By Murdo Morrison
"With the benefit of hindsight, we underestimated the difficulty of this." Thus the always honest Vern Raburn, founder of pioneering very light jet manufacturer Eclipse Aviation, reflected yesterday at EBACE on the almost decade-long battle to make a reality of his vision of an affordable personal jet aircraft.
After umpteen setbacks, Eclipse looks as if it is almost over the mountain. A few weeks ago, the company received its FAA production certificate, allowing it to issue its own standard airworthinesss certificates for production aircraft, rather than having to submit every aircraft to the FAA for approval before delivery.
It delivered its first customer aircraft on the last day of 2006, and on 31 March, its biggest customer, Florida air taxi start-up DayJet took its first three aircraft, which it plans - after months of delay - to start operating by July.
Vern admits a few mistakes: the company probably put more effort into planning its factory and production processes at a time when it should have been focusing on the aircraft itself. He also says "we tried to build the first seven aircraft on a production line environment" when the aircraft design was going through a lot of changes.
That aside, Eclipse now has a slick production facility in Albuquerque that resembles more a car or white goods plant than traditional general aviation factory. It has around 50 aircraft at various stages of production. This year, it will build "hundreds" of aircraft; by next year, it should be turning out over 20 a week on a backlog currently full to the end of 2011.
There are still sceptics. The Eclipse may have got over its certification hurdle: now the company has to keep a global supply chain - drawing on manufactured components from as far away as Chile and Poland - moving. The doubters also point to Eclipse's exposure to DayJet, a an ambitious venture that has not yet proved Florida's business community want and are prepared to pay for an on-demand air taxi network and is more than six months behind its original launch schedule. With 1,400 of its 2,600 orders from DayJet, Vern Raburn must lie awake at night hoping his old business associate Ed Iaccobucci has it right.