Breaking NewsCommentary
Hangar FlyingAvionics UpdateRotorcraft UpdateCommuter HighlightsFBOs: Touching BasesIn The WorksWashington Report
Letters to the Editor

Back to Homepage

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 the product?
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) electro-expulsive.

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.)

Sea Change

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 summer.