On opening day of Oshkosh AirVenture 2007, the Very Light Jet (VLJ) manufacturer Eclipse Aviation was celebrating the certification and first deliveries of its Eclipse 500 twinjet.
It was simultaneously going through great financial distress, and that was no secret to any of the hundreds of people at the company’s press conference at its exhibit on opening day. And few in attendance would be surprised when, about a year later, things started to go south for Eclipse, resulting in its bankruptcy, possibly the biggest such collapse in the history of light general aviation.
But what did surprise everyone was when Eclipse on that July day introduced a brand-new jet, the Eclipse EA400, a single-engine offshoot of its EA500. People were flabbergasted. The question on everyone’s lips was, how could the company, which was under extreme financial strain, spend precious resources to build a second model?
The answer was, it really was indefensible, despite the company’s explanations of how it was financing the program. In retrospect, these dozen years after Eclipse went down in flames, the one thing I find myself thinking is, wasn’t that single-engine jet really cool?
It, like a number of other intriguing models across the decades and across the industry, never really stood a chance. Many were, like the EA400, victims of economic factors beyond their builders’ control, and others were abandoned in the wake of corporate decisions not to pursue the program, some of which look foolish in the luxury of 2020 hindsight. Others were the victims of what’s likely the second-most-common reason for the failure of a design—that is, after the failure to find enough cash to build it—the inability to find the right engine for the plane.
The pressures on GA plane makers are so great that, if anything, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more cool planes like these in our informal lineup of cool planes that never were.
Piper PWA-8 Skycycle
Toward the end of World War II, Piper, like just about every other light plane manufacturer, figured that the big business it was doing with the government selling liaison planes based on the J-3 wouldn’t last forever, so it planned to transition to a civilian lineup. One of the planes it floated was the Skycycle, a single-seat taildragger, the first prototype of which was built from an auxiliary belly fuel tank of the F-4U Corsair fighter. Though it was originally outfitted with a two-cylinder opposed engine, the later prototype got a four-cylinder Lycoming engine, the O-145, which would one day grow into the O-235 series that powered a later Piper, the PA-38 Tomahawk. The Skycycle seemed to have a lot to recommend it, a modern-looking, low-wing design with a cool bubble canopy, side-by-side seating and a modern four-cylinder opposed powerplant. And was it ever cute. But, alas, Piper chose to abandon the Skycycle after it had built just two prototypes in order to pursue offshoots of existing, more conventionally Piper-looking designs—a pathway it would follow until the late ’50s, when it launched the thoroughly modern, hugely successful Cherokee lineup. And, to be fair, single-seat GA planes are real unicorns.