Loading please wait....

If you are a registered, please log in. If not, please click here to register.


Something is astir at the expanded facilities of Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque- New Mexico – but it’s nothing problematic. In fact- it is ‘a stir’ on which the company bases the foundation of its manufacturing plans: Friction Stir Welding (FSW).

Dave Higdon   |   1st June 2004
Back to articles
Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
Read More

Eclipse begins manufacturing two more test aircraft for flight with PW610F.

Something is astir at the expanded facilities of Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque- New Mexico – but it’s nothing problematic. In fact- it is ‘a stir’ on which the company bases the foundation of its manufacturing plans: Friction Stir Welding (FSW).

Late in April- Eclipse started principal fabrication of the second and third prototypes of its groundbreaking Eclipse 500 very light jet (VLJ). The first airframes totally fabricated at the Eclipse factory- these production conforming aircraft are also the first to undergo this novel process in its entirety at the company’s new facility. Eclipse announced the opening of its new advanced-technology Friction Stir Welding facility on March 10 this year. Work on the first two of five certification test beds started a mere 29 days later in early April.

On April 8- FSW started on the N502EA airframe- the next prototype to fly – and the first to fly on the upcoming Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F powerplants. Twenty-one days later- on April 29- workers started FSW work on N503EA. By May 22- the company planned putting a third airframe into the manufacturing pipeline with the start of welding on N504EA on that date.

In between now and year’s end- Eclipse’s goals include starting assembly of the fourth and fifth test-bed airframes – one the fatigue article- one the static-test item – as well as two ‘beta test aircraft-’ or what the aviation industry generally labels ‘function & reliability’ test beds. The second and third conformal prototypes take to the air on February 9 and April 18- 2005; May 3 and June 12 mark the first-flight dates for the two ‘Beta’ aircraft.

To further underscore the tight schedule on which Eclipse operates- company founder Vern Raburn expects to join the fuselage components of N502EA by November 23; to receive the first two engines on December 6; roll out the first conformal prototype on December 13; and achieve first flight of N502EA by year’s end – on December 31- and on those new engines. The goals of Raburn’s company seem ambitious- even aggressive – and impossibly short by conventional aircraft-manufacturing standards.

Thanks to the revolutionary promise of Eclipse’s manufacturing and assembly methods- though- the plans seem more than plausible. The airframe manufacturing and component-based assembly approach envisioned for this VLJ greatly shorten manufacturing and assembly times to a degree previously unseen in aviation.

Ultimately- production aircraft should role out of the plant- ready to fly- in less than 10 days – from start to finish.

Even getting there gets a greater degree of high-tech help than most programs get. For example- once flight tests start- the certification program stands to get plenty of help from a telemetry system on board test aircraft such as N500EA- the first aircraft used to validate both the aerodynamics and the data-reporting process. The flight-test program employs this on-board- real-time data-acquisition system to track and record more than 600 parameters per flight. At that rate- according to the company- the engineers acquire more than 6 gigabytes of information with each flight hour of tests.

Equally important is the test team’s ability to quickly analyze the data gathered via live telemetry. The ability to gather- record and use such data is key to the high degree of testing planned on the prototypes. Eclipse plans to accumulate more than 3-000 flight test hours between first flights and the thousands of test goals they are designed to accomplish before culminating on March 31- 2006- with type certification for the 500.

The recently retired first prototype performed the base functions for which it was designed before heading off into Eclipse history. 'We had an excellent validation with our first flight-test aircraft of both the aerodynamics and the telemetry system-' said company spokesman Andrew Broom.

Without such validation- why would someone with the demonstrated smarts of Vern Raburn put the company on the extremely visible hook by unveiling precise timetables- goals- dates – and promising customers and investors 'no changes' without public notice?

Transparency beyond the windows:

'One of the neat things we’ve done is add the Track Our Progress function to our website-' noted Broom. A few weeks back on March 16- Eclipse Aviation’s CEO and president unveiled the new Eclipse 'interactive' timetable with two parallel aims: First- tracking certification goals- the dates of those goals and the actual accomplishment date. Second- a parallel timeline tracks the tasks through which the company must work to check off each goal on the upper chart.

'The new Track Our Progress feature of our website reflects our commitment to be thoughtful about what we promise-' said Raburn upon the feature’s launch. The aim of the page is simple: '…to back up every one of our claims and to put the interests of our customers first – without exception.'

