““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Eclipse Aerospace’s Eclipse 550
Bringing a soiled brand back to life is never easy—particularly with airplanes. You can count the successful revivals on one hand, most notably Bombardier’s triumph with Learjet. Now, with Sikorsky’s help, Eclipse Aerospace is poised to join this elite fraternity. Production of the Eclipse 550 is scheduled to start this summer.
My odyssey with the Eclipse 500 very light jet (VLJ) began in early 1999 when I was working for an aircraft components company. Our best engineer and I were invited to a hush-hush briefing at jet engine-maker Williams International’s secure compound in Walled Lake, Michigan. (Williams had originally been tapped to build the jet’s engines, although that contract later went to Pratt & Whitney Canada, and for a time Williams housed Eclipse’s engineering offices.) There we were shown a model of the small, six-seat, 6,000-pound twinjets the company intended to sell for $950,000 apiece.
That amazing price was possible, our hosts assured us, because of the economics of scale—Eclipse planned to build 1,000 airplanes per year using a variety of highly automated processes—and the great discounts they expected from suppliers, including us. As gently as possible, I told them that 90 percent off the list price probably wasn’t realistic.
“You just don’t get our vision,” snapped Eclipse’s supply-chain guy. And he was right. The vision I got was of my boss’s boot up my backside if I went for the deal. Flying home, we just shook our heads.
Fast-forward to December 2007: Now an aviation writer, I rolled into Albuquerque and headed for Eclipse Aviation’s hangar complex. The airplane had obtained FAA certification in September 2006 and the manufacturer had begun deliveries shortly thereafter. By then the rumors had been circulating for almost two years that Eclipse was about to make a $1 billion hole in the desert, and what I saw that day did nothing to dissuade me from that thought. Airplanes were on the assembly line, but no one was moving about with any urgency. The whole place had a funereal atmosphere. And then I got to the back shops and flight test. Virtually new airplanes were being repainted and having their windshields replaced. Indeed, Eclipse was forced to retrofit already delivered aircraft with a wide variety of modifications due to safety and performance issues. Manufacturing rework kills cash flow like nothing else. Tests for approval for flight-into-known-icing conditions remained incomplete. Customers were not getting what they had been promised and suppliers were not being paid.
Months later, it all came undone. Eclipse stumbled along a few more months with new management and emergency cash infusions, but still filed for bankruptcy in November 2008, listing more than $702 million in debts to investors, suppliers and customers who saw their deposits vaporize. The month before, veteran Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia called Eclipse “the single worst aviation program” his company has ever covered. “It isn’t the aircraft itself,” Aboulafia said. “Rather, it was a business plan that makes no sense, except to attract investors who don’t know much about the aviation business.”
He was spot-on. The airplane was fine, even exceptional in many ways: 1,125-nautical-mile range, 370-knot top speed and low direct operating costs. No one knew this better than Eclipse customers Mason Holland and Mike Press, who put together a $40 million package to buy Eclipse’s assets out of bankruptcy liquidation in August 2009 and rename the company Eclipse Aerospace. Their immediate task was to support the 260 aircraft already in the field with maintenance and upgrades. In 2011, Eclipse made a big move to assure its future: it secured a minority investment from helicopter-maker Sikorsky, part of global colossus United Technologies, also the parent company of Pratt & Whitney Canada, the company that makes the Eclipse’s engines. Beyond cash, the Sikorsky investment brought seasoned aerospace executives to Eclipse’s board and opened up Sikorsky’s massive worldwide supply chain to Eclipse, according to Holland. All this is good news for Eclipse owners and the future of the airplane.
Beyond providing maintenance and support, Eclipse entered into a pilot-training agreement with SimCom; provided enhanced windshield and numerous avionics upgrades, including the Avio integrated flight management system (IFMS) by Innovative Solutions & Support; obtained flight-into-known-icing and 41,000-foot-maximum-altitude approval from the FAA; instituted an aircraft insurance program; and launched the Total Eclipse aircraft remanufacturing program. For $2.15 million, customers receive a completely remanufactured aircraft with fresh factory warranty, new paint, new interior, the Avio IFMS, an engine service plan and replacement of what Holland called “infant mortality parts.” That program is coming to an end this year.
Remanufacturing was the first step toward starting all-new aircraft production later this year. The new aircraft will have the same airframe and engines as the 500, but will be called Eclipse 550 and sell for $2.695 million. Like the 500, the 550 will be certified for single-pilot operation. Cockpit avionics upgrades include synthetic and enhanced vision; sharper, more powerful display screens; a separate avionics standby display unit; dual integrated flight-management systems; and autothrottles for smoother, more efficient engine operation. Pilots also will enjoy the new electronic antilock brakes.
The upgraded cabin features higher-grade, piped leathers; finished carpets; more robust table and cup-holder attachments; better hand rails; a one-piece headliner that improves aesthetics; portable server; iPad and Bluetooth connectivity; and an intercom system for pilot-passenger communications. Holland said there are no plans to offer airborne Internet at this time, but he expects to see demand for that as prices drop. Eclipses are offered with Iridium satphones capable of transmitting aircraft engine data for monitoring.
“This is already one of the quietest aircraft interiors out there,” said Holland, “but the 550 is just so much tighter.”
Plans call for the 550’s airframe and wings eventually to be manufactured at Sikorsky unit PZL Mielec in Poland and shipped to Eclipse’s main plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for final assembly. Eclipse recently completed airframe fatigue tests that should give it validation for 20,000 cycles, or nearly 40 years of normal use.
Eclipse intends to open more company-owned service centers this year in the West, South and Northeast U.S., joining existing company centers in Albuquerque and Chicago and an independent center in Boca Raton, Florida (Boca Aviation). “With those new centers, we’ll be able to cover 98 percent of our U.S. owners with a one-hour-and-20-minute flight,” Holland said. Plans are going forward to offer 550 customers an hourly maintenance program.
The 550 will be the only factory production twinjet available for under $3 million and will boast operating costs below those of a new single-engine piston aircraft in select markets, such as Europe, Holland said. Direct hourly operating costs (fuel, maintenance, engine reserves) in the U.S. are between $650 and $700 an hour, he said. That makes the Eclipse less expensive to operate per nautical mile than even some single-engine turboprops. Pilots routinely see fuel burns at maximum cruise altitude of less than 60 gallons an hour and can easily use runways shorter than 3,000 feet. Granted, the passenger cabin is somewhat tight, the luggage compartment is little better than a shelf, and there is no lavatory, but with those numbers, who cares? Back in 1999, I thought the concept of an “affordable” jet was a mirage; it’s really an Eclipse.
AT A GLANCE
Price: $2.695 million
Passengers: (typical): 4-5
Range: 1,125 nm
Maximum cruising speed: 370 knots
Fuel capacity: 251 gallons
Cabin Length: 12.4 feet
Cabin Height: 4.2 feet
Cabin Width: 4.8 feet
Luggage compartment: 16 cubic feet
Source: Eclipse Aerospace