|Contributing Editor, Video Editor|
Certification functionality and bankruptcy issues, plus a fair does of malaise, plagued many early adopters of Eclipse jets, but there are 263 jets in the wild now reaching a combined 200,000 total flight hours -- and the new Eclipse ownership experience has changed.
The early Eclipse experience was a master class in "the pioneers get the arrows." Many production slot holders took those arrows in the form of shifting performance targets and missed development goals. Others lost their substantial deposits, altogether. In the end, the jet proved underpriced when introduced and the original company suffered, accordingly. The Eclipse jet concept may have been born from significant positive aspiration for general aviation. It was executed, some might argue, with significant hubris. But that was before.
Now the aircraft is under the guidance of Eclipse jet owner Mason Holland who is determined to secure the aircraft's future and support the owners. And as we've found, some of those owners are finally living the dream of safe simple fast efficient flight that they were sold when they put their money down.
At the helm of Eclipse Aerospace, today, Mason Holland is a hands on owner. "I know at least 80 percent of our jet owners on a first name basis," he says, "even those flying internationally." Holland has pulled the company up by its boot straps and now supports seven dealers representing 30 different countries. The jet is actually certified in about 10 more than that. Holland has recently entered the Latin American market following certification in Brazil. "Middle East sales have been great," says Holland, "and it's a great plane for Europe." According to Holland, the cost in fuel per nautical mile to fly an Eclipse in Europe is less than what it costs to fly the same trips in a Cirrus SR22. "Jet-A is so much cheaper than avgas over there," he says. When (if?) the piston fleet turns to Jet-A, that equation will change. But even in the U.S. customers who purchased largely based on promised efficiencies in flight time, fuel burn, and simplicity of operation are reporting back positively. For this story, we spoke with two happy owners. Their stories follow.
Steve Grantz is retired now, and bought into the jet early. He purchased a production slot for "I think it was jet #340." But as early adopters like DayJet and others began to fall off there was some compression in the waiting list. After an aftermaket swap with a prospective owner who wasn't ready to place his deposit, Grantz joined the lineup holding position #288. Unfortunately, the first incarnation of Eclipse went bankrupt at about 260 and took Grantz's deposit with it. That could have been the end, but as part of his purchase, Grantz had bought the initial simulator training time. He passed the course and held a type rating in the jet. After he lost his slot, he went looking for something else but nothing fit the bill. For Grantz, Eclipse truly did create a niche. He hit the online forums found one that was underutilized and began to lease the jet. "After our first two flights, we fell in love. Eventually we bought the one I was leasing."
Before the Eclipse, Grantz put 1700 hours on a Cirrus. He used it to commute between Indiana and Florida. He flew it in all kinds of weather, including low IFR and at night. But he wanted to move up. For his dollar "the Eclipse flew very much like the Cirrus -- the side stick and glass panel was a natural transition." In practice, Grantz says the speed was very intimidating at first, but once he became familiar with the aircraft "it's really easier to fly than the Cirrus." That's a testament to the aircraft's automation and handling. "There's basically two throttle settings -- either full for takeoff or maximum continuous thrust for cruise and you keep it there until you're starting down to land." Grantz says he now owns a home at Jumbolair, the flying community in Florida. "Aviation has become part of our lives."
Grantz typically carries his wife, who "loves the pressurization" and their dog. But the jet can now be configured for six and Grantz has flown that many. More often he'll make a golf outing, "we'll take four night bags, four bags of clubs, and four people. You leave out an hour of fuel and go." Grantz typically files for 34,000 or 35,000 feet. "I've been up to 41 a couple of times for weather ... sometimes we'll fly at 37. I like to be in clear skies to use my eyes." And there is the crossover. For Grantz, the Eclipse is his "super Cirrus."
One particular experience stuck out for Grantz. "I went to New Orleans last week ... an industry convention. The main runway there was closed and we went into the 3,700 foot secondary runway. I was really pleased. I paid close attention to the numbers and used half the runway. We touched down and rolled out and without even braking hard we made the turnoff." Grantz says he had some wind and it was dry -- that performance isn't something he'd expect every time. "But it worked out. It's why we bought the jet." Now he says "It feels easier to fly than the Cirrus did. Flying the Cirrus put us in a lot of weather, weekly. With the Eclipse I worry about weather on takeoff and landing, everything else we just go over."
Ken Meyer is another satisfied owner. Meyer has owned his Eclipse for more than four years and has put 760 hours on the plane. Both he and his wife are type rated on the jet which they have configured for four. Meyer was attracted to the jet "mainly because it's fast, high, safe and economical." We asked Meyer to deliver some statistics. "I ran the numbers for you on the direct operating costs ... fuel, plus maintenance comes out to a little over $1.50 per nautical mile. Eclipse says we should come in at about $1.95, so we're under. For comparison, my Cessna 340 tended to run over $2 to almost $2.40 per mile." Meyer says the larger Cessna Mustang rings in about 30-percent higher per nautical mile than his jet. "For someone like me ... I'm a retired guy who pays for every mile. It matters."
