It’s development budget was enormous, a sum measured in hundreds of billions, not millions. It was the brainchild of some of the most brilliant aircraft designers ever assembled to work on a single project. It was backed by the unlimited technological and manufacturing resources of many of the world’s largest and prestigious aviation contractors and sub-contractors.
Even with all that, it took over a decade to get it from concept to first flight. Even with all that, it never lived up to its original mission and only became successful after a new role was invented for it. Even with all that, it began “revenue service” years behind schedule and at a per-aircraft acquisition cost 400 percent higher than originally projected.
Oh, yeah, it also took three revisions over eight years (1989-1997) before production models with full capabilities were operational.
You’ve probably guessed what “it” is by now but, in case you haven’t, what we’re talking about here is the B2 Spirit (aka Stealth) Bomber, compared to which the development timeline glitches suffered by the Eclipse 500 are as insignificant as a single grain — or perhaps even half a grain — of sand in the Sahara.
It could be argued that a radar-unfriendly, 336.500-pound nuclear bomber has little in common with the world’s most compact (to date) twin-jet passenger aircraft, but it would be a faulty argument. What the two flying machines have in common is that they are both almost revolutionary restatements of conventional aircraft wisdom and, as such, amply demonstrate the teething pains that have accompanied every major sea change in manned-flight technology.
In some ways, it’s even fair to say that the Eclipse engineers had a tougher row to hoe than the scientists behind the Stealth. The Eclipse 500, for one thing, had to be designed to sell in a competitive market for about $1.5 million per aircraft. The captive market known in demographic terms as “U.S. Taxpayers” has coughed up somewhere north of $2 billion for each B2 delivered to the Air Force.
Then too, the Eclipse has had to meet FAA passenger-carrying requirements and the B2 hasn’t. It may seem silly to say that it’s harder to certify an air-taxi shuttle craft than a super bomber and in some ways it is. But bombers are not expected to safely transport tens of thousands of civilians over millions of air miles for two or three decades. The infamous U2 spy plane, as just one example, is notoriously unstable and difficult to fly and almost certainly would never have been granted FAA Part 135 certification even if someone had figured out a way to stuff a passenger seat somewhere in the fuselage.
With full “operating in known icing conditions” and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certification perhaps no more than six weeks away (as of May, 2008), it might be interesting to take a look at some of the major twists and turns on the Eclipse 500 sky map and see if any of them has had a seriously negative effect on the aircraft’s present and future utility.
1. Replacement of Williams International with Pratt & Whitney as engine vendor in late 2002. True, Sam Williams and his company pioneered development of mini-turbofans, but P&W has much more experience building prime movers for high-utilization civilian aircraft. Reasons for the change were hotly debated (Williams blamed it on an overweight airframe, Eclipse on an under-thrusting engine), but the net result was part of the reason the 500 missed its official type certification target date of late 2004 by almost two years.
2. Switching production of Eclipse’s proprietary Avio NG Total Aircraft Integration System from Avidyne to Innovative Solutions & Support in Q1 of 2007. Taking place in the period between FAA type certification and production certification, it is generally believed that this change in vendors did not appreciably delay the 500 program. In announcing the change, however, Eclipse did admit that product delays and other difficulties at Avidyne had previously set their certification schedule back by about six months.
3. Lack of certification to fly into known icing conditions. This issue has definitely been a thorn in the side of early Eclipse 500 adopters in the Northeast and Midwest. Equipped with all the “right stuff” — flexible rubber boots for its control surfaces, an engine nacelle air bleed system and a heated windshield — the main reason for the delay in this certification appears to more a matter of Mother Nature than anything else. The 500 was certified for production in late April 2007, after the winter storm season, and “icing” certification requires testing under both simulated and actual conditions. Tests with man-made “shaped ice” and flight tests in known icing conditions were conducted throughout the past winter and certification was expected sometime in June.
4. Delays in 100 percent implementation and integration of the full avionics suite. This has been the most persistent “delay” issue in the 500’s development cycle and, inarguably, the most understandable given that the goal has been to provide as good — or better — an avionics environment in a $1.5 microjet as that available in a $200 million jumbo jet.
In practical terms, however, the as-yet-pending implementation of such features as GPS capability, full flight management system (FMS), electronic distance measuring (DME), automatic direction finder (ADF), and mode-F transponders didn’t seem to delay the 500’s production certification. Nor are there any reports that it’s negatively impacting current operators in any significant way.
According to Eclipse, installation of dual Garmin GPS 400W WAAS-certified moving-map GPS navigators later this year in production models and early next year as a no-cost upgrade to the existing user fleet should provide the missing FMS pieces, including coupled localized autopilot operation with vertical guidance approach. Pending software updates should shortly close most of the other avionics gaps.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s this: Good things happen when you do the job right and don’t hesitate to make necessary changes — such as switching engine or avionics vendors — out of concern for possible negative PR fallout or fulminating feedback from industry or financial gadflies.
To this point in its young life, the Eclipse 500 is an unqualified success. The aircraft is meeting or exceeding all its promised speed, altitude, cruising range and fuel efficiency specifications, it is hugely popular with its passengers, owners, and pilots, it’s broken all production records for first-year general aviation jet aircraft and it’s filled Eclipse Aviation’s order book through Q1 2010.
Not bad for an airplane which weighs substantially less than 330,000 pounds and isn’t even invisible to radar.