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Monday, October 1, 2012

The New Eclipse

Company CEO sees bright future ahead for the twin-engine Eclipse 550

Four years after a bankruptcy filing halted its operations, Eclipse Aerospace is back with a new twin-engine jet, a new avionics package and a new outlook on the market.

In June, Eclipse, based in Albuquerque, N.M., launched production of the Eclipse 550 twin-engine jet, a modified version of the Eclipse 500 very light jet which hit the market in 2007. The first production 550 aircraft, Serial Number 1001, will take 12 months to complete as the production line and new systems are validated, rolling out of the Eclipse production facility in Albuquerque, N.M., in the summer of 2013. The company plans to ramp up its operations to produce and deliver about five planes per month starting in 2014.

That’s a far cry from the bankruptcy filings and production stoppages that hit the company just a few years ago. Eclipse Aviation, founded in 1998, developed, manufactured and delivered about 250 Eclipse 500s before a lack of funding shutdown the company in 2008. Eclipse Aviation has filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. The company was purchased by a group of investors, rebranded as Eclipse Aerospace. Earlier this year, the company secured a minority stakeholder in Sikorsky Aircraft.

“Eclipse Aviation did a phenomenal job designing the most efficient twin-engine jet that’s ever been brought to the market,” Mason Holland, CEO and chairman of Eclipse Aerospace, told Avionics Magazine, referring to the 500. “They produced 260 [Eclipse 500s] in 17 months, starting July 1, 2007, until the middle of 2008 when they stopped production. That’s unheard of in the industry to build that many jets that are that efficient and put them into the marketplace, so from a product standpoint its absolutely phenomenal. Unfortunately from a financial standpoint they just spent a little too much money doing it and they also priced the plane below what it cost them to build it, and that ended up backfiring on them.”

The Eclipse 550, with a base price of $2.7 million, will have the same airframe and Pratt & Whitney PW610F engines of the original Eclipse 500, and will include enhanced avionics systems from Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S), of Exton, Pa. The 550 is already type certified in the United States as the company will carry over the FAA production certificate from the 500. But Holland said the biggest difference between the 500 and 550 is the new avionics package, including the all-new Avio Integrated Flight Management System (IFMS). The 13 microprocessors in the panel displays control all the major aircraft systems on the 550, the company said.

“We’re going to a whole new generation of PFDs [primary flight displays] and MFDs [multifunction displays] that are supplied by IS&S that have faster and more depth in their microprocessors. They’ll be able to handle things that we’re adding to the plane, for things like synthetic vision, enhanced vision, auto-throttles, things like that that we want to integrate into the aircraft, but we need more horsepower in the microprocessors in order to do that, so the new panel is probably the biggest difference,” Holland said.

IS&S will also be installing a standby attitude indicator to inform pilots of the relative orientation of the aircraft to the earth. The all-in-one integrated attitude indicator is powered by its own power source.

“You can actually fly the plane off that one instrument if your entire panel went blank,” said Holland. “That was something that a lot of our customers wanted to see, we’ve never had a whole panel go blank, but that standby indicator with its own power source was a nice add as well.”

The 550 will also feature an automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) Out system to give both pilots and air traffic controllers the same radar picture, and pilots will have the ability to pull up traffic information about the altitude, heading, speed and distance of approaching aircraft.

Additionally, the 550 includes a software-enabled composite mode, which when switched on, will allow pilots to fly the aircraft with a single operational PFD.

Other avionics features include optional Enhanced Vision integration into the PFD and MFD; dual WAAS/SBAS beta-3 GPS receivers; Terrain Avoidance Warning System (TAWS); Stormscope; Color Radar; and integrated Autopilot Coupled Guidance.

The aircraft is type certified in more than 30 countries, including the most recent one in Brazil, and the company is looking at pursuing type certifications in Canada and China. And with very little research and development expenses — the majority of R&D expense was retired during the bankruptcy — Holland sees a bright future for his company moving forward despite the widespread economic uncertainty in the United States and Europe.

“The largest market for general aviation is always the U.S., regardless of the type of economy, so I would venture to say that around 50 percent of our sales, we see as being U.S.-based sales and the other 50 percent being around the world, but economies that are doing very well that this plane fits great for, Brazil has a very good economy right now, Turkey has a good economy right now, there are parts of Europe that are getting better, South Africa, Australia, some parts of Asia, and we’re certified in all of those areas right now so I see a very good use of this plane in many different regions of the world.”

Holland would not divulge sales figures for the Eclipse 550, said the company plans to deliver anywhere 40 to 60 planes per year starting in 2014.

“We don’t want to outpace the economy, our build of 50 aircraft per year is very, very modest,” said Holland. “If you think about it, there’s 6.7 billion people in this world, so the ability to sell 50 twin-engine jets at the lowest price point twin-engine jet in the world we’re the only twin-engine jet certified in the world that’s priced below $3 million so for us to be able to do that small of a build, 50 per year, with such a large world population, I think we’re going to surprise ourselves very positively.” — Woodrow Bellamy III

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