Eclipse 500 mockup in front
of company headquarters
Friction stir welding
Mockup of the redesigned
Eclipse 500 with PW610F engines
Feb. 20, 2004 - Eclipse Aviation, established in 1998 to develop a new class of Very Light Jet (VLJ) aircraft, is now on flight plan after absorbing disappointing results from its intended power plants that might have terminated lesser start-up companies. Forced back to the drawing boards when the Williams EJ22, a radically new lightweight turbofan, failed to meet the airframe manufacturer's expectations following first flight of the twin jet Model 500 on July 26, 2002, founder Vern Raburn and his engineering team looked to Pratt & Whitney Canada for a solution.
Flight tests of the Eclipse design resumed in March 2003 with two experimental Teledyne Continental 382-10E jets, which power the Harpoon missile. More than $88 million of fresh capital was acquired and the airplane underwent a redesign to accept the new PW610F engines, a 90-percent scale version of the PW615F designated to power Cessna's Mustang VLJ. While the PW610 is slightly heavier and thirstier than the EJ22, it is projected to increase the Eclipse 500's speed to 375 knots and maintain the aircraft's range and useful load. Slowed by the setback but undaunted in its belief that it would succeed, Eclipse expects first flight of a PW610F-powered Eclipse by December, with FAA certification in March 2006. First deliveries will follow almost immediately.
"Our vision at Eclipse is to change the way people travel," said Raburn. "We want to bring a significantly lower cost of acquisition and operation to general aviation, and at the same time make it easier for pilots transitioning into jets, safely and successfully. We are addressing the widening performance gap between corporate aviation and the rest of GA. With the Eclipse 500, we are creating a better value proposition, where cost and performance are better aligned."
Part of the lower cost strategy is achieved by using modern manufacturing methods, such as friction stir welding. Eclipse plans to dedicate its new friction stir welding center at its Albuquerque, New Mexico, headquarters this March. An alternative to riveting, friction stir welding is an automated process of using heat to bond two pieces of metal. Eclipse is the first to use such a technique in general aviation aircraft manufacturing. The automated processes will allow Eclipse to reach the high manufacturing rates, capable of exceeding 1,000 aircraft per year, it needs to produce the 500 at the price of $950,000.
Priced at one quarter the acquisition cost of the least expensive business jet currently offered by airframe manufacturers and anticipating one-half the operating costs, the Eclipse 500 is expected to be popular with operators who wish to replace existing equipment. Raburn also believes the aircraft's revolutionary cost/performance relationship will attract new buyers to the market. The Eclipse order book currently tops 2,000 orders with about 25 percent of those sold to owner-pilots and the rest to fleet customers. To date, fewer than 10 aircraft are earmarked for corporate flight departments. Within three or so years following the aircraft entering service, however, Raburn anticipates most new orders for the Model 500s will be from commercial or possibly corporate operators. At its current facilities Eclipse can produce up to four aircraft per day.
With more than 250,000 square feet of production and office space, production commitments from such industry leaders as Fuji Heavy Industry (for completed wings), about 260 employees, more than $325 million in capital, a $30 million line of credit, and zero debt, Eclipse appears well on its way toward launching a new era in general aviation. - John W. Olcott