if I’d somehow been stretching the wrong muscles, by having to flex my wrist at a point just in back of my hand in a way that felt unnatural. Others who fly the Eclipse said they got used to it, but this was about the only thing on the Eclipse I didn’t like.

We circled near the Polo VOR (PLL) at 8,000 feet as I cycled the power, dropped flaps and ­accelerated and slowed a number of times to feel the changes. The airplane seems to know precisely what it needs to do, because pitch changes, even in the stall, were minimal and gentle. If a pilot can handle a Baron or a Cirrus, he can handle an Eclipse. I hand-flew the ILS to Runway 7 at Rockford, and once the power was set there was very little playing with the thrust levers to keep the airplane on the glideslope.

What I found particularly attractive about the airplane were the high operating speeds I was able to hold before I hit the slope, sure to be useful at any busy airport. With a gear and approach-flap speed of 200 knots, it is easy to scream to the marker at 170 knots and still slow for an approach. I tried it and we even easily made a circling turn at about 500 feet agl to Runway 19 at Rockford. Crossing the threshold at 88 knots, the Eclipse took just over 2,300 feet to stop on a dry runway even though it has no thrust reversers or attenuators. That’s about what you’d expect in the Beech Baron. I like this little airplane. It should have been the replacement airplane for every light to medium ­piston twin out there. Perhaps it might yet become just that.

Eclipse operators I spoke with at Oshkosh believe Eclipse will ­survive. “It will survive because of Mason Holland. Vern [Raburn] was all about being a showman, but he never had a practical business plan for Eclipse. Mason wants to prove the company to customers. I think the new company ­regularly underpromises and overdelivers. This airplane now represents practical transportation,” said John ­McMurtrie. David Kolssak said, “The new company is run by some really smart people. It has finally developed a fleet of aircraft it can service and support. The Eclipse has finally become the machine I always hoped I’d own.”