This week, Don and I introduce the Eclipse 500 series of single-pilot jets. Then we shift our discussion to the ins and outs of buying a jet. Plus aircraft ownership news, Don’s tip of the week, and a new Alphabet Soup segment.
The Eclipse 500 series is a is a line of multi-engine jet aircraft in the very light jet category. With a total of six seats, the airplane’s cabin is similar to a cabin-class twin such as the Cessna 340. Other aircraft in this class include the Phenom 100, Citation Mustang, Cirrus Vision Jet, and the new Honda Jet. The aircraft is 33.5 feet long, with a wingspan of 37.7 feet, and features a trailing-link landing gear, and T-tail with rear fuselage-mounted engines.
Introduced in 2002 by Eclipse Aviation, the 500 was designed to revolutionize the private jet market with the invention of the VLJ category of jet-powered aircraft, that is, an aircraft weighing less than 10,000 pounds, bringing a welcomed balance of performance and efficiency. Thought to be the proverbial, “best thing since slice bread,” deliveries began in 2006, and in 2007, Eclipse built a total of 104 aircraft, making more jets than any other manufacturer. Unfortunately, success of the Eclipse 500 was short lived thanks to poor funding, economic conditions, and financial misstatement. Astoundingly, just two years after its first delivery, production of the Eclipse 500 ceased in November 2008. Bankruptcy soon followed, leaving many owners without product support, and many more unable to recover deposits on promised aircraft.
Following bankruptcy proceedings in early 2009, Eclipse Aerospace became the new owner and Certificate holder for the Eclipse 500 aircraft. By August, the new company opened for business. Less than a month later, Eclipse Aerospace announced the launch of a new and improved version of the Eclipse 500 called the 550. More on that later.
Now let’s talk a little more about the aircraft itself. The Eclipse 500 is based on the Williams V-Jet II, which was designed and built by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites in 1997 for Williams International. It was intended to be used as a testbed and demonstrator for their new FJX-2 turbofan engine. The aircraft and engine debuted at the 1997 Oshkosh Airshow. The V-Jet II had 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 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.
Originally Eclipse selected a pair of Williams International EJ-22 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 Canadaagreed to participate in the project, and modified the design of their PW615 engine. 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".
The 500 is powered by two Pratt and Whitney 610F-A turbofan engines, a variant of the slightly more powerful 615F engines found on the Citation Mustang capable of 900 pounds of thrust each. With a maximum takeoff weight of 6,000 pounds, that gives us a power-to-weight ratio of 0.15, getting us off the ground in about 2,400 feet with an initial rate of climb of 3,400 feet per minute. It can cruise around 370 knots true, burns about 65 gallons per hour, and has a range of up to 900 miles.
While these numbers sound good on paper, they’re not very realistic. In real-world flying, with wind, passengers, and varied mission profiles, you might be hard-pressed to experience that kind of performance, at least all at once. Like many piston airplanes, there are compromises with the Eclipse when it comes to range versus payload. For example, with the seats full, the aircraft’s range is almost cut by forty percent to about 550 nautical miles. I suppose that’s not too surprising given the airplane’s max takeoff weight of just 6,000 pounds. With an empty weight of about 3,550 pounds, and fuel capacity of 253 gallons, which is 1,698 pounds, you only get a full fuel payload of about 500 pounds. Though max payload is just over 1,000 pounds, so if you can sacrifice some fuel, you can fill the seats, bring the power back and fly about 500 miles with IFR reserves doing about 330 knots true.
As far as avionics go, all Eclipse jets comes standard with a fully-integrated flight deck from Avidyne called Avio, custom-designed for the Eclipse. The system includes dual large-screen PFD displays, a massive MFD screen, TAWS, Skywatch, electronic approach plates, and 3-axis autopilot. I suppose that seems pretty basic by today’s standards, but the full integration of the avionics makes this system truly unique and intuitive. It also makes systems management simple and straight forward. Check our show notes for a cool video that goes into more detail on the avionics. Another unique feature of the airplane is its dual sidestick control with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern jet airplane. You’ll definitely get the impression of comfort and ergonomics when at the controls. You might even think you’re piloting an Airbus. In place of the yoke is a stowable keyboard interface for the avionics system that makes loading the flight management system and flight plan quick and easy.
