The crisp Michigan air afforded a visibility of at least 30 or 40 miles as we approached Mackinac Island (KMCD) in Ken Ross’ Eclipse 550, N140NE. The airplane sported a jazzy black-and-gold paint job that already had me thinking the flight would be different from the one I’d taken in the original Eclipse nearly eight years earlier from Chicago Executive Airport. Sitting in the right seat and with me in the left, Ross suggested we shoot the GPS Runway 26 Approach at KMCD to give me ample time to align with the island’s single runway, a strip that can be tough to pick out on this island community where the trees easily outnumber the people.
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The approach plate reminded me that KMCD’s runway is a moderately lengthy 3,501 feet. The Eclipse jet had no reversers and no speed brakes, just anti-lock brakes — a bit different from the bigger hardware I’d been flying. We calculated a ref speed of 95 knots in calm winds. A few miles out on final approach, I pressed the microphone button on the side-stick that the aircraft uses in place of a control wheel, announcing my position as “an Eclipse jet.” A guy in a 172 on downwind was nice enough to say he’d follow the jet. Close in, I checked that the runway was clear, and we touched down close to ref and not far from the numbers. I got on the brakes and the airplane came to a quick halt — long before midfield. I taxied up to the first intersection and turned south toward the ramp. Clear of the runway, I looked at Ross, who just smiled. “Stops real nice” was all he said. The brakes were all we needed to stop the jet in what I estimated to be about 1,200 feet.
I’d flown the original Eclipse 500 in 2009, and it honestly hadn’t impressed me all that much. The cockpit had a patchwork of avionics, and there was no approval for known icing, an issue I found odd for an airplane with a 41,000-foot ceiling. But then, too, Eclipse Aviation had recently succumbed to the 2008 recession, and things seemed a bit disorganized. The aircraft I flew in 2009 was an asset acquired by Ross and his investor colleague Mason Holland when they and a number of other investors purchased what was left of Vern Raburn’s original idea for a very light mass-production jet. Raburn’s price goal a decade earlier had been less than $1 million a copy, a prediction that never materialized. The new company that formed in 2009 became Eclipse Aerospace, with a goal of finishing the production work on the Eclipse jets orphaned by the bankruptcy and selling them at a profit, which of course demanded a higher price.
The new Eclipse Aerospace, however, offered buyers the chance at a real jet for the price increase. Late in 2014, the company delivered the first new Eclipse 550, equipped with autothrottles, anti-skid brakes and the integrated Innovative Solutions & Support avionics system, which essentially runs everything on the airplane to minimize pilot workload. The 550 comes standard with a traditional flight management system, as well as a full-authority digital engine control to keep the Pratt & Whitney PW610Fs humming along nicely.
In 2015, Eclipse Aerospace morphed into another new company, One Aviation, headed by Alan Klapmeier, one of the two brothers who created Cirrus Aircraft. The new company, in which shareholders from Eclipse Aerospace and Kestrel brought all their stock together for a larger goal, is now responsible for all things Eclipse and, someday, for Klapmeier’s single-engine Kestrel turboprop. Ross, One Aviation’s president, told me before we departed for Mackinac that the company is now focused on the Eclipse 550 and the follow-on airplane, the Garmin G3000-equipped, tip-tankless Eclipse, currently code-named Project Canada. (Klapmeier told me, “We had to call it something,” when I asked him about the name.) One Aviation is producing about one and a half new airplanes per month at the Albuquerque factory, all of which are spoken for, Ross said.
The price for a new Eclipse 550 is $2.9 million complete. Eclipse sees its customers as pilots ready to move up from a Cirrus SR22 or Piper Malibu (now the M350) or a generation of older piston airplanes. Who wouldn’t want a jet that can be owner-flown to altitudes of 41,000 feet and to cruise speeds in the 360- to 370-knot range, carrying three people about 1,000 nm on 50 gallons of fuel per hour?
Certainly, the Eclipse suffered and continues to suffer from being a tiny jet by comparison with other manufacturers’ products. That can cause some potential buyers to eschew the airplane without giving it much of a chance. Then, too, there is the company’s dynamic business history, which has convinced some potential buyers that Eclipse might not survive much longer. Some folks I spoke with didn’t even know Eclipse was back in business after the bankruptcy. But no matter the company name, Eclipse did survive and has thrived while other manufacturers have closed up shop.
