OSHKOSH: Eclipse Aerospace flies first EA550, plans larger twin

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On 2 July there was still no word from Eclipse Aerospace about the status of the EA550, despite a promise in June 2012 that the revived assembly line in Albuquerque, New Mexico, would build and fly the first aircraft within 12 months.

Mason Holland, a software entrepreneur who brought Eclipse out of liquidation and restarted production, laughs when gingerly asked for a status update on the first model.

"It flew," he says, announcing a milestone for the twin-engined light jet programme awaited since the last of the original 260 EA500s rolled off the assembly line more than five years ago.

Holland's public announcement style is very different to that of Vern Raburn, who launched the EA500 in 1998 amid intense publicity. In 2004, the original Eclipse Aviation published more than 200 tasks and milestones required to achieve US Federal Aviation Administration certification on its website in order to publicly check them off one by one.

eclipse 550 ea aerospace

Eclipse Aerospace  

There has been no verification of Eclipse Aerospace's claims that the EA550 has flown

Holland clearly prefers a more understated marketing strategy: "We didn't even put out a press release that we flew it. Maybe somebody will see it in the public somewhere."

No pictures of the EA550 have been released to confirm the flight, but the FAA aircraft registration database reveals Eclipse Aerospace received tail numbers on 20 May for aircraft with "550" serial numbers. No flights by any of the four aircraft - identified by the FAA as 550LJ, 265EA, 279EJ and 285EA - appear on popular online flight tracking services such as FlightAware.

However, Holland insists the first aircraft has flown and entered certification tests for the EA550's signature avionics upgrades. The lack of supporting evidence fits the profile of Eclipse Aerospace's preferred approach to public relations, which is to make few promises and continue to make quiet progress.

"I haven't seen a picture of the airplane in flight," Holland says. "They didn't tell me about the flight until three days after it happened. So that's how much we didn't even care about it, because it's just part of the process."

Eclipse Aerospace must also look to the future. Few start-up aircraft manufacturers outside a corporate-backed umbrella have survived long on a single type certificate. The quest for start-ups is always to expand the product family as soon as possible.

Under Raburn's leadership, Eclipse Aviation launched the single-engined EA400 Eclipse Concept Jet (ECJ) programme in secret. The four-seat jet was publicly unveiled in July 2007 at the Oshkosh AirVenture fly-in only a few weeks after achieving first flight, but has not been seen since.

However, Holland confirms the ECJ is not moving forward as the next development project: "The single-engined thing - I'm tired of answering that question. The single-engined jet with current jet technology is not efficient, so it would not be. I think there's got to be another major change in engine design before you're ever going to see that being viable in the marketplace."

Eclipse Aerospace is, however, already considering its next move - and in the opposite direction to the ECJ. The company gathered 140 Eclipse customers in Albuquerque in June, asking them for their preference regarding an all-new Eclipse Aerospace product.

"We thought seeking the guidance from our existing customers was the best place to spend some time on at this stage of the process," Holland says. "We won't stay a single-product company for long - that's a truism. We're not going to go smaller, we're going to go bigger."

The company's immediate focus is to complete the tasks necessary to add the batch of supplementary type certificates (STCs) from an EA500 to an EA550. Holland says certification work for all but one of the required STCs has already finished. As of 15 July, the FAA online database still showed no approved STCs registered under the Eclipse Aerospace name, but there is often a lag for new documents to appear.

"We're still finishing the STC on the avionics," Holland says. "It's in the middle of flight [test] right now. It will be done well in time for deliveries."

He adds that the first delivery is still scheduled for around late September. Holland reiterates that Eclipse Aerospace will deliver "about 10 or so" aircraft in 2013, although he acknowledges the company is operating under a two aircraft per month production rate that begins with only four months remaining in the year. As many as two of the delivery positions are available to claim, he says.

He adds that production will increase to three per month after the middle of 2014, with about 30 EA550 deliveries expected that year and with "plenty" of those positions still available for new customers.

Eclipse Aerospace has enough fuselages and wings left over from the previous owners to support production until the end of 2015. It has also signed a contract with Pratt & Whitney Canada to deliver enough PW610F turbofan engines to cover delivery positions until end-2014.

"I think we have virtually all the other suppliers under contract," Holland says. "We might be missing a handful, but nothing to keep us from building. So we're well into the plus-95% of all the supply chain under contract for production."

Eclipse Aerospace envisions a steady state for the production system, falling between 30 and 50 aircraft per month, Holland says.

"About 30 planes a year, we're fine, 40 planes a year, we're better, and 50 planes a year is a good, solid, properly margined company in aviation. That's how we designed it and we're pretty much going to step in that direction over the next three years of organic build."

The numbers seem modest compared with the swift, two-year ramp-up by the original Eclipse Aviation to 161 deliveries in 2008 alone, before it swiftly collapsed under an unsustainable pricing structure, a two-year delay caused by an engine switch and the financing crunch in the immediate aftermath of the global recession.

But the differences between the original and new Eclipse companies do not stop there. Whereas Raburn initially booked more than 2,000 orders of a twin-engined jet sold for roughly the price of a Beechcraft Bonanza, Eclipse Aerospace is marketing a newer version of that product upgraded with synthetic vision and autothrottles for $2.9 million each.

At that price, the four-seat EA550 is still offered $500,000 below the list price of a single-engined Daher-Socata TBM 850. Interestingly, the TBM 850 is something of an ideal model for the new Eclipse Aerospace to aim at.

"Nobody is around them at $3.4 million and nobody comes into their space, and they're consistently selling 30-60 aircraft per year," Holland says, adding that he aspires to match the TBM's production and demand figures.

The original Eclipse Aviation's orderbook was mostly filled by start-up air taxi operators, including the famous example of a 1,000-aircraft order placed by Nimbus before it cancelled the deal. Raburn's vision prompted the FAA to include thousands of very light jets in the agency's official market forecast. However, the air taxi market is not on the list of target buyers for the EA550.

"Our core business plan organically is 50 aircraft sales [per year] to owners and business people that might have a pilot in the front seat with them," Holland says. "That's the core plan and everything else is accretive to that.