Meyer's use of the jet demonstrates its utility in and outside of the 500-800 mile "sweet spot" Holland says the design targets. Meyer and his wife fly the jet as a commuter. "We go a lot on a 550 nautical mile trip between northern California and Phoenix. But we do a lot of traveling, too. We flew it to Puerto Rico. There were three Eclipses there." Meyer performed that trip in three legs -- Phoenix to Texas, to Fort Lauderdale, to Puerto Rico. He says he managed legs of 850nm in about two hours on the way out and three coming back, due to winds. "Temperature and altitude dictates our speeds, but they're generally in the 350 to 365 kts range in cruise, at altitude. It's a book airplane and it does what the book says it does." Meyer also uses the jet for non-jet-like short hops.
"We've gone as short as 100 nautical." That forces a slightly different flight plan. "You power back to turboprop speeds and fly at turboprop altitudes," he says. It still pays to get as high as you can, says Meyer. So those flights usually involve climbing to 20,000, skipping the cruise portion, throttling back and going straight into the descent. Meyer's satisfaction is apparent. "The problem with the jet is that it's so easy to hop in and go that it has busted our travel budget. The flying is just easier to do. That's not helping my finances," he says.
The Eclipse fleet is still composed of different versions of the jet. And, like many designs, "It makes a big difference what you luck is," says Ken Meyer. Both he and Grantz told us they'd experienced issues during their period of ownership. Electonic actuators aren't known to be particularly reliable on the jet and both Grantz and Meyer have stories to share. On his first flight with the jet, the aircraft delivered Grantz a Crew Alert System message (CAS). It was a pylon overtemp message. He was flying with an instructor, throttled back the engine "and the message went away." They tried to spool it back up but it triggered a CAS each time. Ultimately, "we left the engine in idle and the fist landing I did in the aircraft was a single engine landing." And, says Grantz, it was very easy. Grantz has also suffered an actuator failure that left the gear down. In each case the aircraft's color coded CAS system (white for non-critical, and yellow or red for relevant levels of severity) notified him of the condition. Both issues came early in his ownership and he attributes them to the aircraft not getting regular use. "The airplane seems happier when you're flying it. It doesn't like to sit."
Meyer has twice experienced a landing gear actuator failure of his own that also left the gear down. But in his case, "cycling it fixes it." The biggest issue for him involved something that also affected a large swath of the fleet. "We had issues with the engine fire extinguishers." The jet's original extinguisher system was a design innovation introduced to the aircraft by Eclipse's original ownerhsip. It was smaller and lighter. It also tended to leak corrosive material into the engine area "and that led to a lot of cleaning jobs among the fleet." The fleet has also been affected by a problem with the heating mechanism in its windshields. "The original manufacturer had a system that needed replacement if any part went bad," says Meyer.
Each of the specific concerns -- actuators, extinguishers and windshields has been addressed by Holland. The company now has a new supplier for the windshields that offers a system with redundancy. It offered replacements for the extinguishers and has found a new supplier for the actuators.
The cost of entry for pilots (setting aside the cost of the jet) hovers near $17,000 for initial training and both Grantz and Meyer said pilots shouldn't expect to pass without diligent work and duly applied skill. And under FAR 61.58, the cost of recurrent training has increased. "This past year they extended the recurrency requirement to single pilot jets," says Meyer. "There used to be a single pilot exemption that allowed you to maintain your currency through a BFR. They've closed that loophole so its mandatory for us to have recurrent training, annually." Meyer says simulator training for recurrent training in the Eclipse can run about $7,500. "We've been doing our recurrent training in the aircraft, instead. We've got a good instructor from the old company who charged $5,300 for the two of us," Meyer said about himself and his wife. It's not an easy cost to swallow. "It amounts to a ckeckride every year, but it's also one of the reasons the safety record in jets is high."
Today, the story of Eclipse is being directed by Mason Holland and written by its owners. And there may be reason to have faith in both. Prior to Holland, the jets were not approved for flight into known icing and the FAA imposed on them a 30,000 foot ceiling. Within months of taking ownership, Holland delivered version 1.5, an upgrade that gave the jet FIKI , raised the ceiling above 40,000 feet ... and required additional training for its pilots. "I think we put out version 1.5 within 90 days ... that was in late '09," Holland said. Grantz, speaking from the customer's perspective said of the upgrade, "It finally made the jet fully functional. It had proper nav and icing certification -- everything it should have had in the first place." Holland followed up with the 1.7 upgrade for the Avio Integrated Flight Management System (IFMS) and the first recipient went out in early '11. Holland is a fan of the continuous improvement. "We announced an anti-skid brake upgrade a few months ago and that was hugely well received." But his task isn't just to provide the jet owners have expected, it's to maintain a supply chain and, hopefully reignite production, which is more complicated that turning on a production line.
Eclipse has been haunted by its past. And that past includes greatly discounted pricing. Holland has specifically created a cost structure that makes future jets competitive with older jets. Early jets could have been acquired at close to $700,000. Some may be resold at that value, dragging down the market for new jets that Holland hopes to produce targeting a purchase price near $2.7 million. To combat that, Holland set a steep price for necessary upgrades, putting the older jets closer to the mark set by new jets. It has been a careful dance that hasn't sat well with all owners. But for the jet to move to future production, the strategy may have its merits.
Eclipse maintains a core group of highly devoted followers. You don't go through the kind of growing pains these people have dealt with without some degree of loyalty and enthusiasm. And that, more than anything, may ultimately be what not only keeps the jet alive, but also sees it thrive.