Eclipse employs a serious custom-tailored training program so owners can ensure they’re ready for a jet long before they head out on their own. In fact, Eclipse buyers must agree to complete the factory training program or one approved by the FAA, as well as accept some mentoring time in the airplane, similar to the initial operating experience (IOE) airlines use for newly type-rated pilots. With nearly 300 Eclipse aircraft flying around the world, the airplane’s safety record is second to none, with only one fatal accident in Africa last year to blemish the record. Pilot incapacitation is considered a likely cause of that crash.
While I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I arrived to fly with Ross and One Aviation’s director of operations, Mike Vaupell, my round-robin trip to Mackinac Island with a quick stop in Holland, Michigan, before heading back to Chicago convinced me that N140NE was not simply a repackaged version of the airplane I’d flown years before. The Eclipse 550 Ross and I flew in September is a worthy move-up aircraft for those who yearn for the sweet smell of kerosene and the rarefied air in the flight levels.
On the Way Back to Chicago
After a brief lunch and a longer horse-drawn carriage ride back to the airport at Mackinac (no cars allowed on the island), we briefed for the next leg down to Holland. This time Vaupell took the right seat to talk me through some of the airwork we’d try on the way south, as well as explain the training regimen Eclipse created.
The weather was still solid VFR with a few high clouds to the south. Carrying the same three people as on the original trip from Chicago, but now with about 300 pounds less fuel, I calculated the Eclipse would require about 2,000 feet for takeoff. The airplane confirmed the takeoff configuration was OK with a single notch of the aircraft’s Fowler flaps required. I held the brakes, brought up the power halfway and checked the automatic power reserve (APR) (a system to boost engine power if one quits during takeoff) before I pushed the throttles to the stops. The Eclipse’s auto-throttles aren’t available on takeoff, though they will kick in at 400 feet when the system is armed and the APR is essentially no longer needed. With an 83-knot rotation speed, I planned to pitch about 10 degrees nose-up after takeoff to match the flight director’s command bars. We left the ground in about 1,500 feet, and I retracted the flaps at 400 feet. At the lighter weight, acceleration was brisk, and we were soon indicating 200 knots in a 3,100 fpm climb, burning about 1,000 pounds per hour. But that fuel flow dropped pretty quickly as we climbed.
As we headed southwestward, Vaupell discussed some of the airplane’s takeoff performance on one engine. I slowed the aircraft to the 120-knot range for a modified version of a single-engine demo. Pulling one engine back as we passed 9,500 feet showed that once the aircraft was cleaned up, loss of an engine created very little in the way of directional control problems. Certainly the aircraft was light, but the rate of climb never fell below 500 fpm. An added benefit of the Eclipse’s APR being armed at takeoff was that, should one engine quit, the APR would allow the good engine to add every ounce of power possible for the remainder of the takeoff.
As I brought both engines back to climb power, I decided to stop at 12,500 feet to stay clear of the cloud bases, and set the airspeed at 180 knots to try some steep turns. At this speed, a 30-degree bank of course requires back pressure to maintain altitude, as well as a power boost of 2 or 3 percent over the 72 percent I’d been holding. In an age of fly-by-wire systems on many new, larger jets, steep turns in the 45-degree angle-of-bank regime demand that the pilot use some muscle, and of course some trim, to maintain altitude. This is when most pilots will remember the Eclipse’s flight controls are mechanical and connected to the elevator and ailerons through the sidestick. Returning to level flight simply requires rolling out some of the elevator trim and reducing the power. After a few tries, I felt as though I could have handled them to ATP standards.
Because loss of control in flight is still the major cause of fatalities in aircraft of all categories, the Eclipse 550 was designed to warn and take action should pilots approach a critically high angle of attack. The Eclipse employs an underspeed protection system that uses the autopilot even if the autopilot isn’t engaged. If the aircraft senses a stall with the autopilot engaged, however, it will automatically disconnect, but not before it pitches the nose down. The pitch down certainly isn’t stress-inducing, but it’s enough to keep the aircraft flying and get the PIC’s attention. Then, as the aircraft approaches a critical angle of attack, the background audio begins warning, “Stall, stall.” About then, the autothrottles will also kick in and bring up the power to initiate a recovery.
