"It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting."
There's a new Eclipse jet in the sky, and it may just be the one everyone wanted in the first place. It's called the EA-550, from Eclipse Aerospace, and it might be hard to distinguish from the original EA-500, but make no mistake, it's a whole new airplane. It still has the same good looks and tip tanks that evoke memories of the early Learjets, but there's one thing that jumps out, and that's its size. Even compared to the early Lears, there's no getting around it—the Eclipse jet is small. It takes up about the same space as a Beech Baron, yet it's a six-seat twin-engine jet. Sure, it may be the smallest business jet around, but the story behind it is huge, and to fully appreciate the EA-550, you have to know something about its past.
The story of the EA-550 starts amidst the largest financial meltdown in general aviation history. The whole concept for the airplane started in 1998 when a former Microsoft executive, Vern Raburn, started Eclipse Aviation with the idea of a completely new class of very light jets, costing less than $800,000, designed around small, inexpensive Williams engines that were originally designed for cruise missiles. The goal of a simple-to-operate jet with six seats that can cruise at FL410, at speeds up to 375 knots with a range of over 1,100 nm, for a lot less than a million dollars was certainly compelling. The company spun a masterful story, projecting that with sufficiently low acquisition and operating costs, true point-to-point air taxi would compete with the airlines, eventually revolutionizing air travel and darkening the sky with very light jets. Sure, no one had ever sold a twin-engine jet at that price, so how could Eclipse pull it off? The answer was simple—volume. Investors and potential customers drank the Kool-Aid, and the idea of the VLJ as something truly revolutionary was born.
Raburn and his team raised a lot of capital and went to work. There were some very public teething problems as Eclipse worked from scratch to develop an all-new aircraft with new engines and a new avionics system. By 2006, the FAA finally issued a controversial provisional type certificate for the EA-500. In 2007, the company produced 104 aircraft. But only a year later, in 2008, financial reality and corporate mismanagement took down what turned out to be a house of cards. Suppliers went unpaid, employees were laid off, Raburn departed and, in November 2008, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Of the 260 aircraft produced, few—if any—were completely finished. Early aircraft were missing deicing capability, the avionics were incomplete, fit and finish was inconsistent, and other issues too numerous to list plagued the fleet. Criticism of the FAA grew to the point where the agency reviewed the certification of the Eclipse. Eventually, even the FAA itself underwent a congressional review over their handling of the certification process. The failure took down over a billion dollars in investor funds, and money owed to suppliers and deposits from customers. The dream had become a nightmare, and the smoking hole it left behind had a lasting impact on aviation. Even the term "VLJ" was stigmatized. Both Cessna and Embraer refer to their entry-level jets as "light jets," and others working on single-engine jets call them "personal jets." Pretty much no one uses the term "VLJ" anymore.
But, sometimes a dream is like football. It takes more than one player to get it over the line, and there were certainly a lot of folks who believed in the idea of the Eclipse Jet. After the meltdown, a new company called Eclipse Aerospace, headed by Mike Press and Mason Holland, purchased the assets of Eclipse Aviation in August of 2009 with the goal of fulfilling the original promise of the Eclipse Jet. Pulling a successful product out of the ruins of the former company was a massive challenge. Among other things was the fact that the aircraft was never completely finished. The avionics package was incomplete, suppliers had to be reestablished, a service network had to be built and current customer issues had to be addressed. In 2011, Sikorsky Aircraft became an equity partner, which helped ease financing and supply chain issues. It was a massive undertaking and now, only five years later, it looks like they're well on their way to pulling it off. The new Eclipse 550 is refined, economical and has features only available in airplanes costing a lot more.
I've seen a lot of Eclipse Jets over the years, but I've never flown one, so I was excited to be invited to take a short test flight. I met Ken Oden and Iggy Burkhardt along with a brand-new Eclipse 550 at Ryan Field just outside of Tucson on an unusually blustery day in the desert. Up close, the fit and finish of the new 550 is impressive. All around, the paint looks first class, the seams are even, and the interior exudes quality. A close look at the nose reveals an unusual feature. There are two large oval areas surrounding the static ports (two on each side) painted with a rough antiskid-like material. Burkhardt explained that the paint is actually a icephobic material that prevents ice from forming anywhere near the ports. The two pitot tubes, located slightly lower on each side of the nose, actually contain the usual airspeed pitot and an airflow sensor used for computing angle of attack. Inside the nose, there's a 10-inch radar antenna for the BendixKing RDR-2000 system, an emergency oxygen bottle and dual 24V, 22 A-H batteries. On the ground, one of the batteries runs the aircraft systems, and the other battery is used for engine start. In the event of the loss of both generators in flight, the batteries automatically interconnect to supply a total of 44 A-H of power for 60 minutes of emergency use.
Ken Ross, Eclipse Aerospace President, and Mike Vaupell, Director of Training, show off the new Eclipse 550 after our photo flight.
