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.
Beech Lightning (Turboprop Baron)
When Beechcraft was looking to add a new upscale model, someone in Wichita came up with a bolt of inspiration to build a single-engine turboprop in the early 1980s. They decided it might make sense to convert a pressurized B-58 Baron to turboprop power. When you think about it, the market was ripe for the idea, and it would be almost a decade before the Pilatus PC-12 and the TBM (then) 700 debuted the idea. Beech got there first, though it abandoned the idea because the Lightning didn’t fit the brand’s lineage. Specifically, Beech engineers opted for a Garrett engine instead of a Pratt & Whitney PT-6, which was used on the company’s King Airs, and there was little love for Garrett engines despite their light weight.
The folks at Beechcraft weren’t wrong. Garretts are ungodly loud on the ramp, and their operational complexities, while workable with professional crews, can be beyond inconvenient for private flyers. The Lightning looked great…275 knots at 25,000 feet and a range of 1,250 nm. But the tradeoffs the light and powerful Garrett engines brought with them doomed the Lightning to obscurity.
Photo by Beechcraft