In case you somehow still miss these warning signals and perhaps continue to add back pressure, when the wing is crying out for a lower angle of attack, the Eclipse has a final attention-grabbing trick in store, wherein the aircraft’s stick pusher kicks in and dramatically shoves the nose down. Holding the stick back, as I did for the demo, also shows off the significant wing buffet the pilot will feel before the wing stops flying.
Eclipse has worked hard to be sure no one misses all the cues, but the training program still requires a new Eclipse owner to complete an upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT) program before arriving for flight training. Eclipse offers owners a list of a dozen or so UPRT providers to choose from to complete this element of the syllabus.
A Sully-Like Experience
The week I flew N140NE with Ross and Vaupell turned out to be just a week after the release of Clint Eastwood’s film Sully, the story of the successful ditching of an Airbus A320 in New York’s Hudson River in 2009. In general cockpit conversation with Vaupell, I happened to ask how well the Eclipse would glide if both engines rolled back. He thought it might do pretty well, although he couldn’t quite remember the performance specifically. We decided to try a descent toward Holland’s West Michigan Regional Airport (KBIV) with both engines at idle power. While VFR at 12,500 feet, headed toward KBIV, I set up the GPS for a Runway 26 approach for guidance, although we clearly wouldn’t need it to get down. Approaching LOPIC, the initial approach fix from the north, I pulled both throttles back to idle thrust and maintained altitude as the airplane slowed to the best glide speed of about 120 knots.
I tracked the approach course inbound so we’d have an accurate measure of the distance to the threshold. By the time I turned inbound toward the runway, about 13 miles out, we were descending at 500 fpm, not a great deal more than what I’d seen a few weeks before in a sailplane with an 83-foot wingspan and a 53-to-1 glide ratio. The Eclipse wingspan is just shy of 38 feet. Not much changed on the way in toward Holland — just a nice, gentle descent in a totally controllable airplane, at least until I reached about a 5-mile final, when I realized I needed drag to lose altitude. I lowered the gear and added the first notch of flaps. By the 2-mile final point, I added the second notch of flaps, and it was clear that even the Eclipse would need power at this point to make the runway. But I’d already proved what I wanted to.
After a touchdown and turnoff toward the brand-new FBO at KBIV, Vaupell and I agreed we easily could have made the runway with the engines at idle all the way down if I’d known the aircraft a bit better. Total distance from power-back until I added some power to make the landing was about 22 nm laterally and 10,000 feet vertically. While I doubt anyone is going to buy an Eclipse 550 for its talents as a glider, the demonstration added to my confidence in the airplane under zero-thrust conditions. I chalked it up to knowledge I might need again someday. And this kind of practical experience is how the Eclipse people like to train and retrain pilots, I learned.
While the line crew was feeding the Eclipse with jet-A, Vaupell and I talked about the Eclipse training program, which features a boutique-like philosophy. The company understands that not all pilots arrive with the same experience or learn at the same pace. The Eclipse training program doesn’t require pilots to fly the aircraft simulator, located at SimCom in Orlando, Florida, to receive a type rating. Pilots can purchase the aircraft and choose to complete all training in the airplane.
Vaupell pointed to a few pages in the Eclipse training guide that say: “The Eclipse Jet training program embraces the principle of real-world scenarios to train not only stick and rudder skills, but higher-order decision-making skills. The Eclipse Jet training program emphasizes concepts such as single-pilot resource management, risk management, aviation physiology, upset recovery [and] pilot-centered learning. Each student will plan and execute training flights and help evaluate the results. Unlike many conventional flight-training programs, One Aviation recognizes customers’ experience, knowledge and judgment, and respects their ability to demonstrate initiative during the training process.”
No matter how Eclipse owners arrive, the training program begins with them answering a series of questions about their flying experience and habits to more effectively personalize the training for how they do or will fly. Systems knowledge, normally fire-hose-delivered by the big training companies, can be gathered by Eclipse pilots online, long before the aircraft instructor and student meet in person. Part of the training also involves high-altitude physiology training, which can be accomplished in an altitude chamber or completed online, and, of course, the UPRT training block.
