The Eclipse 500 is the second of a new class of Very Light Jets (VLJ), following the delivery of the first VLJ, the Cessna Citation Mustang in late 2006. The aircraft is powered by two lightweight Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F turbofan engines in aft fuselage-mounted nacelles.
The V-Jet II was an all-composite structure with a forward-swept wing, a V-tail, each fin of which was mounted on the nacelle of one of the two engines. Williams had not intended to produce the aircraft, but it attracted a lot of attention, and Eclipse Aviation was founded in 1998 to further develop and produce the aircraft.
The prototype and only V-Jet II aircraft was obtained by Eclipse Aviation along with the program, and was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 2001.
Founder and former Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn was one of the first business executives at Microsoft. Subsequently, Bill Gates became a major stake-holder in the Eclipse project. The VLJ concept has been pursued by a number of manufacturers, and because the V-Jet II had been designed around one of the primary VLJ engines, Eclipse believed it was an ideal design to refine and market.
The airframe was significantly redesigned as an all-metal structure with a T-tail and straight wings. The main cabin shape is essentially all that was retained from the V-Jet II. It was recognized that for an aluminum structure to be cost effective, new manufacturing techniques would have to be developed. One of the primary processes used was friction stir welding, in which the skin and underlying aluminum structure are welded together rather than riveted, as traditional for aluminum aircraft. Anti-corrosion bonding techniques were also developed.
Besides materials processes, the general process of building the airframe was redesigned, with techniques taken from the automotive industry. Traditionally, aircraft structure is mounted in a jig, and the skin is riveted on to the outside of it. For the Eclipse 500, lessons were taken from composite airframe manufacturing, and the aluminum skin is first laid in a mold, and then the structure is built into it. The result is much more precise control of the aircraft's final shape, resulting in a cabin that is more robust and can be pressurized to a higher differential. In addition, the manufacturing techniques are designed so that one crew can assemble an airframe in a single shift. The complete interior is designed to be installed on a moving assembly line in 45 minutes.
Originally Eclipse selected a pair of Williams International EJ-2 engines (a production variant of the FJ22/FJX-2) for the Eclipse 500, but as the aircraft's weight increased, performance was not satisfactory. Pratt & Whitney Canada agreed to participate in the project, and modified the design of their PW615 engine, designating it the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F. The prototype Eclipse 500 first flew with the Williams engines in 2002. The redesign to incorporate the new engines resulted in a significant delay to the development program. The first flight of the Eclipse 500 with the new engines occurred on December 31, 2004.
An Eclipse press release says that its aircraft is "the quietest jet aircraft" and that it is "quieter than virtually all multi engine turboprop and piston aircraft".
Full certification was not granted at that time because the composite wing tip fuel tanks did not meet FAA lightning strike criteria. As a result, Eclipse started testing an improved wingtip fuel tank made from aluminium. Eclipse also started ramping up production of the 500, so aircraft could be released to customers once full certification was achieved.
Full type certification was eventually achieved on 30 September 2006. At that point, in addition to the five flying prototypes, 23 aircraft were in production and two had already been completed. The 500 type certificate allows the aircraft to be flown under IFR with a single pilot.
Eclipse received its FAA production certificate on 26 April 2007. Serial numbers 1-11 were produced prior to the production certificate being granted. These aircraft were subject to individual FAA inspection. 500 serial number 12 and subsequent were built under production certificate No. 500.
The aircraft received its certification for flight into "known icing conditions" on 25 June 2008, although this is yet to be added to the current type certificate data sheet, which is Revision 2, 15 January 2008.
In June 2008 the United States Congress tasked the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Transportation with the investigation of claims by Federal Aviation Administration employees who have indicated that the certification process of the Eclipse 500 was flawed. Members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents FAA Aircraft Certification Engineers, have filed a grievance alleging that the type certificate was improperly issued by FAA managers over a weekend and that the aircraft had outstanding safety issues at that time. The FAA has stated that the FAA stands behind its certification of the jet. Then Eclipse CEO, Vern Raburn, stated the 500 is in "complete and total conformity" and that he considers it an internal FAA issue between workers and managers.
The concerns expressed by the union representing the certification engineers include:
Eclipse Aviation CEO Roel Pieper issued the following statement in response to the FAA review:
"Without a doubt, this special review will uncover what we already know - that the Eclipse 500 marks the safest new airplane introduction into service in 20 years, customer safety has always been a priority at Eclipse, and we look forward to this investigation dispelling any inaccuracies about the certification of this airplane for once and for all."
The results of the certification review, released on 12 September 2008, indicated that the certification process was valid, but that the FAA and Eclipse Aviation "should conduct a root cause analysis" of the owner-reported problems with the aircraft's trim, trim actuator and fire-extinguisher systems. Further report recommendations address internal FAA processes that were not optimally handled.
Acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell responded to the review report saying:
"This review tells us that while we made the right call in certifying this aircraft, the process we used could and should have been better coordinated. These recommendations will be invaluable as we continue certifying these new types of aircraft."
The House Aviation Subcommittee heard testimony from the inspector general for the Transportation Department, Calvin Scovel, on 17 September 2008. He testified that FAA employees were instructed by FAA management and that a target date was set for the Eclipse 500's certification, regardless of the test flying results. "It was a calendar-driven process... with a predetermined outcome," Scovelis said.
Scovelis testified that FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell recently stated that the FAA is reviewing the production certificate that was awarded to Eclipse.
US Representative Robin Hayes, (Republican, North Carolina) asked Scovel if the Eclipse jet is a safe airplane to fly. Scovel stated, "My office has no evidence that it is unsafe." Scovel added later in the proceedings that given the information that the FAA had on September 30, 2006, when the type certificate was awarded, "a reasonable decision would have been to defer the granting of the type certificate."
The house aviation committee also heard on 17 September 2008 from a panel of current and former FAA employees. They stated that there was consistent pressure from FAA management to meet the stated timeline for the Eclipse 500 certification to be completed. They were told not to look more than "an inch deep" during the certification process. In the same hearings FAA managers defended their certification practices and denied many of the employees' allegations.
The Eclipse 500 is not currently certified in Europe. Eclipse Aviation indicated to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation on 17 September 2008 that European certification of the Eclipse 500 was underway and would be completed within 60 days.
Despite the fact that certification standards between the USA and Europe are harmonized and virtually identical, the European certification authority, European Aviation Safety Agency, has some concerns that must be addressed prior to European certification. These include:
The aircraft may also require ACAS, something the company has indicated is not practical, due to a lack of antennae location.
European analysts writing in Flight Global have indicated that it may be necessary for Eclipse to build a separate version of the aircraft to meet European certification requirements, something the company has indicated it is not planning to do.
Together, these measures are expected to increase the cruise speed from 360 to 370kts TAS and increase NBAA IFR range from 1055 to 1125nm. All aircraft, including the already delivered initial deliveries, will be upgraded to this new standard.
In June 2008, Eclipse claimed to have a backlog of over 2,600 total orders for its Eclipse 500. In May 2008, Eclipse announced that the price of the Eclipse 500 would transition to $2,150,000 due to a lower than projected production volume which resulted in expected efficiencies not being realized and higher production costs.
Eclipse offers the Jet Complete program, guaranteeing private owners a maintenance cost of $209 per flight hour for three years (if the aircraft is operated between 300 and 3,000 hours during that period). A similar Jet Complete Business program covers charter operators.
On 6 May 2008 DayJet announced that it had scaled back its operations, laying off 100-160 employees in all segments of the company and selling or leasing out 16 of its fleet of 28 Eclipse 500s. DayJet founder and CEO Ed Iacobucci indicated that the company needed USD$40M to reach profitability, but that the current economic climate did not permit the company to raise that amount. Iacobucci has stated that the company had proven that the operational concept is sound, but that the current fleet of 28 Eclipse 500s needed to be quickly expanded to 50 aircraft to attain profitability.
DayJet suspended all passenger operations on September 19, 2008. They cited inability to raise operating funds in the current market as one factor and also stated:
The company’s operations have also suffered as a result of Eclipse Aviation’s failure to install missing equipment or functionality or repair agreed technical discrepancies in accordance with the terms of DayJet’s aircraft purchase contract.
With 1400 500s on order out of a claimed order book of about 2500 aircraft DayJet represented 58% of all Eclipses that had been ordered.
Eclipse has announced previously that it intends to build 4 aircraft per day in 2008. Eclipse revised those plans in a June 2007 letter to Eclipse depositors stating that Eclipse would be building 1 aircraft per day in August 2007, 2 aircraft per day in April 2008 and 3 aircraft per day in December 2008. As of September 24, 2007 according to the FAA registry database, Eclipse had delivered a total of 44 aircraft (12 of those aircraft were delivered to DayJet) with 6 delivered in August and 11 delivered in September.
On June 12, 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration issued Emergency Airworthiness Directive AD 2008-13-51 grounding all Eclipse 500s, following an incident at Chicago's Midway Airport. According to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, "the airplane was trying to land at Midway when the crew encountered a sudden shift in headwinds, which the pilot sought to counter by increasing power, the standard method. But when the pilot tried to cut power a few seconds later, as the airplane touched down, the engines began accelerating to maximum power." The pilots overshot, gained altitude and shut down one engine, eventually landing without injury or damage except blown out tires. The FAA is investigating the model's throttle controls.
Reports published on June 16, 2008 indicated that all 500s were compliant with the AD and cleared to fly again within one day of the AD being issued.
The company indicated that the final solution to this problem will be a software change to increase the throttle range and prevent an out-of-range condition.