Plenty of diehard Eclipse 500 skeptics scoffed at Mason Holland, chairman and CEO of Eclipse Aerospace, when he announced at the 2011 NBAA Convention that his firm intended to resume building the aircraft sometime in 2013. Cynics all but buried the very light jet (VLJ) concept after EA500 production stopped in 2008, writing it off as a misguided, overhyped folly of Vern Raburn, founder of failed Eclipse Aviation (See Fast Five, page 25.)

But Holland believes the original aircraft had great potential value, if only Eclipse Aviation had finished its development. For instance, the Eclipse 500 lacked certification for flight into known ice, a full-function flight guidance system and a true FMS, among its other shortcomings.

Now Holland will get the chance to prove his premise because he really is restarting the assembly line in Albuquerque, N.M., and the new production aircraft will not only deliver on 100% of the promises of the original aircraft, it will offer several new features. Accordingly, the improved aircraft has a new designator — Eclipse 550 — and will be priced at $2.695 million in 2011 dollars. That should make it at least $1 million less expensive than the Embraer Phenom 100, the next lowest priced twin turbofan light jet.

“This is a great day for Eclipse Aerospace,” Holland told a packed meeting room at the recent NBAA convention, announcing the restart. “We only acquired the assets [of Eclipse Aviation] two years ago. This will be the most advanced light jet in production. It will offer the best operating economics.”

Eclipse jet skeptics further sobered when Jeff Pino, president of Sikorsky Aircraft, the United Technologies Corp. (UTC) subsidiary that now owns a chunk of Eclipse Aerospace, stepped up to proclaim that Sikorsky's PZL Mielec will manufacture most of the new primary airframe components, including wings, fuselage and empennage. Based in Poland, PZL Mielec has a reputation for high quality manufacturing and its labor costs are considerably lower than those in the U.S.

Sikorsky's hands-on participation in new aircraft production leaves no doubt about the program's credibility and little doubt about its chances for future success. Pino said that Sikorsky also will be involved in production line operations and supply chain management for Eclipse Aerospace. Those two critical functions bedeviled Eclipse Aviation and directly contributed to the downfall of the original company in 2008.

“One thing you learn is that UTC is an extremely disciplined and well-managed company. Sikorsky will take an extremely disciplined approach to this program. We have a supply chain that can be made operational very quickly,” said Pino, referring in large part to PZL Mielec's manufacturing capabilities.

UTC, whose subsidiaries also include Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Sundstrand and Carrier air conditioners, is a $54 billion conglomerate that derives 43% of its revenues from its aerospace businesses. Sikorsky will manufacture most of the airframe components for the Eclipse 550, while Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC) will supply the engines. By dollar value, those two firms collectively will account for about two-thirds of the aircraft's content.

Innovative Solutions & Support (IS&S) will supply most of the Avio integrated flight management system (IFMS) avionics package for the Eclipse 550, as it does for Eclipse Aerospace's $2.15 million Total Eclipse, a nose-to-tail makeover of the original aircraft currently offered by the Albuquerque company.

Eclipse Aerospace named the new aircraft Eclipse 550 because it will offer several standard or optional upgrades that enhance its capabilities over the original EA500. These include synthetic and enhanced vision, auto-throttles, ADS-B, TCAS I, dual FMS to meet RNP requirements, and EASA-spec equipment including DME and ADF. Other features include an FAR Part 135 package including a stand-alone emergency standby instrument system, Iridium satcom phone and a radio altimeter, along with a paperless chart capability.

Even with a panoply of new features, Eclipse Aerospace has managed to slash the number of vendors from 135 for the Eclipse 500 to 75 for the Eclipse 550. Having fewer and better suppliers, and having Sikorsky manage both procurement and production, should help prevent the assembly line disruptions that plagued Eclipse Aviation.