Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Little Jet That Can

The Eclipse 500 is back, and this time, they’ve done it right

The world looks different from 41,000 feet. Climb to nearly eight miles above the sea, and you'll note some dramatic changes compared to the view at lower altitudes. For one thing, the perpetual haze layer that plagues so much of the U.S. often becomes thicker and more opaque. If you look up rather than down, you'll see a dark-cobalt sky, not the solid black the astronauts report on their journey to orbit, but a deep navy blue.

You're virtually alone at this altitude. Many airliners can operate at FL410, but only after burning fuel load down for several hours. There are a number of corporate jets that can top 41,000 feet, but all are far more expensive than the Eclipse. Contrails are nearly always below you rather than above.

The Avio NG flat panel display before me suggests we're cruising at 340 knots at this high station, well above most other traffic. As if in confirmation, a twin-jet contrail crosses our path 4,000 feet below. In the distance, I can see the snow-white spine of the Sierra Nevada reaching up for us and falling five miles short. Today's ride is in Mason Holland's Total Eclipse demonstrator, a fully completed version of the Eclipse 500, the primogenitor of the very light jet. In truth, the Eclipse created the VLJ market, and today, there are something over 250 of the type in the sky.

Eclipse almost single-handedly redefined the paradigm of "personal jet," but the original effort wasn't successful, through no fault of the airplane. In fairness, Eclipse was up against something of a perfect storm of circumstance in the first decade of 2000, a conspiracy of a fickle economy, unpredictable market forces, supply problems, technology challenges (Eclipse was the first to employ aluminum friction stir welding) and management missteps.

That's all history. When CEO Mason Holland and his partners, Mike Press and Ken Ross, acquired the company out of Chapter 7 bankruptcy, they proved that aviation need not automatically eat its young. Today's fully refurbished Total Eclipse is a well-finished machine, being marketed worldwide as the first of the VLJs. As mentioned above, Holland's company, now renamed Eclipse Aerospace, prefer to call their airplane a "personal jet."

At this writing, the Eclipse is the only real entry in the VLJ class, with something like 261 Eclipse 500s constructed, many of them parked at the Albuquerque manufacturing facility awaiting conversion to Total Eclipse configuration. Shortly after assuming control of Eclipse, Holland initiated a buyback program on the incomplete airplanes and is marketing them as remanufactured Total Eclipse 500s. In fact, there's probably little to be remanufactured, as most of the aircraft have less than 300 hours on them.

At $2.15 million for a Total Eclipse, Holland's company is offering the least expensive twin jet in the world by a wide margin. The Cessna 510 Mustang and Embraer Phenom 100 are the only models that come close to competing, and both those jets are much larger and notably more expensive, about $3.5 million for the Mustang and nearly $4.0 million for the Phenom 100.


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