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Fast track in-flight tests geared to on-time certification in March 2006

Confidence in announced timetables isn’t always as strong for start-up companies or existing companies launching all-new lines. Once a project slides- observers often view new schedules with more than a little skepticism. But that’s no longer the case with Eclipse Aviation and the Eclipse 500 that helped launch the rush toward very light jets (VLJ) more than five years ago.

The Eclipse 500 seats six in an airframe closer in weight to a Beech Baron B58 than any business aircraft currently in the light jet segment.

In the panel- the Eclipse-conceived Avio avionics suite will give the pilot state-of-the-art flat-panel displays showing flight and air data- navigation information- and all the other tools needed to fly in the RVSM environment while navigating around weather and traffic.

Designed to cruise at a brisk 375 knots true for 1-280 nautical miles carrying four occupants- the Eclipse 500 also offers the lowest direct operating costs of any business jet flying. A 41-000-foot ceiling puts it up with other jets- but the 67-knot stall speed makes safe landings easier on even the shortest runways.

With excellent hot-and-high performance- the Eclipse 500 offers pilots an extra margin of safety. Best of all for many operators- the airplane will be certified for single-pilot operation to FAR Part 23.

Eclipse took its hit among the doubters early on- when few could conceive of the jet winning buyers – let alone the investors needed to raise the $300-million plus needed to move all the way from the drawing board to deliveries. Eclipse founder- president and CEO Vern Raburn answered those early doubts with record cash raising and record sales.

However- the biggest hit in confidence came in late 2002 when the company announced cancellation of plans to use an all-new 100-pound turbofan to power its all-new six-place jet. Raburn answered those critics- too- and confidence started returning over the ensuing months when the company announced its selection of a replacement engine- followed by a resumption of flight tests for its first prototype with interim engines later in 2003.

Pretty much all was forgiven on New Year’s Eve- when N503EA- the first conformal prototype- launched on its maiden flight- powered by the new engines - the PW610F from Pratt & Whitney Canada.

Between that promise kept and the rapid progress of work since- few observers expect Eclipse to miss its new certification target date of March 2006. There’s still a lot to accomplish. But as this report notes- the folks in Albuquerque are making progress like never seen before.

Rapid progress

Much of the world celebrates New Year’s Eve with a bit of bubbly to commemorate the turning of the calendar. As mentioned above- the folks at Eclipse had their own reason to pop a cork – but far earlier than most revelers. The successful first flight of the first prototype planned for the five-airframe flight-test program- represented an achievement on time- and as promised more than a year before.

Logging 99 minutes on the maiden flight broke the ice on the 500’s certification flight-test program; successfully flying the same airframe on a second- 59-minute flight the same afternoon added emphasis to the progress Eclipse had made. Since then- the progress has rapidly continued.

As of this writing in early April- Eclipse had expanded the flight envelope of the test bed to FL300 during a total of just under 40 hours of flight-testing. In the first six days in April- alone- the test bed logged a total of 15 hours of testing spread across 10 flights – averaging two flights per day.

Helping Eclipse engineers with the flight-test chore is an advanced telemetry system that allows ground crew to monitor thousands of data points in real time. The data gathered from the electronic feed is ready for analysis as it’s logged into the ground computers.

This unprecedented degree of data tracking allows the company to rapidly assess each system on each flight and work out any changes that the data shows is needed. For instance- the latest reported small design change was made to the nose gear in order to resolve some shimmy issues.

Rapid data analysis has also given the flight-test team the confidence to cycle both gear and flaps extensively and begin to retract both as a customer would in normal operations.

The company achieved an important certification goal by finishing testing for engine ice protection as required for FAA approval. Eclipse’s successful inlet icing tests of the PW610F engines and nacelles at Canada’s National Research Council’s approved icing tunnel located in Ottawa fulfilled all FAA inlet-icing certification testing requirements for the powerplant system.

Eclipse also reported first flight by N502EA- the second airframe in the flight test and certification efforts- as this issue went to print.

The Eclipse test fleet will ultimately include a total of seven 500s- the five planned for flight-testing and two additional airframes for ground-based static and fatigue testing.

Production run-up

Eclipse long ago announced plans to employ a new technique known as 'friction-stir welding' for assembling its jets. With friction-stir welding- parts are joined through the heat generated by a spinning tool. As the metal at the joint heats- the aluminum flows together and cools into a solid joint – much like conventional inert-gas welding- but without the extreme heat of an electric arc.

Eclipse designed and constructed its modern factory around this computer-controlled process and opened it in time for Eclipse to employ in the construction of all seven of its conformal prototypes. Currently- the company is proceeding in order with the test beds and refining the manufacturing and assembly processes of this innovative procedure.

Once the final prototype is complete- the company plans to initiate low-rate production that will accelerate toward a level that will sustain production of up to 500 jets annually – fast enough to work off the current backlog in about four years.

The company also continues to progress toward a network of service centers to support the 500 and its growing list of customers.

Lacking any further speed bumps on the way to certification- Eclipse now appears on-track and speeding toward success. The only doubts that will need answering center on how big the backlog will be – and how fast the company can move it to keep the orders coming. Given the company’s success in muting past doubts- even the arrival of a triple-digit offer from on-demand air-taxi start-up may not cause a hiccup.

More information from www.eclipseaviation.com

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