Now let’s not forget about the Eclipse 550 - which shares the engine and fuselage of the 500, but greatly improved some of the shortcomings of the 500’s avionics system and offered other improvements such as autothrottles, a feature unique to the Eclipse is this class, synthetic visions, and antiskid brakes. The Eclipse 550 was made possible thanks to investments from Sikorski in 2010. The 550 begins after serial number 263 and range in price from $2-2.5 million.
You’ll be welcomed to the cabin by a classy and stylish clamshell entrance door that will have you thinking you’re climbing into your personal Lear Jet. The cabin on the Eclipse 500 is, well, small. The cabin volume is only about 109 cubic feet, which is smaller than a Beech Baron. In fact, it’s nearly half the size of the King Air 90. However, it’s more than enough room for you and two-to-three passengers to travel comfortably and in style. The sixth seat can be removed for additional baggage storage and elbow room. One luxury the Eclipse doesn’t have is a lavatory. But with proper planning coupled with short trips, that shouldn’t be a problem.
The true niche of this aircraft is short trips in the 350-500 mile range. In fact, the Eclipse’s original design was intended for air taxis and owner-pilots that actively fly about 400 hours per year needing a little more speed without a huge jump in price. In fact, you can purchase a well-equipped, good condition Eclipse 500 between $750 and $950,000, not bad – especially when you consider that the average Total Time Airframe is about 1,400 hours. According to the latest V-ref publication, the cost of the latest aircraft, prices of the 550 have decreased by approximately $100,000 in the last quarter. In general, the aircraft depreciates approximately $40 per airframe hour which can either be deducted or included in your hourly operating costs. The two Pratt and Whitney 610F-A engines have a 3,500-hour TBO and cost approximately $250,000 each, giving us an hourly reserve of $72 per hour per engine. In terms of cost per nautical mile, which is less than a later-generation King Air 90.
What about ADs? As you know by now, almost all certified airplanes have ADs, though the Eclipse doesn’t have many. Here’s an interesting story, 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. 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 was a software change to increase the throttle range and prevent an out-of-range condition.
However, because the Eclipse 500 is a multi-engine turbine engine, it is still subject to FAR 91.409 subpart e and f which dictates inspection requirements. In this case, you’ll have to follow the manufacture’s approved maintenance program to include hourly and calendar month inspections for both the airframe and engine. There are a variety of maintenance facilities and repair stations that can perform this work, including One Aviation’s authorized service centers located in New Mexico, Chicago, California, and Florida. However, these mandatory inspections will really add up over time. If scheduled maintenance costs are a concern, you might want to consider a single-engine turboprop like the Meridian or TBM. According to the regulations, these aircraft only require an annual inspections, and you can speeds, performance, and range similar to an aircraft like the Eclipse. In terms of overall maintenance, it is probably wise to expect to pay anywhere between $5-7,000 a year for various scheduled inspections, and another $40,000 in maintenance and labor, and an additional $15,000 in parts. If you purchase a newer aircraft still under warranty, obviously most of these costs would not apply. Thanks to outside investments and Eclipse Aerospace’s acquisition by One Aviation in 2015, product support and parts are easy to get. Additionally, many upgrades and modifications are available including One Aviation’s modernization program for Legacy 500 airframes. I’ve put a link to this program in the show notes. Depending your flying experience and insurance limits, expect to pay about $15,000 a year for insurance. Being the Eclipse 500 is a jet, you’ll need a type rating to legally fly it and requires annual recurrent training.
Now I’m not telling you all this to scare you or steer you away from owning a jet aircraft. I’m merely trying to paint a realistic picture of owning a jet. Jet ownership is a bit more complicated than a piston, but it is easily manageable. Of course, we can help you though the process of researching and buying the airplane through our prebuy program, as well as manage the costs, maintenance, and responsibilities of jet ownership through our aircraft management program. For many, jet ownership is not only possible, it’s necessary. Jet ownership brings new freedom, opportunities, comfort, and of course increased safety to the owner-pilot and their family, as well as increased productivity, speed, and effectiveness for businesses large and small. Bottom line, if you’re thinking about entering the jet market, there has never been a better time, and depending on your mission, the Eclipse 500 series is a good buy.