Well funded startup plans $775K twinjet
Computer/software entrepreneur Vern Raburn is betting that what the
world is clamoring for now is a six-seat twinjet with a target price tag
of $775,000 (2000 $) and the 44-cents-per-mile direct operating cost of
a Cessna 182. Considering that sort of a purchase price won’t even buy
a new Piper Malibu Mirage pressurized piston single ($840,000+) or Baron
58 normally aspirated piston twin ($950,000+) today, Raburn is confident
of a healthy market for his brainchild. The Eclipse 500 will be a
product of what Raburn calls “disruptive technology,” in that it
will turn on its head the market’s traditional notion of how much new
airplane a dollar buys.
The Eclipse 500 will be the first in a series of jet-powered aircraft to
be developed by Raburn’s Eclipse Aviation Corp. More than
technological and financial hurdles, Raburn acknowledges that perhaps
the toughest obstacle he faces at this stage will be the skepticism
surrounding a new entrant with such a lofty goal.
To combat the credibility issue, president and CEO Raburn has assembled
a management team that includes chairman Harold Poling, former chairman
and CEO of Ford Motor Co; board member Dr. Sam Williams, chairman of the
engine manufacturer that will power the Eclipse; v-p of product
development Dr. Oliver Masefield, former v-p of R&D at Pilatus; and
v-p of finance and administration Peter Reed, who forged the way for AM
General’s Hummer military truck contracts. Other board members include
Northrop Grumman chairman, president and CEO Kent Kresa and MiniMed
chairman and CEO Al Mann.
Raburn himself is well known in the business circles of the computer and
software world. In the mid- 1970s he opened one of the nation’s first
computer stores (the Byte Shop in Westminster, Calif.). Shortly
thereafter, he joined Microsoft as employee number 18 and served as
president of the consumer products division. He then moved to Lotus
Development and played an integral role in the launch of Lotus 1-2-3.
Among Raburn’s 32 “launches,” 25 have been successful, Symantec
and Slate among them. Most recently, Raburn worked as president of the
Paul Allen Group, overseeing technology investments for Microsoft
co-founder Paul Allen.
Raburn is an avid pilot, and he serves on the boards of the Experimental
Aircraft Association (EAA) and its Warbirds of America branch. His
personal fleet includes a Lockheed Constellation, Douglas A-26 Invader,
North American SNJ-5 and, for business travel, a Rockwell Commander 690B
twin turboprop. It was while making his appointed rounds as Paul Allen
Group president, alone at the helm of a CitationJet for more than 1,000
hr, that Raburn warmed to the concept of the Eclipse. This is the way to
travel, he told himself, but at $3- to $4 million it’s still too
exclusive. His contempt for the modern airline travel experience, shared
by countless millions of his fellow business travelers, fueled the fire.
So far Raburn has assembled $60 million in backing–less than one-fifth
of a total investment that he expects to be “well north of $300
million.” Compared with the dubious estimates of development funding
that have dogged some other aircraft launches by new entrants in recent
years, Raburn’s budget seems well rooted in the realities of the
undertaking and adds measurably to the credibility of the venture. His
circle of friends, colleagues and associates is clearly the richest
cream of the digital-age crop. Raburn’s former boss at Microsoft, Bill
Gates, has endorsed the project, but the names of individual investors
are not being disclosed. Raburn expects Eclipse Aviation to be
profitable in 2005.
Power by Williams
So much for the credentials of the people behind the project. What of
A couple of years ago Dr. Sam Williams began to trickle-feed details of
the small, relatively inexpensive turbofan engines under development for
general aviation at Williams International with NASA GAP funding, and it
soon became clear that these powerplants held the promise of doing for
the lower end of general aviation what the advent of the jet engine had
done for the airlines and business aviation in the 1960s. Williams
whetted appetites at EAA Oshkosh in 1997 when it showed the V-Jet II, a
small V-tail Rutan design powered by a pair of Williams FJX turbofans.
The airplane was presented simply as a demonstration of what these
tiny engines could be expected to spawn.
Raburn met Dr. Sam Williams in 1996 and has since contracted with the
Michigan-based engine manufacturer to develop an engine, based on the
FJX2 and known as the EJ22, for the sole use of Eclipse Aviation. Raburn
said no other airframe company is allowed to use the FJX2/EJ22 in a
competing project for a specified (but as yet unannounced) period of
time–a setback, apparently, for Florida-based Safire Aircraft, whose
S-26 thus far has been destined to use a pair of FJX2s. (Safire
president Michael Margaritoff told AIN, “We have an agreement with an
engine manufacturer that we are working with hand in hand.”)
