Eclipse Sheds New Light on City, Industry
by: David Gelles
THE VISION TO FLY
The skies are changing at 5000 feet. Eclipse Aviation, based in the high-desert city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is charging ahead with development and production of their twin-engine, six-passenger jet, that many industry personnel believe will change air travel forever.
On a sunny August 26th, the Eclipse 500/100 - the only operational Eclipse jet - achieved first flight from the company's current headquarters at the Albuquerque Sunport. Flying in the face of skeptics, the Eclipse flew for 62 minutes without incident. First flight was supposed to last only 45 minutes, said Cory Canada, Director of Public Relations. But because of an emergency MediVac landing at the Sunport, the Eclipse was made to circle until the runway was cleared.
Manning the throttle was Bill Bubb, Eclipse's Chief Test Pilot. In his career Mr. Bubb has been involved in more than seven first flights, and upon touchdown he reported that the Eclipse performed better than expected based on pre-flight simulations.
First flight was a long-awaited milestone for the company, but the Eclipse story reaches beyond far aviation into the realms of entrepreneurial ambition and urban growth.
The company was founded by President and CEO Vern Raeburn, who early in his career was the 18th employee of Microsoft. Mr. Raeburn remained in the hi-tech industry, and after meeting Sam Williams of Williams International, the engine manufacturer responsible for the Cruise Missile's propulsion, was inspired to build the Eclipse.
Mr. Raeburn's vision was of cheaper, more convenient air travel for the average passenger. He knew that new methods of production would reduce both initial and operating costs, while a growing market for private aircraft would make room for his product.
Mr. Raeburn was also inspired by NASA's Small Aircraft Transportation System (link to article), a program that aims to reroute smaller planes to the nation's underutilized local airfields. SATS will serve as an invitation for small jet charters and fractional-ownership operations to expand. A necessary part of this expansion will be a new fleet of small aircraft, and herein lies much of Eclipse's anticipated market.
Also fueling demand for Eclipse jets is the much talked-about price tag. The first fleet of the twin-jets, set to be delivered in early 2004, will cost $837,500 in 2002 dollars. At the National Business Aviation Association's annual Exposition and Conference in Orlando(link to article), Mr. Raeburn announced that total orders now top 2,072. Of those, 1,357 are firm, with non-refundable deposits helping finance current development.
The jet's under-$1 million price tag is a first in the industry. Similar jets, such as Cessna's newly developed Mustang (also a six-seater) is priced at over $2 million, while the cheaper Maverick requires at least one month's assembly.
ECLIPSE IN ALBUQUERQUE
Eclipse's presence in Albuquerque has been a welcome development for the struggling city. At the NBAA conference, Gary Tojones, President of Albuquerque Economic Development, was in attendance supporting the company and trying to recruit more aviation companies to New Mexico. Amid the bustle of exhibitors and product displays, Mr. Tojones said, "It's terrific to be here. Not only to see the Eclipse name on the shuttle busses, but to hear people at their display, wanting to work for them. It's a fabulous team they've assembled. They've brought a lot of attention to Albuquerque and New Mexico."
Mr. Tojones' group was responsible for recruiting Eclipse to Albuquerque. In the final selection, Eclipse chose Albuquerque over Phoenix and Salt Lake City. Albuquerque was attractive for several reasons. With clear skies almost year-round, the desert city was ideal for a company seeking FAA flight certification, which necessitates many VFR days for testing. Also, Mr. Tojones said that Albuquerque's rough, unpretentious attitude was appealing to a company some in the industry view as a rebel. Albuquerque is also a destination city, with Taos and Santa Fe to the north. Finally, New Mexico delivered a very attractive package to Eclipse that included availability of their current space at the Sunport, and donation of 150 acres that will become Double Eagle II, the companies permanent headquarters. New Mexico even changed state law to reduce taxes on aircraft manufactured in the state.
Albuquerque is just beginning to climb out of a decades long recession. While the city has some spillover tourism from Santa Fe and a large academic and research community, commerical and industrial growth have remained weak. And still, Albuquerque is New Mexico's largest city, with nearly a million residents. Mr. Tojones said that Eclipse has "created 235 jobs in the city already." In the coming years, he anticipates the creation of at least 2000 jobs by Eclipse and its suppliers. "And it has prospects," he said, "to go well beyond that."
A REVOLTUION IN PRODUCTION
To minimize both space and labor costs, Eclipse has adopted an aggressive outsourcing strategy. Instead of fabricating their own parts (they do build their own tools), the company has contracted various manufacturers to build customized components. Many of these outsourcers have built entirely new machines and facilities to accommodate the Eclipse orders. Several of Eclipse's suppliers have already indicated that they intend to set up satellite facilities near Double Eagle II.
Besides a new overall production strategy, Eclipse is also introducing a new method of assembly. While still using some traditional riveting, Eclipse is employing friction-stir-welding to bond many of the aircraft's parts.
Instead of using bolts to fasten two sheets of metal together, friction-stir-welding occurs when a pin is inserted all the way through one sheet and halfway into the next. Then the pin spins at an extremely high speed, inducing a chemical bond. While a bond occurs, the metal is never brought to melting point, thus making the welded metal even stronger than the original sheet.
Using friction-stir-welding will eliminate 60% of the riveting Eclipse would have needed in a traditional production model. Friction-stir-welding is also highly automated and very fast, allowing for a higher production volume.
A testament to this came when builders connected the front and aft sections of the first fuselage. The process took only thirty minutes. The same operation on the first Lear Jet took six weeks.
The FAA has approved friction-stir-welding for mass production, and Eclipse is looking into a patent.
Another way in which Eclipse is distinguishing its production process is by paying greater heed to uniformity. The concept of interchangeable parts is common in the auto industry, but unheard of in aviation. However, parts for Eclipse jets are being designed and manufactured using laser technologies that specify each part to 1/3000 of an inch. This will make it easier for Eclipse owners to replace damaged parts, and tack on whatever upgrades come along.
All these advances in production will translate into real advantages for the Eclipse user. Operating costs will weigh in at a staggeringly low 56 cents a mile, nearly 1/4 the cost of similar aircraft. This is in large part because of the engines. The Eclipse jet is powered by two Williams engines, each weighing only 85 pounds, but providing 770 pounds of thrust. This is the highest thrust/weight ratio of any commercial turbofan ever made.
Eclipse expects the Eclipse 101, the second aircraft, to fly late this year, and is set to deliver its first planes to buyers in early 2004. Later that year, the company is scheduled to break ground at Double Eagle II, to the west of Albuquerque, which will be the company's permanent facility. The Wall Street Journal estimated that 500 Eclipse jets will be in the air by 2005.
After that, the future is wide open. If factional-ownership continues growing in popularity, and if NASA's SATS program does in fact open up the underutilized airfields across America, Eclipse could soon have thousands of jets on order. And given the effectiveness of their production, there is no reason to expect anything but on-time deliveries.
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