Power Vacuum

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Eclipse Dumps The Williams Engine...

In a development sure to send ripples through the emerging personal jet market, Eclipse Aviation announced yesterday that it will part company with its proposed engine supplier, Williams International, and it plans to name a new engine vendor in about two weeks. It's no secret that Eclipse had encountered problems with the Williams-developed EJ22 turbofans proposed to power the six-seat Eclipse 500 twinjet. The jet flew only once with the EJ22 engines, but they were soon sent back to Williams for more work. Many in the industry wrote these troubles off as typical teething pains. Not so, says Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn. He told AVweb yesterday that the EJ22 never delivered the required thrust, and Eclipse had worries about durability and reliability, given the high-hour and high-cycle duty the Eclipse is expected to fly in the air-taxi market.

"We found that the engine had very classic early developmental problems, but this is not supposed to be an early developmental engine," Raburn said. When asked if the EJ22's shortcomings could be addressed, Raburn said, "It was not clear to us how that was going to happen. What had become clear was that the engine had no growth potential in it. It couldn't have additional thrust without major developmental work."

Raburn said when the Eclipse 500 first flew at the company's headquarters in Albuquerque last August, the engine was sharply temperature- (and thus thrust-) limited by Williams engineers. Despite minimum fuel and a stripped interior, the airplane's performance was marginal, Raburn said.

...While Other Engine Makers Compete...

Due to the engine shortfalls, the Eclipse prototype has essentially been grounded since last August. But evidently, Eclipse has been busily searching for a replacement engine and CEO Raburn said yesterday that "two Fortune 100 companies are bidding" on the engine job. He declined to name the contenders but hinted that the engines will be variants of established designs, not clean-sheet powerplants, as is the EJ22. (A quick perusal of the Fortune 100 yields a clue: General Electric is in the top 10 and Pratt & Whitney parent United Technologies also qualifies. Honda might be a potential dark horse, having recently announced its own mini-jet program.)

Raburn confirms that whichever engine is selected will be heavier and thirstier, which casts doubt on Eclipse's original payload and range claims. But, says Raburn, the new engine will also have more thrust, so payload should remain the same but with slightly higher cruise speed. Range will be a question, as will finding enough space to carry the additional fuel.

Although an engine decision is expected sometime in December, Eclipse admits that certification, originally planned for December 2003, will be delayed. How delayed? "I can say stuff all day long about the schedule," Raburn said, "what we have do is deliver." Raburn insists that the basic airframe design has been proven and is sound. "Eclipse didn't fail," Raburn said, "Williams failed."

...And Williams Has A Different View

Officials at Williams International, in Walled Lake, Mich., might challenge Raburn's claim regarding what went wrong, but they weren't saying much yesterday. An AVweb reporter was referred by a spokeswoman to the company's brief news release and told that nothing further would be said. In its official statement, Williams said that it had met all of its contractural obligations. The statement also said Williams had "encountered a number of challenges in the on-going EJ22 engine development and its integration into the aircraft," and Eclipse had asked for more engine thrust "beyond the near-term growth capability of the EJ22 engine." Cory Canada, Eclipse spokeswoman, told AVweb yesterday, "Obviously, there's a difference of opinion here. We felt they [Williams] were not able to perform according to their contractual obligations."

NOTE: AVweb's coverage includes the complete text of yesterday's press releases from Williams International and Eclipse Aviation.