Eclipse plans no proof-of-concept (POC) airplane and will fly the first
of four fully conforming flight-test aircraft in the spring of 2002. A
14-month flight-test program is planned toward FAA Part 23 certification
and first deliveries in 2003.
Eclipse and Williams: A Novel Relationship
The relationship between Eclipse and Williams International is unusual,
and it underscores Eclipse Aviation’s plan to be a “virtual company”
initially, with interim headquarters on Raburn’s home turf of
Scottsdale, Ariz. Williams is developing the EJ22 at Eclipse’s expense
and will manufacture and supply the finished product to Eclipse. Under
contract to Eclipse, Williams International is also designing,
developing and FAA certifying the aircraft and production facilities for
the Eclipse 500. Once the airplane is certified, the development team
led by Masefield will transition and become employees of Eclipse
Aviation. The engine work at Williams International is being done for
Eclipse Aviation in Williams’ engine facilities. The aircraft design
and development work is being done in a segregated area dedicated to
Eclipse at Williams under the direction of Masefield.
The engine and airframe are being designed, developed and certified as a
single, integrated product, with Williams playing a major role in
systems integration “because the engine and airframe are so highly
integrated,” according to Eclipse literature. “For example, control
functions that traditionally have been performed by the engine are
performed by the aircraft computer system.” FedEx will play a
prominent role in the maintenance program for EJ22s in service. If an
engine misbehaves, the lightweight powerplant will be removed, crated
and sent to Williams overnight, while a replacement is simultaneously
overnighted to the operator.
Four engines currently in test have logged more than 100 hr, and FAA
certification is expected
in 2003. Each EJ22 in the Eclipse 500 will produce 770 lb of thrust and
weigh just 85 lb, for a thrust-to-weight ratio of 9.05:1. This is a
massive leap for propulsion efficiency when you consider that the
Rolls-Royce Deutschland BR710, parsimonious enough to propel the GV and
Global Express 6,500 nmi, has a thrust-to-weight ratio of only 4.71:1
(16,500 lb of thrust from 3,500 lb of engine weight).
The EJ22s on the Eclipse will be mounted unusually far aft on the
fuselage–so far aft, in fact, that the fuselage taper allows their
centerlines to be separated by just 41 inches. In the event of an engine
failure, predicted Raburn, the Eclipse will present its pilot with “less
than one-eighth of a ball of adverse yaw.” This close spacing far aft
places the engines out of any birdstrike path–in fact the engines are
invisible in a frontal view of the airplane. Engines and wings will be
de-iced with, respectively, lip heat and (most likely)
At present, 140 people are working on the Eclipse 500, and a
one-fifth-scale model went into a wind tunnel in Seattle last month. (“With
computing the way it is today, I would say we’re within a decade of
wind tunnels being shut down,” Raburn predicted.)
The sea change in social and work habits and the realities of the
overburdened airline system that Raburn believes will support the
introduction of the Eclipse have been documented already by NASA in its
vision for a small airplane transportation system (SATS).
• The airline infrastructure groans at the seams ever more loudly as
82 percent of all airline passengers are funneled through just 22 major
airports in a hub-and-spoke system that is beyond its capacity.
• Telecommuting and decentralization of industry and manufacturing
move businesses and workers farther from those strained hubs.
• Technology reduces the cost and simplifies the act of piloting a
small aircraft as safe, reliable transportation. Thus simplified, the
task of staying current becomes less onerous for the pilot.
• Automotive design makes the buyers of these airplanes, accustomed as
they are to their BMWs and Lexuses, feel as cosseted and cocooned in
their airplane as they do in their car.
Perhaps surprisingly in a day and age when composite construction has
gained major ground in aircraft manufacturing, the Eclipse 500 will be
made mostly of aluminum. But the $775,000 price will be made possible
only by the adoption of radical new, simplified manufacturing
techniques, Raburn emphasizes. The sound of rivet guns will remain at
Eclipse’s facilities (location yet to be decided but likely in the
Southwest), but it will not be human hands directly actuating those
rivet guns. Expect Eclipses to take shape on low-cost, high-volume
automated metalworking machinery.
Pilot workload will be “dramatically reduced” through use of
integrated systems and intuitive displays, presumably drawing on
NASA/industry’s highway-in-the-sky research. Early illustrations of
the envisioned IFR-capable instrument panel show three large displays
and no dials or gauges. FMS and three-axis autopilot will be standard,
and radar might be, too, said Raburn. The pilot will fly this
all-digital airplane with a sidestick moving conventional mechanical
controls (no fly-by-wire).
Cockpit design and Eclipse Aviation’s involvement in training are two
of the most important areas of influence in the company’s goal of
achieving a tenfold improvement in safety over existing GA aircraft.
The choice of avionics vendor will be announced at EAA Oshkosh this