Customer: Eclipse Aviation Corp., Albuquerque, New Mexico
Type: twin-boom small canard private jet
Program: Very Light Jet (VLJ) (proprietary)
Powerplant: probably 1 x Williams FXJ-2
Significant date: designed circa 2000
When Vern Raburn, president and CEO of Eclipse Aviation Corp. in Albuquerque, New Mexico announced he would build a twin-engine light jet for under USD 1 million and sell 1,000 per year, people scoffed. Was he a modern version of the flamboyant Jim Bede who flogged two-seaters and tiny jets to the little guy for chump change? Didn’t he know that of every 100 people who start a new aircraft firm, only two survive? Why, Raburn hadn’t even worked in the aviation industry! Industry veterans, perhaps forgetting the successes of the late Bill Lear (of Learjet fame) were no kinder: “How can he do something we couldn’t?”
Giving credit where credit is due, the Very Light Jet (VLJ) concept probably wouldn't exist today if it weren't for Raburn, a former Microsoft consumer products division and Lotus Development executive with a "get on board or get out of my way" approach to business. Some will argue that Williams International fostered the VLJ market in an effort to build an outlet for its line of small jet engines. But it wasn't until Raburn got on board that the concept gained momentum. A true aviation maniac, he had always loved flying In his various executive positions, but detested the high costs of ownership and operation. During his 25 years in information technology he was accustomed to rapid change and an emphasis on the future – the very opposite of the outlook in general aviation. If costs could be decreased using the lessons of information technology, many more people – both pilots and passengers – could afford to fly. "I just really wanted to build an airplane that Vern Raburn would want to buy," he says. "You know, there's just not much more to it than that."
Rutan and Scaled Composites are not officially known to have been involved in its inception, but Rutan was extremely influential in getting the program started. Some time in 1996, Raburn paid a visit to his friend Burt Rutan. The two struck up a conversation that would eventually turn into Eclipse Aviation. The two were talking about the Williams turbofan engines on his Cessna jet when Rutan said, "Have you talked to Dr. (Sam) Williams lately?". Williams, the founder of Williams International, designed the engines for the Cessna, as well as a number of power plants for cruise missiles and other military applications. Williams, an icon within the aviation industry, was the stuff of legends to Raburn. Talk turned to a project Rutan was working on for Williams called the V-Jet — a twin-engine proof-of-concept plane Rutan built as a test bed for a pair of small turbofan jet engines Williams had designed, the FXJ series. Williams had contracted with Rutan to build the stylish forward swept-wing plane with a V-shaped tail to showcase the motors. "Burt showed me the V-Jet and I was blown away," Raburn says. "If ever there was a time in all of this when a light bulb went off, that was it."
Rutan had a specific reason for steering Raburn toward Williams, who is also a director and part owner of Eclipse. The engine designer says he wanted someone else, preferably big business or rich investors, to invest in the idea that a small engine could power a jet so it could be taken to the general aviation market. "I knew who Vern worked for," Williams says. "I was very interested in Paul Allen as an investor." Allen, however, was not interested in the project. "He was already flying around in his own Boeing 757 and didn't see the need to look into small jets," Raburn says (as a side note, Raburn was the one who once convinced his boss Paul Allen to fly out to Mojave, and this is how the SpaceShipOne story began). But Raburn, already planning to leave the Paul Allen Group, began to seek out Williams. The two men met for the first time at an experimental air show in Oshkosh, Wis., in 1997. Williams and Rutan were showing the V-Jet and Raburn was hatching a new business plan.
"I had the V-jet built because I wanted to generate interest in the industry for building smaller turbofan powered airplanes," Williams says. "It was a very exciting-looking plane. It was never meant to be a production airplane; but I think it definitely served its purpose. "Vern was very enterprising. He kept wanting to talk about this. He had the same vision I had," Williams says. Raburn followed up the initial meeting with another at Williams' headquarters in Walled Lake, Mich., in the fall of 1997. Raburn describes their meetings as a "fascinating conflux of two people, each bringing something to the table at once." Williams brought with him aviation design, experience, and an 85-pound jet engine capable of producing 700 pounds of thrust for a cheap price. Raburn, Williams says, brought a knowledge of computers and electronics that could be applied to small aircraft and power plants that, on paper, seemed like it could make the prospect of an affordable small jet possible. Williams and Raburn began drafting a business plan and finished it the next year.