Vaupell said that if customers take the time to study the material before they arrive on-site, the training progresses quickly. The company’s high-tech cockpit-procedures trainer, affectionately known as “Vinnie II,” offers students plenty of opportunities to learn the buttonology for the avionics before the first engine start. Vaupell mentioned putting a 400-hour pilot through the program in eight days, but admitted that the fellow was a computer software guy who soaked up the material rather easily. He said two weeks is the norm to reach a type-rating ride, so long as the pilot is proficient at instrument flying. He also said that what makes the training easier is that Eclipse owners are excited about flying a jet after moving up from a Cirrus or a Meridian. One Aviation has a designated pilot examiner on staff in Chicago and at other locations.
Finally, once the pilot/owner successfully completes the type-rating course, Eclipse delivers the closest thing to an airline IOE along with its mentoring program. The amount of mentoring a new Eclipse pilot receives is based on his or her previous flying experience and training performance. The company emphasizes that mentoring is not intended as a second check ride, nor is it delivered in a pass/fail atmosphere. The Eclipse mentoring system is focused on providing practical guidance to pilots operating a jet in the high-altitude national airspace system, and in the kind of operating conditions the owners will actually fly when they’re alone. The mentor pilots are not there to help fly the airplane. They’re along for the ride to act as a guide in a high-altitude operating environment that’s new to many Eclipse buyers.
Ross said One Aviation also wants to be more holistic in its overall approach to selling an airplane, and not simply take the check and say goodbye. “We’ll provide you with the RVSM letter. We’ll give you as much or as little aircraft-management help as an owner needs,” he said. Whether for initial or recurrent training, One Aviation in Chicago handles sending instructors around the world to fly with owners. The company also organizes lifestyle-flying events that bring Eclipse owners together for flights to destinations for fun and some additional hands-on flying time. One Aviation is also heavily involved in the Eclipse Jet Owners and Pilots Association, Ross said.
The Bottom Line
The Eclipse 550 is not a large airplane by any stretch. It isn’t an international cabin cruiser, or even a jet capable of transcontinental flight — at least not without a few stops along the way. It doesn’t offer owners a fancy lavatory or a glittering galley or a video system to rival THX in the local theater. What the Eclipse 550 does offer is a reliable and safe twin-engine jet capable of regularly carrying two or three people 1,000 miles at speeds upward of 375 knots on miserly amounts of fuel. Compared with the original Eclipse I flew nearly eight years ago, the Eclipse 550 has a cockpit that is a truly integrated work of art, and which should make it easy for a well-trained pilot to operate the aircraft with confidence in IMC weather. Should the pilot’s abilities ever falter along the line, One Aviation makes it easy to find a mentor pilot to fly along for a few days of recurrent training.
Maintaining two engines is more expensive than one, but at a price of $2.99 million, or about $2 million for a remanufactured Eclipse SE, this airplane could well force many move-up owners to confront their flying habits head on. The ability to fly faster or carry more people and heavier loads farther is a great option to have waiting in the wings. But it’s also an option few owners actually use very often. If move-up buyers can get past their egos being caught up in a vast range of operational possibilities, they just might find that a twin-engine high-altitude jet like the Eclipse 550 is the way to go.
See more photos of the Eclipse 550 jet in our photo gallery.
|Engines||Pratt & Whitney PW610Fs (2)|
|Power||900 pounds of thrust each at SL|
|Maximum Operating Altitude||41,000 feet|
|Passenger Seats||Four to five|
|Cabin Length||12.3 feet|
|Cabin Height||4.2 feet|
|Cabin Width||4.6 feet|
|Max Baggage||120 pounds|
|Baggage Capacity||16 cubic feet|
|Max Ramp Weight||6,034 pounds|
|Max Takeoff Weight||6,000 pounds|
|Max Landing Weight||5,600 pounds|
|Empty Weight||3,634 pounds|
|Max Fuel Capacity||1,698 pounds|
|Useful Load||2,400 pounds|
|Range (with four passengers and reserves)||1,125 nm|
|Max Cruise Speed||375 knots|
|Max Differential Pressurization||8.7 psi|
|Cabin at 41,000 Feet||8,000 feet|
|Time to Climb to 41,000 Feet||29 minutes|