Eclipse vs. Mustang

As certification draws ever nearer for the first Very Light Jets, an unofficial race between the Eclipse 500 and Cessna Mustang is being watched closely by VLJ enthusiasts.

Eclipse, first in the field and creator of the VLJ concept, has suffered several certification setbacks over the years, the most recent delay caused by a key avionics supplier’s own certification delay.

Meanwhile Cessna, among the last out of the VLJ starting gate with its Mustang, is moving up fast and could overtake Eclipse to reach certification first.

And then there’s that dark horse, the Epic Jet. Epic’s irrepressibly optimistic leader, Rick Schrameck, says he thinks the Epic Jet will be the first VLJ actually to be “delivered to a customer” – although that may be in kit form, not the certified version.

Eclipse received its first FAA Type Inspection Authorization early in December, initiating on-board testing by FAA personnel for certification credit. At that time, Eclipse CEO Vern Raburn was planning for full certification in March.

A very short time later, a hitch in the certification program of an unnamed avionics supplier pushed certification of the Eclipse 500 into the second quarter of 2006. At that time, Raburn commented that his company is working with the supplier to get back on track, but acknowledged that “an in-depth assessment has made it clear that (this) will force a delay in our certification effort.”

A delay, yes, but Eclipse is far from standing still while supplier certification is sorted out. With an order book now exceeding the 2,350 aircraft announced at the NBAA convention in November – 1,592 firm orders and 765 options, at that time – flight testing has sped up to between two and five flights a day, utilizing five airplanes. Two of those are “beta” aircraft being used for demonstrations, reliability testing and similar purposes. All static testing had been completed by last November.

As Eclipse moves toward first customer deliveries, announcements pour from the company’s Albuquerque, N.M., headquarters. Some examples:

- RVSM certification is standard.

- The Eclipse-patented PhostrEX fire suppression system, light in weight, inexpensive to maintain and meeting all clean air protocols, is standard equipment.

- All but two maintenance tools can be bought at Wal-Mart.

- Insurance from AIG comes at “attractive rates” thanks to Eclipse 500 real-time data monitoring. “Attractive rates” means comparable to those for a Beech Baron, according to company news briefings.

- Certified service ceiling will be 41,000 feet. Certified stall speed is expected to be 67 knots and Vd speed tests have been flown at 452 KTAS or 330 KIAS.

- Two company-owned aircraft will be available full-time to ferry parts and mechanics to Eclipse owners, when necessary.

- Three company-owned service centers are being created at Albuquerque, at Gainesville, Fla., and at Albany, N.Y. Ultimately, seven such centers are planned.

- Pilot training, required by Eclipse, will be provided by United Airlines at Denver, Colo.

- Initial production plans call for one airplane a week, ramping up over two years to four a day.

- A customer support program called JetComplete Business is being offered to operators exceeding 250 hours a year. Plans range from a basic one costing $199 an hour to one including engine overhauls and a pay-as-you-go plan.

JetComplete is among the more innovative Eclipse offerings. Not only does the program provide its customers with predictable maintenance pricing, but it includes a package of other services through its “one stop” point of contact, including assistance with flight planning, weather briefing, concierge services, technical support, answers to billing questions, along with the scheduling of aircraft and engine maintenance and training activities.

Will Eclipse, the VLJ pioneer, reach certification ahead of all rivals? How about the first customer deliveries?

Regardless of how those questions ultimately are answered, Vern Raburn and Eclipse Aviation already have seen their vision of dramatically redefining air transportation become a popular reality. They have created the capability for an entirely new, point-to-point, personal transportation system.

The capability is there. The reality almost certainly will arrive this year.

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