What says even more good things is the company's new relationship with Sikorsky. The United Technologies Corp. helicopter manufacturer has purchased a large share of Eclipse Aerospace — Sikorsky head Jeff Pino is an Eclipse owner. The association brings to Eclipse Sikorsky's world-class parts distribution and service network to supplement Eclipse's existing factory service centers. Perhaps most importantly for many of those who had questions about the viability of the new Eclipse, the Sikorsky relationship will answer them.
Today Eclipse Aerospace — the company, by the way, owns the name Eclipse Aviation too — claims to be stable and debt-free, two things you could never say about the original.
I spent a couple of days at the factory with the executive team. Aviation veteran and day-to-day head of operations President Ken Ross, who ably flew the EA500 on our photo mission, showed me around the plant, and it is an impressive installation. Flying, for the record, had never been invited to Albuquerque to visit or to fly the airplane, I presume because of our editorial stand on the program. So this was my first visit.
The state-of-the-art facility — which consists of a number of hangars, executive offices, a delivery center and more — is beautiful and huge. The current staff of some 120 workers is bouncing around in it. The bottom line is that there's nothing but room for growth.
Right now, like every aircraft manufacturer, Eclipse is in a bit of a holding pattern, doing what work it has but keeping its expenses as low as practical in the process while waiting for the economy to recover and for business to pick up. It does have the advantage of having a lot of work to do in gearing up for an eventual return to production of the EA500, something it hopes for in the foreseeable future, though it is not naming any timetable for that re-entry. This seems smart considering the uncertain nature of the hoped-for economic turnaround.
In the meantime, Eclipse continues to rehab existing Eclipse airplanes for owners, bringing them up to the current production standards, which include a long list of improvements. It's also buying EA500s, including a number that used to belong to per-seat charter provider DayJet, refurbishing them and placing them on the used market. Most have just a couple of hundred hours on them and go to customers with fresh paint and all the latest modifications. I looked through a couple and flew a third, and I couldn't tell they weren't new airplanes. The quality of the work is top-notch.
What is an Eclipse?
Though it seems in some ways as though the world's smallest production twinjet has been around forever, it's been only 10 years since the project was hatched.
The airplane itself is a remarkable thing. It's small, which is the whole idea behind the model, you know. Weighing in at exactly 6,000 pounds maximum takeoff weight, the EA500 weighs just 500 pounds more than a Beech Baron yet flies at 370 knots, compared with 202. While it might sound like a lot of weight, it's not. Indeed, the engineering accomplishment is unprecedented. To build an airplane that weighs just 6,000 pounds, flies 370 knots, has a long-range cruise of around 1,200 nm, carries five to six people and flies up to 41,000 feet is absolutely remarkable. The wonder isn't that the airplane took so long to get built but that it got built at all.
The EA500 is an all-metal airplane powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney PW610F-A fadec engines producing 900 pounds of thrust apiece. The engines, as you'll note the next time you sidle up to an Eclipse, are very small; the inlets are not much larger, in fact, than a medium-size dinner plate. The flight controls — ailerons and elevators — are operated via sidesticks and connect to the controls through mechanical push rods and control cables. No boosted controls here. Trim switches atop the sidesticks operate the elevator and aileron trim. There is a yaw damper as well.
The airplane looks like a bizjet, just scaled down by half or more. The T-tail in back and low wing and fuselage mounted engines all look completely conventional, and in truth, the EA500 isn't about inventing a new shape as much as it is about taking that familiar shape and scaling it down, which turned out to be a billion-dollar exercise. The result is a very pretty airplane, and one that features economies of operation previously unknown in the turbofan world. Eclipse estimates direct operating costs of around $600 an hour, and even if that's a little optimistic, there's no existing jet that comes close.
The airplane sits low to the ground, as countless other airplanes with propellers would if ground clearance weren't an issue. The main gear is trailing link, designed to be tough and to deliver predictably easy arrivals. The brakes are standard hydraulic affairs and deliver at best adequate performance.
Fully approved icing protection is now standard, and before too long the vast majority of Eclipses will have it installed. It uses pneumatic boots for the wing leading edges and horizontal stabilizer, an electrically heated windshield and bleed-air anti-ice on the engine inlets.
The entry door is a thing of beauty, light, compact and easy to operate. The cabin is, as you should expect on a 6,000-pound airplane, compact. The seats, however, are nicely done, and the noise level is low, especially toward the front of the cabin.
The cockpit is impeccably styled. The seats are comfortable and highly adjustable, though the headroom will be tight for tall pilots. My Bose A20s occasionally bumped the ceiling, though the good news is that the airplane is so quiet that you don't need them. Smart pilots will get their seats adjusted just right before buckling in, though, because the fore and aft and riser handles can be hard to reach. Along the side of the headrest are quick-don oxygen masks; they are compact and easy to access, a brilliant solution to a small-cockpit problem. If you like the dozens of rows of switches and breakers on the overheads of vintage airliners, you'll be disappointed with the EA500, which has on its overhead just a pair of switches, the ones you use to start the engines.
Dominating the cockpit are the three big displays, two portrait-format PFDs and a multifunction display in the center. The system has been updated to the point that it has much of the capability that owners of early airplanes were hollering for, including dual GPS navigators and coupled autopilot. The displays are the centerpieces of Eclipse's integrated cockpit concept, an incredibly innovative and ambitious design for a small airplane. The system keeps track of all the engine parameters, the fuel system, electricals (themselves a tremendously advanced and ambitious design), ice protection, climate control, pressurization and more. Even the majority of the airplane's circuit breakers are electronic.