Count us among the many who really don’t know much about what’s happening at Eclipse beyond the fact that company founder and visionary Vern Raburn has moved, voluntarily or not, out of the left hand seat and venture capitalist Roel Pieper, who has been serving as vice-chairman since his Netherlands-based ETIRC Aviation became the majority shareholder in Eclipse last January, has slid into it.
One the thing is certain, changes are in store for what is to this point the world’s most prolific manufacturer of Very Light Jet aircraft.
Some of these changes — such as the likelihood that Pieper’s ascendency and his ties to deep-pocket European investors will improve Eclipse’s financial status at a time when big-money wells in the U.S. have largely gone dry — will be cheered by air taxi operators, current private Eclipse owners, and everyone holding future Eclipse 500 delivery positions.
Other changes Pieper hinted at — a projected decrease in research and development spending and the possible first-trimester abortion of the single-engine Eclipse 400 project — will more likely, if they become reality, be damned.
“Clearly, there are some issues at Eclipse. A whole bunch of things that need to be looked at,” Pieper told Flight Daily News in a July 27 interview. “You can assume I have the courage to make the changes … we’re probably going to slow down on development, do fewer things.”
While Pieper didn’t flat-out say the Eclipse 400 was as dead as the Northrup Flying Wing, he did say that no final decision on going forward with it would be made until November despite the fact that approximately 100 orders and deposits for the under-$1.5 million four-seater have been accepted.
(Idle question: Will the people who traded their Eclipse 500 order positions for Eclipse 400 order slots get their old positions back if the 400 is canceled or will they be moved to the back of the line?)
The announcement of Raburn’s resignation and Pieper’s appointment as CEO was accompanied by the news that ETIRC was making a second, amount unspecified, investment in Eclipse and that this second round of financing, added to the $100 million ETIRC invested in January and price hikes that bring the cost of a new 500 to about $ 2.1 million, would bring Eclipse to the breakeven point in early 2009 and enable it to reach profitability once production and deliveries increase from the current average of about six aircraft a week to approximately 12.
So that, plus a deal to have 500s built in Russia for the Euro market, is what’s happening with Eclipse.
But what about Vern Raburn, the man whose dreams of a better way to flit from Point A to Point B made so many of us begin to look at the sky from a whole new, refreshingly exciting, point of view?
Confirming, according to Aero-News Net reports, that he was forced out under threat of ETIRC cancelling the promised second round of financing if he stayed,” Raburn noted that “these things happen in business” and said he was “pleased” Pieper is “deeply committed” to Eclipse’s “ongoing success.”
As for his own future plans, Raburn, who some reports claim will become vice-chairman of an ETIRC subsidiary that manages air taxi services in places like Turkey and Russia, said he planned to leave Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where his abdication was announced during AirVenture 2008, and “go fishing for a week.”
Pieper, for his part, observed that “maybe two years ago he (Vern) said, ‘maybe I shouldn’t be CEO.’”
Which he may very well have done. And he may very well have been right. Eclipse, like any pioneer, has had its problems, ranging from playing musical chairs with avionics suppliers to unseemly delays in obtaining known-icing certification and delivering on promised instrument upgrades and functionality.
And maybe, as Pieper seemed to be indicating without actually saying so, some of these types of issues, things that are bound to come up whenever a company is more or less inventing a new industry, could have been handled better by a chief executive whose face was buried in the bottomline instead of tilted toward the sun.
Maybe so, but that ignores the larger truth. Which is that without an entrepreneur like Vern Raburn there would have been no Eclipse Aviation for Roel Pieper and ETIRC to swallow up and hopefully make wildly profitable. Without Vern Raburn, the VLJ Age — inevitable as it was — might still be on the horizon instead of already happening on a daily basis at hundreds — if not thousands — of airports from Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho.
History, and all of us fascinated by flying machines should remember that while it was Sam Williams who invented the ultra-lightweight turbofan engine and Tony Fox who first proposed building a personal aircraft around those engines, it took Vern Raburn to actually lasso what he liked to call the “disruptive technology” of the Very Light Jet and tame it into an elegant, efficient, uniquely 21st Century form of public and private transportation.
Enjoy the fishing vacation, Vern, you’ve earned it.