Going Direct: How Uber Might Prove Vern Raburn Right After All

The Eclipse jet pioneer predicted a nationwide network of short-haul air transport. Maybe we’re finally seeing its birth.

In Dallas this week, ride sharing giant Uber held a gathering for people who see a future world in which people are whisked to and fro in small autonomously operated vehicles. Yes, just like the Jetsons of 1960s Saturday morning cartoon fame.

The details about the nuts and bolts of how this could work are everything—without a nationwide (and worldwide) standard in place, it can’t possibly work. Imagine the true air taxis of Uber or Lift or whatever new companies will emerge battling Amazon delivery bots in the low-altitude skies over Indianapolis, or Miami Beach, or...Aspen, or San Francisco, for instance. There have got to be rules and those rules have got to be enforced and when new things come to pass—and they always do and always will—that system has got to be flexible enough to accommodate that kind of progress, something the FAA has shown itself as being very reluctant to do, if they decide to go along with progress at all.

Assume for the moment, however, that such standards can and will come about. I take it as an article of faith that they will, that the world of aviation has begun to change irrevocably, that new ways of flying and being flown are around the corner. How far around the corner they are is a matter for debate, but those folks who say that this change is all just wildly imaginative and will never come to pass are just wrong. How the world of aviation changes and when it will are unknown. But it will change.

The former head of the former Eclipse Aviation, which developed the world’s only true personal small jet, the Eclipse EA500 twinjet, said that the Eclipse’s future was tied to a coming network of small charter companies that would fly the Eclipse jet from town to town, selling seats on the plane to people who had to get from Tallahassee to Fort Myers, stat. There was even a company, DayJet, that ordered 1,400 Eclipse jets to provide just such service and actually took delivery of three jets. DayJet lasted less than a year.

But with Uber and Google and Amazon, among many others, championing just such a network, but of smaller aircraft going shorter distances, can the growth of that model to extend its reach beyond city centers be far behind it? It’s hard to say. Even if intraurban sky taxis come to pass, and there are many hurdles to overcome before we get there, the challenges of going longer distances fast enough to compete with planes and trains are great, at least to do so profitably.

Despite its checkered history and its new owners, One Aviation, working hard to find success for it still, the Eclipse 500 stands as one of the great achievements in the history of private aviation. It was and is a 6,000-pound, 370-knot twinjet that’s pretty easy to learn to fly and that does everything Raburn said it would.

Maybe instead of 6,000 pounds Raburn should have been shooting for 600, and instead of a range of 1,000 nm, maybe he should have been aiming for 10. Because it’s just that kind of aviation world that seems to be shaping up before our very eyes, under plans being hatched by people, many of them new to aviation and almost all of whom are betting big on the success of just such ventures.

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