Eclipse Hits the Road
Quite out of the blue, the local controller at Orlando Executive Airport couldn't quite contain himself: "I really like that airplane," he said. He was referring to the Eclipse 500 we had just landed on runway 7 at KORL. His unsolicited compliment almost prompted me to key the mic and ask why he liked the airplane. Was it because the thing will fly comfortably from 100 to 250 knots below 10,000 feet and thus offers more sequencing flexibility for a busy ATC sector? I doubt it. I figure he liked it because the Eclipse is just a good looking airplane, with just the right proportions and, at least in the one we were in, a spiffy new paint job.
It's also a nice little package of speed and efficiency and although it won't do it all, the Eclipse 500 does enough well to deliver on the appeal of a personally flown jet or a small, economical business ride. Having resurrected the airplane from the shambles of the original company, the newly constituted Eclipse Aerospace is making the rounds with demonstrators to show they're serious about making another run at the market. Serious, in this case, means a realistic price between $2.6 and $2.8 million and offshore assembly manufacturing in Poland to control costs. Welcome to the bold world of globalization at the small GA aircraft level.
Do they have a prayer of succeeding? As I've said before, I think Eclipse is doing everything right and what I saw in my demo flight on Sunday just reinforces that view. (Look for a video later in the week.) The old Eclipse company had, in burning through more than a billion bucks in capital, succeeded in proving the conceptual bones of the basic idea of a small, fast jet, but their execution of it was bad management writ large in aluminum and friction stir welding. The new Eclipse, under Mason Holland, is steadily erasing much of the damage done to the brand and I sense that many of us—me included—are cheering for their success.
During my flight trial with Preston McClay, who flies charter Eclipses for North American Jet, we went over the numbers. Basically, the Eclipse will do largely what it was always intended to do: Fly three or four people with substantial baggage over a 700-mile leg at around 360 knots in relative comfort or five people with day bags over a shorter distance. The version I flew was a so-called Total Eclipse, one of the original airplanes remanufactured to nearly the specs that the new production airplanes—to be called 550s—will have, including the Avio NG avionics, with systems integration and FMS. The days of portable GPS velcro'd to the glareshield are long gone for new Eclipses. Further, Pratt & Whitney has engineered a fix for the PW610F that removes an altitude restriction of 30,000 feet because of hard carbon deposits in the engine burner cans. With new cans, the airplanes are legal to FL410, although I'm told the 500's sweet spot is in the mid-30s. All the bits and pieces of the once-troubled Avio system are there and operating as they're supposed, including a superb—and vital—autopilot. The new production airplanes will have some additional features, including anti-skid brakes and new paint schemes.
In short, there's a lot of capability in this small airplane for just the right customers, the ones who resonate with the idea of small and efficient but who also happen to find Cessna's CJ line, even the Mustang, just a bit much. Turboprops are appealing, but for many buyers, they don't have the cachet of a jet. The fact of the matter is that in a world economy approaching $70 trillion, there's a lot of concentrated wealth and in the wide scheme of things, it doesn't take that much of it to buy your own Eclipse, either to be flown by the owner or a professional pilot. Yes, it's a niche market for the wealthy or the small company with resources to invest, but then isn't all of aviation? If Eclipse can't sell 30 to 50 these a year minimum to a global market, it's time to knock out the lights in GA and move on to lawn bowling.
A word here about Showalter Flying Service. I have business at Orlando Executive about once a year, I guess, and Showalter never fails to impress as one of the best FBOs on the planet. The service is always speedy, friendly and evenly applied to all airplanes no matter what their size. When we landed after our demo, for instance, the cabin door was barely open before Showalter towed out the ground power unit so we could diddle with the avionics and systems on the ground. When the airplane had to be repositioned for photography, they were on it in minutes. It ought to be that way everywhere, but it just isn't. Showalter still continues to set the standard.