That appeal today is represented, I’d argue, solely by Eclipse. Every other would-be very light jet, whether a twin or a single, is either still working its way with great pains through the funding or development stages — these include Piper’s Altaire, Cirrus’ Vision SF50 and Diamond Aircraft’s Diamond Jet. Others, designs from Safire, Adam and Epic, are forgotten. When all is said and done, the Eclipse jet will have beaten the next VLJ into service by five years, and it could very easily be longer than that, maybe a lot longer.
The new Eclipse has done a lot of things right. It has aligned itself, for one, with an existing aircraft manufacturer, Sikorsky, which today owns a sizable minority percentage of the company. Sikorsky, a world-class manufacturer of helicopters for commercial operators and the military, understands certification, production, support and aircraft life cycles in ways that investment firms, however diligently they do their homework, can’t possibly fathom.
In addition, Eclipse has set the stage smartly for this next phase by fixing its original product, which it turned into a commercial venture instead of a charitable one by refurbishing existing EA500s and selling them as airplanes that are, for all intents and purposes, as good as new. In so doing, it developed a lot of experience doing most of the same things it will find itself doing when it relaunches production, and it’s made a little money in the process too.
Eclipse’s future looks solid now too because the Eclipse 550 looks that way. It’s got a workable engine. It has a satisfying avionics package, and it’s backed by a company that knows the industry and can support the airplane as owners need it to be supported.
The Eclipse 550 will also have a sensible sticker price of $2.7 million. That price point, while approximately 3½ times higher than that first floated by Eclipse a decade ago, will still be competitive in the marketplace in all likelihood while making money for its manufacturer. And it will do that without having to posit a brave new world where flocks of small jets will be turning the skies black to satisfy the needs of a new breed of air traveler who would abandon the airlines in droves to fly in Eclipses. (Did that ever sound possible?)
No, instead Eclipse will be successful, it says, if it can find 50 to 100 buyers a year, folks who love to fly and who have the means to buy their own small jet. There will surely be charter customers as well, not new-paradigm startups imagining new ways of doing business but outfits that will fly their Eclipse 550s in similar ways as they have been flying Caravans, King Airs and Learjets for decades.
It’s the kind of realistic approach to the airplane and its continued survival that has led to its imminent rebirth.
Then again, it bears repeating that the most important thing the new company has done to set the stage for its success is to start with an airplane, however imperfect, that is already certified. Like it or not, without the largess of the first regime, there would be no Eclipse jet to begin building again. The grand magic act that was the creation, development and certification of the Eclipse jet, a 6,000-pound twinjet with some of the most sophisticated systems ever installed in a private jet (never mind a small private jet) staggers the imagination even today. If it hadn’t been for Vern Raburn and his wild-eyed dreams for his beloved little jet, there wouldn’t be an Eclipse 500 to be resurrected. If not for Vern and the many fine folks that believed in that dream along with him, such a truly personal jet would have been forever buried within the imaginations of pilots like you and me, vainly wishing that someone would build such a craft. I’m glad that someone did and that someone is going to keep doing it.