All of the position lights are LED, and the landing lights are high-intensity discharge lamps (HID) for long life. A quick look under the wings reveals beefy trailing-link landing gear. Passenger and pilots alike love the consistent, smooth landings that come with trailing link. Oden explained that the Eclipse is now equipped with a fully automatic antiskid braking system and new bias-ply tires that eliminate the problems with blown tires and rapid tire wear that plagued some of the earlier airplanes. Now, tires should last for "hundreds" of landings.
Step through the split-clamshell main cabin door into the cabin, and there are five comfortable leather passenger seats in a cozy forward-facing arrangement. All of the seats, including the two front crew seats, are mounted on floor rails that run the full length of the cabin to make it easy to adjust positions and to add or remove a seat, if desired. Behind the seats, in the rear of the cabin, there's a dedicated netted baggage space that can handle up to 260 pounds of cargo in 16 cubic feet. Having the baggage space in the cabin makes it easy to access stuff in flight while the bags ride in warm, pressurized comfort. The standard five-seat configuration works, but Oden mentioned that with only two seats in back, the cabin becomes very spacious with even more room for bags. With an option for a maximum of six seats, there's certainly a lot of flexibility depending on the mission. Along each side panel, there's a recessed rail system for mounting cabin accessories, such as articulating iPad mounts. The dual-pane Lexan windows are large, and the cabin atmosphere is bright and pleasant.
Climbing into the cockpit requires a little dexterity, but it isn't hard, and once seated, the cockpit is surprisingly spacious and quite comfortable. Visibility is excellent, and the new windshields are now a glass/Lexan laminate with electric defog/deicing panels imbedded in front of the pilot and copilot positions. On the panel, three large avionics screens dominate the space. Two large portrait-format PFDs sit in front of each pilot seat with a large 15-inch landscape-format MFD in between. The MFD splits information between four quadrants: one that's fixed and three that can be user configured. Just outboard of each PFD, there's a backup attitude indicator made by Innovative Solutions and Support (IS&S). These units are really mini-PFDs, displaying attitude, heading, altitude, airspeed and vertical speed. Oden explained that the pilot-side backup indicator is included as a part of the standard instrument package, but our airplane for the day included an optional second indicator on the right side.
|The interior of the Eclipse 550 exudes quality. It's spacious and bright, with comfortable leather seating.|
One unusual feature is the tray-mounted miniature computer keyboards positioned below each of the PFDs. The keyboards are positioned to make data entry easy, but the keys aren't arranged in standard QWERTY layout, so don't expect to start touch-typing. Most FMS keypads are alphabetic, and it's workable, but it's not immediately intuitive—particularly when you expect something that looks so much like a keyboard to be "type-able." The Eclipse is flown with side-stick controllers, and that really opens up the panel. Any Cirrus or Cessna TTx pilot will feel right at home with the side sticks, which contain a Coolie-hat trim switch, an autopilot disconnect button along with a PTT button. The sticks are angled inboard, and the armrest is positioned so that the stick falls right into your hand at just the right angle. The trim system is all electric with no physical trim wheels. To guard against motor failure, there are dual independently controlled pitch-trim motors and an "alternate trim mode" that allows three-axis trim control through the MFD.
The new Avio avionics system made by IS&S includes some advanced features. It's easy to see the status of the smart power distribution system and all aircraft systems at a glance. Electronic circuit breakers are controlled through a screen on the avionics system—there's no physical breaker panel. The synoptic displays are especially nice. They show the status of all fans, pumps, breakers, fuel levels and just about everything else a pilot might want to look at in a schematic format. It's really well done. Weight and balance is done the way it should be on every airplane. Data entry is via a picture of the airplane showing all of the seats and baggage areas where data can be entered. The computer shows a plot of the CG diagram, and it computes and loads the appropriate speeds for takeoff and landing. It's super easy and very intuitive—no manuals or paper are needed. Flight-plan entry is equally easy and similar to other FMS, and new dual IFMS allow data entry from either seat. The displays also include the capability for synthetic vision, as well has enhanced vision systems such as those using shortwavelength IR cameras for low visibility approach and taxi.
Engine start couldn't be easier. Simply turn the engine control switch on the overhead panel to the "Start" detent, and monitor the gauges. The system is completely automatic, and you don't even have to touch the throttles. It just can't get any easier! Once everything is set up and you're ready for taxi, ground handling is intuitive and easy. Taxiing with the pedals feels precise, and with a little asymmetric power combined with differential braking, it's easy to castor the nosewheel for really tight turns.
We were cleared to runway 24 with the winds blowing 210/19G26. The max demonstrated crosswind component is 16 knots, so even though the conditions seemed a bit sporty, they felt completely manageable. For takeoff, we used a rotation speed of 88 KTAS. Lose an engine while still on the ground, and you stop. Lose an engine after rotation, and you simply climb at Vyse, which is about 110 KIAS. Holding the brakes and bringing the throttles full forward gives the PW610F engines a chance to come up to their full-rated power of 900 pounds of thrust. Once stable, releasing the brakes provides a slingshot-like launch with exhilarating acceleration. They may be baby turbofans, but coupled to an airplane with a maximum takeoff weight of only 6,000 pounds, the thrust-to-weight ratio of the Eclipse is higher than most other larger light business jets. At max takeoff weight, the Eclipse can clear a 50-foot obstacle in only 2,433 feet, and once airborne, the Eclipse delivers great climb performance. During the initial climb, we saw a little over 3,000 fpm, which, of course, slows as you get higher, but for such a small jet, this is great performance. Lose an engine, and a loaded Eclipse can still climb at 989 fpm under standard sea-level conditions.