Vern Raburn and Sam Williams had similar views and decided to put their strengths in common; thus the Pronto aircraft was born. After calling the new venture VectrisJet and Pronto Aircraft Corp., Raburn established Eclipse Aviation in in Scottsdale, Arizona, in May 1999, with a vision of refining the VLJ concept, hoping to redefine air transportation by dramatically improving the economics of private jet travel. The two companies partnered and developed a small five- to six-place jet powered by a pair of Williams engines each producing 770 pounds static thrust (lbst). The objective was a five passenger twin-jet with a cruising speed of 375 knots, a low stalling speed and a range with four occupants of 1,280 nautical miles. (Buyers have been guaranteed those figures, plus or minus 2.5-5%.) Other targets were a useful load of 1,250 pounds and a maximum altitude of 41,000 feet.
Williams, an experienced businessman at 81 years of age, says the promising conversations he and Raburn had carried the pair only so far. Between 1998 and 2000, Williams says he had plenty of cause for worry about the venture because of money needed for the project. Eclipse nearly ended before it even started when the company's previous chief engineer quit days before Eclipse was to close on its first round of investment funding, Raburn says. "Can you imagine what investors would have thought about the company then?" Raburn says. The resignation, however, turned out to be a blessing. Williams recruited Oliver Masefield, a veteran of aviation manufacturing at Switzerland's Pilatus and at Hawker Siddeley Aircraft of England and father of the highly successful Pilatus PC-12. Masefield was sought because of his experience with building and certifying aluminum-skin airplanes, Williams says. But his calming effect on investors turned out to be a generous bonus, Raburn adds. Raburn flew to Europe to meet Masefield at his home and make the pitch personally about Eclipse. It worked. Masefield left a job of 27 years to join Eclipse, Raburn says, based on Williams' reputation and Raburn's sales pitch.
Existence of Scaled's Model 301 Pronto has never been officially acknowledged. It is difficult to know what amount of Rutan's original design study for Pronto has remained in the final Eclipse 500, but the fact that the Pronto was assigned a model number is proof that he did work on the project at some point. It is likely that he laid the basis for the project and suggested various design options, maybe even built scale models. Yet his radical design approach and all-composite philosophy was probably to far from the reality of the market (Ironically, Eclipse's biggest start-up competitor is Adam Aircraft, whose mainstay is also a Model 500, the CarbonAero, designed by none other than Burt Rutan himself as his Model 309!) . So it is Masefield that made the aircraft what it is: he enlarged the V-Jet, replaced its composite construction and V-tail with metal and a conventional T-tail. He changed a dowdy bird into an attractive one that was easier to make. A straight (i.e., unswept) wing was chosen to assure docile flight characteristics. The remarkable 67-knot stalling speed will make transitioning light plane pilots feel at home while improving safety. Auto throttles are standard, a first in such a light aircraft.
Other objectives included improved reliability, lower initial and maintenance costs and increased safety. The airframe is designed for 2,000 hours a year, and to match airlines’ dispatch reliability. The 46 avionics boxes in a typical jet were reduced to 22. Avio, a major innovation not to be confused with the Italian jet engine maker, integrates all aircraft systems – avionics, engine controls, fuel management, pressurization. Previously only advanced military aircraft and commercial jetliners had such equipment that reduces pilot workload and increases reliability. Dramatic changes – the kind the general aviation industry avoids like red ink – were needed to meet the target and selling price. Computer numerically-controlled milling is used to make complex parts from aluminum billets. Friction stir welding (FST), developed at Cambridge University, eliminates 60% of rivets and also saves weight. It uses a rotating tool that presses so hard on a lap joint that the two pieces are welded without the metal liquefying. Although FST hadn’t been used in aircraft, the FAA approved it. Modular assembly and just-intime parts management cut costs further.
