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Watershed Year


Eclipse Aviation endures rollercoaster year: 1k order pulled- engine disappoints- but Eclipse 500 flies.


There’s no getting around the fact that 2002 was a watershed year for three-year-old Eclipse Aviation- developer of the Eclipse 500 microjet. In fact- along with the watershed analogy you could also blend the roller-coaster view – there have been ups and downs for the fledgling company. That combination would make the year more like one of those log-flume rides at the amusement park- the one that always climaxes with a long slide down ensuring the occupants are drenched at the end.

On the up-sides- Eclipse announced detailed training and insurance programs designed to resolve concerns that the Eclipse 500’s low price would result in 500s in the hands of hundreds of pilots with too little experience for a fast- high-flying jet. The industry has been there before and Eclipse’s solutions appear the most far-reaching yet.

Also- there’s no ignoring the FAA’s year-early approval of the Friction-Stir Welding process Eclipse uses to assemble most of the airframe. The company also broke ground on a new facility dedicated to assembling airframes using the innovative process.

Then- of course- there was that all-important first flight in August – the one-and-only flight to date. That flight triggered progress payments from the customers holding firm orders- a boon to the company coffers.

However- during the following weeks- the lack of further flight tests pointed up problems at Eclipse- problems eventually acknowledged to stem from the EJ22 powerplants supplied by former Eclipse development partner Williams International in Michigan.

Timeline to a delay

During the NBAA convention in September – the first major event to follow the Eclipse 500’s maiden flight – Eclipse Aviation celebrated with an announcement that the sum of orders and options put the company over the 2-000-sales bar. While acknowledging delays in further flight- the company lent little credence to rumors that the engines created more problems than expected.

During the weeks following NBAA- though- rumors of problems with the Williams International EJ22 powerplants turned into a din. Company CEO and president Vern Raburn acknowledged that din the next month during a briefing at AOPA Expo in October. 'We’re continuing to advance the program-' Raburn told World Aircraft Sales. 'We’re not yet at the point where these problems are cutting into our schedule.'

Barely four weeks later- the news was different. With no further progress in solving the engine problems manifested on the first flight- Eclipse took the painful step of canceling its contract with Williams.

Eclipse 'determined that the EJ22 is not a viable solution for the Eclipse 500 aircraft-' adding the claim that 'Williams International has not met its contractual obligations. Development of the EJ22 is significantly behind schedule and all analyses indicate it will not meet the requirements of Eclipse 500 customers.'

That is to say- Williams – which has disputed some of Eclipse’s claims – was not showing signs of solving the engine’s problems in a time frame that met the airframe maker’s commitments or expectations.

Fortunately for Eclipse- its orderbook – and those of competing companies like Safire Aircraft – confirmed the very light jet concept to the general aviation industry- Raburn noted. 'The industry has responded by rallying around this (VLJ) segment — and today there are new choices from world-class companies for engines designed to power lightweight jet aircraft-' he said.

Thus- someone other than Williams is in line to land the engine contract – and Raburn acknowledged that the company is in discussion with potential replacement suppliers. 'We are pleased to be in negotiations with two of the industry’s most respected suppliers- and look forward to moving ahead with the company that offers the best solution for powering the Eclipse 500-' Raburn said.

Statements from staff at other engine makers indicate that Williams’ misfortune with Eclipse started a rush to develop new powerplants smaller- lighter and more efficient than what either engine maker previously offered- and there’s the rub- for Eclipse- for its customers.

None of these prospects is near a state of development that will allow Eclipse to stay on schedule – which means certification of the Eclipse 500 must fall behind the original late-2003 time frame. Pratt & Whitney Canada’s fledgling PW600-series engine is well along- but initial versions run in the 1-300-pound thrust range – nearly double the 700-pound thrust range of the EJ22. Ditto for Honeywell’s new small engine. If either of these powerplants is to meet the need of the Eclipse 500- the manufacturers must scale them down.

Currently- the earliest incarnations of both the Pratt and Whitney- and Honeywell powerplants run in about the same thrust- weight and fuel-consumption range of William’s FJ33- which- with the PW603 is a contender for Cessna’s new Citation Mustang – a new super-light jet unveiled at NBAA- with great success.