For our test flight out of Tucson, we headed north to Flagstaff, turned east toward Williams and then headed back south to Ryan Field to provide enough time to sample the performance at a typical cruise altitude. ATC required a few level-offs for traffic during our climb, but it was obvious that a direct climb to FL380 could be done in less than about 25 minutes. Once level, the Eclipse gradually accelerated to an indicated airspeed of 191 KIAS, which yields a true airspeed of 363 KTAS, or 0.638 M, while sipping only 346 pounds of fuel per hour—total. That works out to only 51 GPH, which is fantastic economy for this speed. It's important to remember that the performance of small turbofans is strongly affected by the air temperature at altitude. We were showing an OAT of -60C, which is ISA -2C, so the performance that we experienced should be pretty close to standard. The maximum speed of 375 KTAS will be achieved at FL 300, but unless it's a short flight, that's not where most operations will take place. At our cruising altitude of FL380, the cabin pressure differential of 8.2 psi provided a comfortable cabin altitude of 7,350 feet. At FL410, the cabin will go to 8,000 feet, which is typical for many light jets and still allows everyone to arrive feeling good after a long flight.
The descent back into Ryan Field provided an opportunity to sample one of the most exciting new features in the 550: the auto-throttles. The operation is pretty simple. You bug the speed on the airspeed indicator, and the throttles operate automatically to hold that speed. When I first heard about this feature, I was skeptical about how useful it would really be, but seeing it in operation completely sold me—particularly for single-pilot operations. One thing to remember is that when you're flying a jet, ATC often expects that you have a helper in the form of another pilot on board. You can be barreling along at pretty high speed, and there are times when the pace of operations can become nearly overwhelming. With the auto-throttle, you just set the speed and move on to other tasks—it's fantastic! The big limitation in the Eclipse is that the vertical navigation functions currently supplied by the Avio system are still relatively primitive. All you can do is enter a vertical speed. It does display target arcs to show where you'll be at the bottom of the descent, but it's not currently possible to enter crossing altitudes or to auto-load speeds from the database. Oden explained that a future software release is planned to address this issue. With the auto-throttle option, there's tremendous opportunity to create an incredible, easy-to-use, fully automated system.
As we approached the airport, we canceled IFR and took a little time to do some air work. The feel of hand flying the Eclipse is about what I expect from just about any jet in this category. The controls aren't what I would call "light," but they're well harmonized. Steep turns are totally predictable, and slow flight is quite manageable. The Eclipse has a stick pusher to help protect against accidental stalls. When we configured for landing and slowed a little below the indicated stall speed, I couldn't produce a buffet, or get the pusher to activate. Oden explained that since our weight was so low, the actual stall speed as determined by the AOA system was quite a bit lower than the fixed value shown on the tape. Still, it was impressive to see how well the Eclipse handled right above the stall speed. One other nice feature of the Eclipse is that there's no VMC speed because the stall speed is always higher than VMC in any configuration.
The Avio avionics system presents navigation and systems information very clearly on three large screens. Single-lever throttles and data keyboards simplify operations.
As we turned back to the airport, ATIS was reporting winds 40 degrees across the runway at 23G30, but Oden didn't hesitate to give me the controls for my very first landing in the Eclipse. As we approached downwind, we slowed to drop the first notch of flaps. It was quite bumpy as we crossed midfield and dropped the gear. The auto-throttles aren't certified to operate with the gear extended, so turning final, I adjusted the power to slow to Vref, while bringing in the final notch of flaps for landing. It took a lot of rudder, but the Eclipse felt totally manageable in spite of the conditions and rewarded my efforts with a smooth touchdown. Did I mention how nice it is to have trailing link gear? Since the Eclipse can touch down and stop in only 2,790 feet, it can access a lot of airports too small for other jets. And, it sure is a fun airplane to fly!
After shutdown, I walked away from the Eclipse impressed by how far the company has come and by what a nice product they've produced. They certainly understand the importance of service and have established maintenance centers in San Diego, Chicago and Boca Raton, along with the factory in Albuquerque. SIMCOM can provide initial and recurrent training with a new level-D sim located in Orlando. In-aircraft training options are also available. Oden explained that customers range from private owners moving up to their first jet to flight departments with larger aircraft that need a more economical alternative for moving only a few folks at a time. At a base price of $2.895 million, the Eclipse is the least expensive jet on the market, and with operating costs of only $1.96/nm or $648/hr, it's a viable alternative to many slower turboprops. For all of the existing customers and for the world of aviation, it's certainly a good thing that this dream has finally come true.