The program suffered a near disaster when the Eclipse-Williams marriage failed. The new 770-lb. thrust Williams EJ22 fanjets were found inadequate as they could not deliver the thrust necessary to propel the Eclipse 500. The very public divorce led Eclipse to Pratt & Whitney, which had been considering a line of new small turbines. The resulting, more expensive Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F engines generating 900-lb. thrust power today's 500. Replacement was implemented, but not without much agonizing, demolished schedules and a $100,000 price increase. A lesser firm would have collapsed. Eclipse’s management knew that the plane’s future depended on its safety record and the willingness of insurers to cover single-pilot operations. Today, seven years later, Eclipse has raised more than US$398 million and received an astounding 2,300 orders, almost certainly a record for a start-up company with a new jet. Eclipse has also recruited over 400 people, flown several test aircraft and is expecting certification anytime now. The Eclipse is likely to be the first very light jet certified. VLJs are loosely defined as jets under 10,000 pounds, typically flown by a single pilot, carrying up to six people and costing under US$3 million.
Type-rating training is included in the price of an Eclipse. Pilots must have a private licence and multiengine and instrument ratings. A self-paced program covers jet engines, high-altitude physiology, aerodynamics, flight planning, weather and radar. During a one-day evaluation on United Airlines’ Boeing 737 simulator, pilots will be approved for the type rating course or recommended to take additional training. Buyers who fail to meet safety standards of the course will have their money refunded. Training will be done by United, and may also be supplemented by high-altitude and upset training in a Czech Aero Vodochody L-39 twoseat jet. Graduates with limited experience may be required to fly with a mentor. Because of this training, insuring an Eclipse should cost less than a Piper Meridian, according to one consultant. Canadian buyers have ordered 12 Eclipse 500s, making Canada the firm’s third largest market after the US and UK. The first Canadian aircraft should be delivered by spring 2007, if FAA certification is completed as scheduled by next March 31.
Corporate sales have been modest. “Corporations are conservative. They want to see a type certificate, touch and feel before they buy,” one sales rep told me. When the Eclipse has a track record, its low costs should encourage firms to use them for ferrying middle-level staff. It’s unheard of for a previously unknown firm to sell so many aircraft before certification. The more usual start-up goes through several phases: optimistic publicity, failed deadlines, hunts for new financing and too often, failure. At least two competitors have failed, probably because they underestimated certification costs and/or their product was too similar to others.
Today, a new Eclipse buyer could not take delivery before March 2008. High demand has already encouraged speculative purchases. That, and the outstanding support from air taxi firms, suggest Eclipse has created a new category of aircraft, as Canadair (now Bombardier) did with its Regional Jet. Meanwhile, consultants’ estimates of the VLJ market range from hundreds to over 10,000. The first 160 Eclipses each sold for a remarkable US$995,000. Today’s price is US$1,295,000 in 2000 dollars, estimated to be US$1,480,000 by certification time. That’s less than many used turboprops. The competitive Cessna Mustang is to be certified in fall 2006. It lists for US$2,600,000 while the SOCATA TBM-700 turboprop goes for US$2,690,000.
Lured by the prospect of thousands of sales, VLJ makers are as numerous as the first snowmobile builders. Eclipse and Cessna are nearest to certification, but the Adam A700, a twin-boom Burt Rutan design developed from the A500 piston twin, is likely to be the third. Other serious contenders are the single-engine Diamond D-Jet, Honda Jet, and Embraer VLJ. The Avocet ProJet, Eviation Advantage, Excel Sport-Jet and Maverick are less impressive competitors. Would-be top guns may prefer the twoseat F-18-like ATG Javelin. Some VLJ buyers may not be able to get insurance because insurers are insisting on training in a Class D simulator, which are unlikely to exist for less popular light jets. Eclipse’s record is impressive, but the challenges of large-scale production and flight safety remain. Everyone who wants to encourage innovation and fresh ideas in aviation should pray that it will be successful. The company won’t say whether its next project, to be announced in 2006, will be larger or smaller than the Eclipse 500. The five passenger interior.
Population: not built (Scaled version), about 10 so far (final version)
Specifications: not known
Crew/passengers: not known