When the phone rang -- I think it was in 2002 -- I couldn't believe who was on the other end. Vern Raburn himself had deigned to grace me with a personal interview. As the new kid on the block at AVweb, I couldn't believe my good fortune. After all, Eclipse Aviation was the hottest item in aviation news, and I was likely the least known aviation journalist anywhere. I guess that's why he picked me.
Within a few questions, Raburn was on the defensive, and that's how it's been ever since.
Raburn and then Roel Pieper, who toppled him in a palace coup worthy of the finest Flashman novel, have spent the last six years explaining, apologizing, maneuvering and, ultimately, cutting and running on buyers, investors and employees who believed an impossible dream.
It didn't need to turn out this way.
For all the hype about new technology and building methods, the company ended up turning out a pleasant (but average) little airplane that would find a ready market at reasonable production levels and pricing.
And it could have been done mostly with off-the-shelf or emerging technology. Indeed, the "revolutionary" avionics suite that was to manage the aircraft (it's not really finished yet) isn't as capable, in many respects, as some recently-introduced handheld GPS units.
What Raburn et. al. should have seen, especially given their backgrounds in the computer business, is that some parts of the technology move at lightning pace, but the aerodynamic and thermodynamic forces that govern the parts of the plane that keep it in the air are pretty hard to change in the ways that would have been necessary for Eclipse to deliver on its promise.
The flight decks of all modern aircraft have been revolutionized in the last decade. Airframes and engines have evolved. Too bad for 260 owners of half-finished, orphaned airplanes, hundreds of investors and employees that Eclipse got it backwards.
And it's too bad for all of the aforementioned and the rest of us in aviation that it got this far.
Some have estimated that Eclipse burned $2 billion in its quest for a cheap jet. Some have also suggested that the money was essentially lost to aviation and could have been used to build viable products.
While there are some notable exceptions, I think it's fair to say that many of those who poured money into the project couldn't have cared less about aviation. They were lured by bells and whistles that amounted to little else, and much of that money would have gone elsewhere had it not been for Raburn's shameless skill at attracting investment.
While most of us are simply happy to see the end of a tortuous process, the timing is awful. With general aviation under the gun from all corners, this kind of collapse will only make it harder to rebuild an industry that has not only been pummeled by the market forces affecting all business but has been unfairly tarred as a symbol of greed and waste.
Unfortunately, sometimes the shoe fits, and, fair or not, the industry as a whole will have to wear it for some time.
So what's to be done about it? It's what the vast majority in aviation do every day, going about their business with honesty, integrity and a realistic sense of their place in the overall scheme. Although competition is vibrant in aviation, there's an underlying teamwork that makes it such a pleasure to pursue as a vocation.
And, in aviation like anything else, we learn from our mistakes. Eclipse has certainly provided an education.