As Broom noted- 'We’ve basically raised the bar for our investors and customers to keep track of our progress… They think it’s great. Our customers are very savvy people – as are our investors; and many overlap.'

'We wanted to set ourselves apart from companies who promise dates vaguely and then hedge about delays. You know- there have been a lot of broken promises and slipped schedules. This timetable sets us apart-' said Broom.

Eclipse Aviation’s staff knows full well the pitfalls and fallout of program misfires and schedule shifts. In November 2002- only a few months after the August flight of the first Eclipse 500- N500EA- the company cancelled its plans to use a new engine from Williams International- the EJ22. Raburn cited deficits in the new powerplant’s function and reliability during ground runs and the sole flight made on them.

Raburn also expressed a lack of faith in the prospect that Williams might fix the new engine’s problems in a timeframe acceptable for the Eclipse 500’s development – even as he recognized that re-opening the engine selection process all but assured a two-year delay in certification of the aircraft. However- with the new engine now running- Eclipse expects no further delays – and the whole world will know should they occur thanks to the new tracking tools on the company’s website.

The increased ‘transparency’ came with a challenge Raburn presented to other VLJ developers. 'We welcome our competitors to provide the same level of information about their development programs and look forward to having our performance judged both on its own merits- and in comparison to others in the field-' Raburn said.

At the time of the Williams announcement Raburn said- 'We’ve built the aircraft and all other systems are flight ready- including the avionics and mechanical systems.'

He also noted FAA approval for Eclipse’s use of the Friction Stir Welding process – a year ahead of schedule back in 2002 – as well as the company’s approval as an Organizational Designated Airworthiness Representative (ODAR)- which authorizes the company to train- nominate and manage its own designated airworthiness representatives (DAR). A DAR acts on behalf of the FAA in making determinations of conformity and airworthiness of aircraft- engines and their parts.

With so much progress achieved at the time Eclipse opted to select a new engine- powerplant development began to drive certification timing. Nonetheless- by mid-February 2003- Eclipse made its choice- announcing on February 19 the selection of the PW610F to power its aircraft. Since then Eclipse has completed 55 hours of tests using N500EA flying on temporary engines before retiring the original prototype.

'We confirmed the data-gathering system we’re using on all flight-test aircraft-' Broom noted. With manufacturing underway of the next set of test-bed airframes- and P&WC well along on development of the engine- Raburn’s step toward schedule transparency puts the Eclipse schedule back on a firm footing.

The engine-maker that could:

Although Eclipse again put its powerplant eggs in the basket of a new- unproven design- it did so with a company already testing larger versions of the new engine- the PW600-series. Flying on the PW610F- the Eclipse 500 is predicted to make 375 knots true airspeed at altitudes up to FL410.

Indeed- despite the time lost due to it- the new engine actually yields a jet with better performance in cruise and climb- albeit at the cost of a slightly higher rate of fuel consumption.

Designed to span the thrust range from 900 to 3-000 pounds- the PW600 series also won acceptance from Cessna Aircraft Co. The first engine in the family to move toward actual certification was selected by Cessna to power the Citation Mustang currently in development in Wichita- Kansas.

On April 27- tests of that engine- the 1-350-pound-thrust PW615F- moved into actual in-flight tests on a CitationJet- on which the new engine replaced an original-equipment Williams-Rolls FJ44. In a reflection of just how smoothly the PW615F development program is running- the engine only achieved its first run in December 2003 – barely four months ahead of its first flight.

That same smooth progress seems key to P&WC getting the PW610F to Eclipse on time for its needs - and so far- it’s all roses. The test runs of the PW610F for the Eclipse began on May 4- marking a milestone of its own for the new engine and P&WC. The new engine achieved its full take-off thrust power of 900 pounds after only five hours of its first test-cell run – a remarkable achievement for a new powerplant. The engine also completed several other key performance and characteristic tests the engine company did not detail.

'This first run of a PW610F development engine at full take-off thrust represents an important milestone in this exciting development program-' said Alain M. Bellemare- P&WC’s president. This early success- Bellemare noted- keeps the PW610F on schedule toward an August start of flight trials on the engine maker’s flying test bed- which lead up to deliveries of the first prototype engines to Eclipse in early December.

All this progress went down well with the folks at Eclipse. Said Raburn- 'We have a great partner in Pratt & Whitney Canada and are extremely pleased by the results of the PW610F development program to date – the ability to achieve takeoff thrust during the first run is an example of how well the program is progressing… Our customers will benefit from the outstanding performance and durability of this next-generation engine.'