For either to meet Eclipse’s needs- the engine makers need to offer their solutions quickly. Analysts who spoke on the condition of anonymity stress that the work of building- testing- certificating and producing for the Eclipse installations could easily add two years to the Eclipse 500’s development process. That means the Eclipse 500 could easily be delayed until sometime in 2006. While not devastating to the very light jet concept- a serious blow to the lead Eclipse enjoyed up to this point.

Progress made- progress continuing

Despite the downsides of the EJ22 cancellation- Eclipse Aviation still managed to make remarkable progress in the past year – progress that continues to help advance the program. For example- the company’s insurance partnership and a training program developed with the University of North Dakota’s Aerospace Department set the stage for pre-delivery screening of buyers and training appropriate to their skills and experience sets. 'We see this as a step that will ensure insurability of our customers-' Raburn noted after a briefing on the program in the latter half of 2002.

In the first half of last year- the Federal Aviation Administration granted approval to Eclipse for the Friction Stir Welding process selected to assemble most of the airframe. Friction Stir Welding uses a hardened- tool-steel mandrel spinning at about 1-000 rpm to heat aluminum to the point where seams and joints reach a state just short of molten – hot enough for the different parts to fuse into a joint stronger than a riveted seam.

Since there is no electric arc- no flux or other anti-oxidation agent (such as argon or helium gas)- the process introduces no materials that could promote corrosion. And with the heat highly localized- parts don’t reach temperatures that might alter their strength characteristic.

After Eclipse announced plans to use this process nearly two years ago- critics questioned how long FAA approval might take for such a new and unproven process. But the process – pioneered in England more than a decade ago long ago gained acceptance in the manufacture of spacecraft components. It really wasn’t new – only the application was fresh. So the FAA’s earlier-than-expected approval put the program ahead. Fund raising also gave Eclipse an edge- with $238 million raised as of July 2002.

The 'iron bird' that tests airframe components for wear- strength and durability- has long ago gone to work – as has a systems-test bird that actively manipulates all the electronic and mechanical hardware designed for the Eclipse 500. Because of these advances- the airframe portion of the test program remains close to on-schedule.

The company recently announced the installation of a new telemetry system with in excess of 1-000 channels available. This equipment means Eclipse Aviation can put two test birds up simultaneously- each one instrumented for virtually every system on the airplane and for nearly every parameter imaginable.

Thanks to the installation of this system – the antennae for which sits atop Raburn’s office – test flying of the Eclipse 500 should be able to proceed at a higher pace than normal. That is- barring any further problems.

Future work

That systems-test bird at work in Albuquerque- New Mexico- stands to put Eclipse completely through all conceivable test permutations of the panel- avionics- displays- actuators and electrical-system components – well before the Eclipse 500 resumes flight tests with new powerplants.

'We’ve got plenty to do and we’re proceeding wherever we can-' Raburn said back in October – prior to cancellation of the Williams contract. That progress continues today in every area of the program in which the company has testing capability.

Obviously- the flight-test program suffers from the inability to fly the airplane- but with airplane-accurate labs available to actually work systems and airframe components- the company stands to gain considerable knowledge- experience and time by using those labs to the fullest degree possible.

So by the time the Eclipse 500 again takes to the skies- many critical test goals should have been met- results analyzed and changes made where needed- and with production nearly complete on additional production prototypes- the only variable element likely to remain will be those new engines. It won’t take Eclipse long to make some new decisions regarding a replacement powerplant though- leading to changes to the airframe needed to accommodate those new engines.

New nacelle/pylon combinations should be easily accommodated into the existing airframes- since Eclipse’s deal with Williams included supplying the engine- nacelle and mount as a unit ready to install. Company sources expect the replacement supplier to meet the same requirements.

So the biggest questions currently pending for Eclipse and its 2-000-plus believers remain the big ones: Who- when- and how much? With regard to price- Raburn has already gone on record promising that the replacement powerplant will still allow Eclipse Aviation to deliver the Eclipse 500 for under $1 million- and in terms of sustaining the revolution- that performance/price ratio will remain one many business aviation flyers will find too revolutionary to resist.

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