__At the NBAA convention in October, I got to be on hand to witness one of the most significant events in the 20 years I’ve been an aviation journalist: the official rebirth of the Eclipse jet. Eclipse Aerospace — the company that bought the remnants of the original Eclipse out of bankruptcy — announced that it was going to resume production of the Eclipse jet beginning in 2013. While the news is hardly surprising, since the company has said all along that its eventual goal was to begin building Eclipse jets again when the time was right, it was nevertheless very satisfying while underscoring the difficulties present in bringing all-new airplanes to market in this day and age.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the moves that Eclipse has made since restarting limited operations shortly after the curtains closed on the opening act. The new team’s conservative approach to the product stands in stark contrast to the way the original manufacturer did business.
The new jet, which the company is calling the Eclipse 550 to distinguish it from the original, is, as far as the FAA is concerned, still the same model as before.
Even so, Eclipse has improved it in numerous ways, including updating the avionics to resemble something you’d expect to see in a modern jet. Buyers of new Eclipses will get as standard or optional equipment synthetic and enhanced vision systems, dual digital FMSes, WAAS navigation and autothrottles. That latter still sounds a bit like science fiction to me: autothrottles in an airplane little bigger than a Baron, an airplane around 40,000 pounds lighter than the next model we know of to be outfitted with automatic thrust levers.
Now that Pratt & Whitney and Eclipse have solved the carbon buildup issue on the jet’s small engines, the airplane is cleared to fly to the limits of its impressive normal operating envelope — 370 knots and FL 410 — allowing it to do what it was designed to do from the start, provide economical and swift jet travel to pilots looking to lose the props and fly space-age style. That might sound a bit silly in this jaded data-is-everything age, but the allure of the truly personal jet is real.
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.
Efficiency, the New Currency
We get e-mails occasionally from readers who are upset that new airplanes cost so much. Before I go further, I’d like to make one thing clear: It’s not my fault.
The fact is that I’d like as much as the next guy, probably more than the next guy, for there to be brand-new $50,000 four-seaters plying the airways at 200 knots with glass panels and enough payload to carry four and bags. It sounds like an amazing airplane. Unfortunately, it’s an impossible dream, a lesson that even the most optimistic malcontents among us must have learned from our shared LSA experiment. I knew going in that any reasonably capable, commercially viable LSA was going to cost well north of $100,000, and they all do. And this, remember, is for an airplane that carries no more than two occupants, goes no faster than 120 knots and is by regulation a very light airplane — a Cessna 150 is too much airplane to qualify as an LSA. It just costs a lot of money to develop, certify and produce an airplane, any airplane. And if the manufacturer wants to make a profit on that endeavor, it’s going to have to mark up the product accordingly.
While the battle for a truly inexpensive new airplane might be lost, at least until a new means of propulsion becomes a practical alternative, we stand to see real progress in terms of efficiency. The Pipistrel Virus SW that Peter Garrison discusses in his feature article (page 40) is the standard-bearer for that goal. At a true airspeed far faster than any LSA’s, it can deliver fuel economy of around 55 mpg, nearly four times better than that of a standard-issue sport utility vehicle.
While Pipistrel achieves this remarkable performance by making smart design choices, let’s face it: It’s not the first company to figure out the costs and compromises necessary to make airplanes that can go a long way on a tank of fuel. And it’s not the first company to use carbon fiber, Rotax engines or long slender wings. Unlike most of its competitors, however, it has exhibited a single-minded commitment to making the goal of efficiency a reality, a commitment that resulted in Pipistrel walking away with a $1.3 million prize in NASA’s Green Challenge.
Pipistrel’s winning entry in that contest was the electric-powered Taurus G4. With twin fuselages and seating compartments and a 75-foot sailplane wing, the G4 is about as commercially viable as a pet possum. The hope, though, is for Pipistrel to take the lessons learned on the airplane and translate them to airplanes that people might actually buy and fly; one might argue that airplane is the Virus.
An even better bet might be the in-the-works Panthera, a sexy four-seater that Pipistrel is developing as we speak. Another candidate for the real next generation of light airplanes is the explosively named Flight Design C4, an intriguing design that Flight Design claims will be able to carry four full-size adults and full fuel and cruise at around 160 knots for 1,200 no-wind miles.
Neither airplane will go out the door for $50,000, that’s for sure, though Flight Design has a promised price for the C4 of just $250,000. If it can really deliver a decent flying airplane that makes good on the performance numbers it’s shooting for, and at that price, it’ll sell a lot of airplanes while putting a lot of pressure on competitors old and new to dramatically boost the performance, utility and efficiency of their airplanes while at the same time aggressively cutting prices.
That’s the kind of change that could breathe new life into the new-airplane game.