Eclipse's Engine Ennui
The Economic Effect Of Losing An Engine ...
After creating the jet and proving the market, development of the Eclipse 500 has hit a hurdle of potentially grand proportions with their announcement last month to part ways with the engine their aircraft was built around. While the state of affairs at the company will prove itself in the coming months, some 1357 orders manifest not only interest in the design, but faith to the tune of $65 million in non-refundable deposits. Of the backlog, Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn said, "To our knowledge, the Eclipse 500 order book is greater than that of any single civilian jet in the history of aviation." Each one of those orders the company had planned to fill by 2006. Each one of those buyers expected certain performance and operating costs, which, generated around the Williams EJ22, were pegged at 56 cents per mile. Those figures and others are now more uncertain. The economic inconvenience of Eclipse's engine trouble could extend beyond that of buyers if production of the jet is significantly delayed. The city of Albuquerque is investing $30 million in infrastructure, in part to accommodate Eclipse at Double Eagle II Airport, where Eclipse plans to employ some 750 employees who might ultimately play a part in putting out a projected 1,500 jets per year. Unfortunately, that process may be hampered without an engine to power the ambitious project.
... Wandering Eyes ...
For Eclipse, which long held their cards close to the vest in part to avoid having their labors and market research become their competitors' best friend, it seems their hand is now flat on the table. Projecting confidence in this position, Raburn told The Albuquerque Tribune, "There is still no alternative to this airplane." But then, "this airplane" no longer exists -- the one that replaces it may share its form, but the extent of re-engineering necessitated by heavier, costlier, less-efficient or just plain different engines is yet unknown and that has some possible buyers wondering. Chris Stevens, who had plans for 2004 to launch start-up jet taxi service in Fort Worth, Texas, flying leased Eclipse 500s, says, "Eclipse's problem is that all their economics are hung right on this engine and [Williams'] technology." Stevens' opinion is that without the EJ22, Eclipse can't make the same claims. Stevens is now considering his other options, such as existing Citations or the forthcoming six-place Cessna Mustang. The Mustang -- which shares similar performance specs with the no-longer-relevant EJ22-powered Eclipse 500 -- aims for type certification in mid-2006 and first deliveries late that year. At $2.29 million, the projected Mustang-to-Eclipse price ratio is close to 3:1.
While Eclipse spokeswoman Cory Canada last month said it's impossible to say how the engine change will affect the plane's ultimate price, Raburn told AVweb "there's absolutely no way" the Eclipse will cost more than $1 million. Eclipse had once intended to deliver approximately 140 aircraft in 2004, but its current engine conundrum leaves the project more than a couple dozen test flights behind schedule with a few more prominent hurdles to be cleared first.
... And New Engines Add Nearly 800 Pounds ...
As the emerging market for personal jets waits for Eclipse Aviation's next move, the company told its prospective customers late last week the Eclipse 500 will be some 775 pounds heavier with whatever new engines are selected to power it. Moreover, to accommodate the presumably heavier power plants, Eclipse has begun the inevitable shuffling and re-engineering of systems to keep the center of gravity tamped down and the structure ample. Before Eclipse parted company with engine maker Williams International in late November, the Eclipse had a proposed maximum ramp weight of 4,725 pounds. New engines will likely swell the gross weight to 5,500 pounds, according to Eclipse's preliminary estimates. In a letter to Eclipse position holders last week, no figures were given on the all-important revised range and payload specifications. But Eclipse maintains that the new engines -- with 900 pounds of thrust each -- will result in a better, more capable aircraft than would have been possible with Williams EJ22 fanjets. Recall that the test engines delivered by Williams to Eclipse fell short of the required thrust of 770 pounds per side. Eclipse claims that the engine had no additional growth in it while Williams counters that Eclipse simply wanted more thrust than the EJ22 could deliver. The two companies are working toward resolving the resulting squabble over contract requirements as Eclipse entertains offers from two other engine makers. Its selection announcement is expected later this week or next week.
... With Refreshed Competition
While GA revolutionaries wait breathlessly in the wings for Eclipse to fit a new engine, the folks at Safire -- and their light six-place S-26 -- might have a slightly more upbeat take on the whole thing. Safire announced early last month that it had secured funding through first flight for development of their own unique six-place jet. "The funds committed will allow Safire to move forward at full speed toward completing the design and building the prototype for first flight," according to a company press release; the funds arrive compliments of a "Swiss syndicate." Safire's aircraft offers six-place seating plus a lavatory, but has yet to find an engine (a deal with Agilis didn't materialize.) At this time, the company is still finalizing their plans for production -- and has yet to claim a location for those facilities. Once in production, the company intends to craft as many as four aircraft per day offered at an asking price near $1 million. The carrots are still dangling, and the wait for a revolutionary six-place jet goes on.
Editor's Note: Information for this story also provided by AVweb's Russ Niles.