Building a better jet:

Launching a new jet involves numerous challenges and literally tens of thousands of tasks- tests and results documentation that lead toward the ultimate goals of certification and delivery. Some of those decisions bring risks – such as the original engine choice and- for that matter- the selection of the replacement powerplant. Other decisions bring rewards.

Raburn- already a success in the computer industry- opted for a mix of high-tech- some-risk decisions- and conventional- low-risk ones. For example- Raburn launched this venture as an all-metal aircraft at a time when most new-generation aircraft came in some flavor of composite. The reward: Easier acceptance by customers and regulators- alike.

To join the majority of the metal parts- Raburn opted for Friction Stir Welding- however - a well-documented (albeit obscure) process able to fuse metal parts seamlessly without the blue-flame heat of an electric arc or gas flame. By replacing conventional riveting with a manufacturing procedure automated around the welding process- Eclipse stands to save considerable time and expense in building its diminutive jets.

'We’ve been very happy with how FSW has progressed-' said a spokesman of the process the FAA approved in 2002 – a year ahead of schedule.

'We’ve gotten rid of about 60 percent of the rivets-' Broom detailed.

FSW allows for a lighter- simpler airframe. In place of conventional riveting is an automated process of laying down 5-300 linear inches of welds on each aircraft. That process also makes for faster assembly. 'We know that FSW is about 4 times faster than automated riveting and about 20 times faster than manual riveting-' explained Broom.

The interior will be a shell that installs in an hour to 90 minutes- leaving only the installation of seats and finishing trim before hitting ready-to-fly status.

By Eclipse’s explanation- assembling an Eclipse 500- from first loading of metal into the FSW jigs to rolling that same airplane out the door – with engines- panel and interior – will shrink to nine days once the production process ramps up. Add production flight test and paint and the total time needed barely makes three weeks from first weld to final sign-off.

Even the decision at the start to employ an all-digital panel put the Eclipse on a path toward total integration comparable to large business jets costing in the tens of millions.

The Eclipse 500 features Avidyne displays and communications gear- Crossbow ADHRS for reference- dual-channel FADEC for engine control- and a self-diagnosing system that manages and monitors the position of flight controls- gear and autopilot servos- with high-technology sensors far more accurate than the micro-switches commonly used for those roles.

Although not 'plug-and-play' quite in the same sense as computer gear- the Eclipse approach comes as close as any airplane now in development. The avionics and electronic assemblies come from suppliers as sets ready to plug into the wiring harnesses.

Actual assembly of the component parts employs a modern approach- with the Eclipse plant employing moving tooling stations rather than a rolling assembly line. Automakers such as Ford and Nissan employ this method in their newest assembly plants.

'Even the wing is essentially a Line Replaceable Unit (LRU)-' Broom explained. The wing is built on a jig that uses laser trackers to maintain accuracy- so there’s no need to shim or adjust for fitting. 'One is essentially the same as another.'

'If you need to remove a wing- you can do it in about an hour; same to reinstall a wing- about an hour.'

Taken together- these technologies and methodologies support the high-volume- low-cost goal needed to make the Eclipse profitable at a price just over $1 million for new orders; early customers got in for under a million.

Best of all- the resulting jet promises a per-mile operating cost rivaling some high-performance piston singles and superior to many piston twins – all aircraft with far less speed- altitude and sophistication than the Eclipse 500.

Indeed- with the program already funded through certification and preliminary deliveries- all Eclipse needs now is to keep on track.

The push is on:

'We’re at a good time now- everything is just accelerating like crazy-' said Broom. 'The excitement is building. Everyone is really fired up about getting back to flying this year.'

With just under 2-100 customers already signed- Eclipse need only bring the Eclipse 500 in on time- on budget and on promise. That will leave as the only remaining question just how the Eclipse 500 will see most use: In networks of on-demand air-taxi operators competing head-to-head with the nation’s airlines; or as the salvation for pilots aching for something better than the piston twin- turboprop singles and twins now vying for the high end of the owner-flown market.

The reality most likely will fall somewhere in between- and even that result would be revolutionary and stir the pot like nothing business aviation has seen in 50 years.

'It’s definitely a fun time to be in aviation-' Broom aptly concluded.

More information from Eclipse Aviation; Website: www.eclipseaviation.com

Related Articles

linkedin Print

Other Articles