My first takeoff out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the EA500 was anything but an anticlimax. We'd just finished up our pre-takeoff check and Jerry Chambers, Eclipse Aerospace's chief pilot, was giving me some last-minute advice on the takeoff when the tower came with a takeoff clearance, "No delay for landing 737 traffic, three-mile final."
So without delay, I added a burst of power, turned the corner and rolled in the power. We accelerated smartly, and the wide runway at ABQ whizzed by beside us. I smiled and pulled back on the sidestick to rotate. We were flying.
It was a moment for which I'd been waiting for years.
A Little History
It's impossible to talk about the Eclipse 500 without talking about its turbulent history. And it's impossible for us to talk about it without going into the history of this magazine's coverage of the airplane.
Like everyone else in GA, we were swept up in the furor that was the introduction, more than 10 years ago now, of the Eclipse 500. While it was my former boss, Mac McClellan, who took the point, I was there on the front lines as well from day one. I looked on and photographed the Burt Rutan-designed Williams V-Jet that begat the Eclipse on its first Oshkosh appearance. Like everyone else I was mesmerized by the idea of a very light jet, an airplane that would distill the spirit of a jet into an airplane sized right for pilots of high-performance GA piston singles and twins.
The hype was overwhelming, and lots of people bought in, literally and figuratively. But no matter how optimistic you were about the economics or the physics, the numbers just didn't add up. Mac came out right off the bat and said in print what many other experts were saying among themselves.
It wouldn't work.
As proposed, the Eclipse jet, he said, would never fly. Its Williams engines were too small to work. The speeds and weights were unobtainable. The FARs, which require a minimum single-engine climb gradient for jets, would submarine the hopes of such a low-powered, light twinjet. And finally, Mac said, the economics proposed by the company — pinning its hopes on building 2,000 jets a year to be used by a yet-to-be-created industry of per-seat charter providers that would shuttle folks all over the United States in Eclipse jets — were pure fantasy. Moreover, he continued, even if it were true that Eclipse would build 2,000 jets a year, it wouldn't achieve even close to the production efficiencies needed to get the cost down to a million dollars, never mind around $800,000, which was the originally proposed price of the jet. (Had someone overlooked the fact that the company had to install not one but two jet engines on the airplane?)
His honesty cost us, big. While Eclipse was, in Mac's words, "spending lavishly" with its ad dollars around the industry, it snubbed Flying.
The problem was, Mac was right on every count. The Williams engines, Eclipse later said, turned out to be a financially disastrous work in progress, one that required a midprogram switch to new engines, from Pratt & Whitney. With the switch to the Pratt engines (which can be rightfully credited with saving the airplane if not the program) came new design changes. Performance goals were slipping, and the weight was increasing. As the program progressed, the company's hopes of meeting the minimum required single-engine climb performance looked bleak. To meet performance guarantees of weight and range, the company had to redo the tip tanks to add fuel and meet lightning strike standards; it had to then rework the aerodynamics, to cut drag.
The good news was, the modifications were working. The performance was on track. But by then it was too late.
It was at that point clear that the central economic premise on which Eclipse's hopes were pinned — high production due to a vast new air taxi market — wasn't panning out. The company at one point claimed around 2,500 orders for the jet, but many of those were big orders placed by start-up air taxi operators, like DayJet, which at one point had orders for 1,400 Eclipse jets — it would eventually take delivery of 28. Even by the time the FAA granted the airplane an extraordinary provisional certificate just in time for Oshkosh in 2006, the design was still a work in progress, and those first customers in late 2006 took delivery of an airplane that cost Eclipse a lot more to produce than it was selling it for. Never mind making up on the initial investment.
Still, we all watched in disbelief as customers and many in the press continued to buy into the dream. The program was even handed the 2005 Collier Trophy, an honor that had been the most prestigious award in aviation, one that supposedly recognized a real-world achievement. At that point, we at Flying could only shake our heads. Inextricably mated, hope and denial ran deep.
In the end, the company produced 259 airplanes, many of which weren't close to being completed to the eventual standard. Most were delivered without approved icing protection. Amazingly, for an airplane that pinned its reputation on high technology, many Eclipses came out of the factory without GPS. It's true that for a time Eclipse was delivering its business jets with a handheld GPS for direct-to guidance.
In the end the money ran out, and the crash was spectacular, the largest failure in GA history, a $1 billion failure that devastated investors, suppliers, employees and customers.
Picking Up the Pieces
As Eclipse Aviation was walking out the door, the winning bidder, Eclipse Aerospace, a loose coalition of former customers headed by businessman Mason Holland that paid just $40 million for the company as the only bidder, was walking in. And it got right down to the difficult business of trying to get the company to the point, at least at first, where it could get parts to its customers and bring the fleet up to the still-emerging final configuration.
The philosophical differences between the former and current Eclipse couldn't be more striking. While many existing customers were hoping for the new company to make them whole, to keep the promises of the former Eclipse, the new company went into the process with eyes wide open. It was there to fix airplanes and, it hoped one day, to make new airplanes. As much as it felt the pain of the victims of the first regime, giving away parts or work made no sense if it were to survive. This was, as you might imagine, not a popular stance with many owners and deposit holders, though it's impossible to imagine a scenario in which the new company could have made existing Eclipse owners, not to mention former deposit holders, happy. It was the kind of sober financial calculation that says good things about a company's prospects.