In January 2000, Eclipse Aviation President and CEO Vern Raburn visited New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici in Washington, D.C., while looking for a home for Eclipse. Raburn was considering Albuquerque as a possible location for Eclipse’s headquarters, and he had come to ask Domenici how much support the state would give the company.
Raburn showed Domenici renderings of the six-person Eclipse 500 jet and explained the concept behind the aircraft. The senator was impressed enough to assure Raburn that New Mexico would embrace the aircraft as well as the company. “My state needs this airplane,” Domenici told Raburn.
A range of 1,840 miles, a cruising altitude of 41,000 feet, a top cruising speed of over 400 mph, and a price of $837,500 (a quarter of the cost of similar-sized jets, according to Raburn) make the Eclipse 500 appealing to pilots and business travelers as well as senators. Potential clients include the recreational flier looking
to upgrade from a turboprop; the executive wishing to charter a regional jet; the corporation planning to expand its flight department; and the business traveler who has missed one too many connections and is willing to try Raburn’s ultimate vision: an air taxi service. “We see this aircraft as a plane that can significantly improve choices for the flying public,” Raburn says.
For the American public, however, there is one catch: The Eclipse 500, which made its first flight in August 2001, has yet to be certified by the FAA. Raburn expects to receive that certification in 2003.
Eclipse Aviation builds the Eclipse 500 with friction-stir welding, a method in which the plane’s aluminum panels are joined through welding instead of traditional rivets. According to Raburn, this process greatly reduces production time and costs. The lightweight EJ22, an 85-pound engine made by Williams International, gives the plane 770 pounds of thrust, and an Eclipse 500 equipped with two EJ22s can climb to 35,000 feet in 20 minutes. “For its size, it’s a very powerful engine,” Raburn says. “With a powerful thrust-to-weight ratio, we can produce a small aircraft with very high performance.”
Raburn acknowledges that the Eclipse 500, because of its size and limited range, cannot compete against larger business jets such as the Gulfstream IV or the Bombardier Challenger, nor will it offer coast-to-coast travelers an alternative to first-class commercial flights. Instead, the company’s primary target is the short-distance flier. Raburn says more than 40 percent of U.S. passengers fly to destinations that are less than 400 miles away—an ideal distance for the Eclipse 500.
Many of Eclipse Aviation’s vendors are 300 miles away in Wichita, Kan., and because there are no direct flights from Albuquerque to Wichita, Eclipse executives must connect either in Phoenix, Denver, St. Louis, or Dallas, doubling the distance of their business trips. That type of scenario is the inspiration for Raburn’s vision of an Eclipse 500 air taxi service. You would call your local air taxi company or fixed-base operator, submit your itinerary, and quickly board an Eclipse 500.
Because the Eclipse 500 costs 56 cents a mile to operate—less than a third of the operating cost of a similar corporate jet, Raburn says—a trip via air taxi would be economically comparable to a charter flight, and would eliminate the missed connections and delays of commercial travel. “The vast majority of business people are questioning the costs of business travel,” Raburn says. “Also, airline travel today is an unpleasant and time-consuming experience.”
Many industry observers remain skeptical about the Eclipse 500, questioning whether the company can deliver jets on time and within their price model. Eclipse Aviation, however, has already filled orders through 2006, including a 112-plane purchase by Aviace, a European company that plans to form jet clubs, a type of fractional ownership, with the aircraft. “We’ve stayed exactly on schedule and built the plane,” says Raburn. “The critics said it couldn’t be done. Well, we did something we couldn’t do.”
Eclipse Aviation, 505.245.7555, www.eclipseaviation.com