Raburn encountered little trouble raising money, by assembling a roster of well-known backers that includes his old Microsoft bosses, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, as well as retired CEOs of Ford and DaimlerChrysler. To supply the plane’s engines, Raburn turned to Williams International, a Michigan company that produced the first generation of cruise missile engines, as well as turbofans for business jets made by Cessna. (Raburn gave Williams an equity stake in the company to reward it for committing to develop a new engine, dubbed the EJ22.)
When Eclipse started taking pre-orders for the plane, 175 eager buyers showed up in person to plunk down deposits. Some aviation industry observers were skeptical, however, that there would be something to buy – at least at the Eclipse’s stated $837,500 price tag.
Before the plane’s first flight, problems with the engines – which were smaller than a beer keg (and about half the size of a typical turbofan) – began to appear. Harness says he was dispatched to Reno, Nevada for six weeks to help Williams’ engineers troubleshoot the connection between the plane’s fuel supply system and the engines. “Then we started having other, unrelated issues,” he says, such as cracks in the fan blades and surging. (When the fan blades stall, airflow can suddenly change direction, sending a flash of flame out of the inlet, known as a surge.) “Anytime you had a surge, it would damage the engine,” Harness says. That meant sending it back to Williams’ headquarters for repairs.
By August 2002, Harness and the engineering team convinced themselves that the Eclipse’s engines were reliable enough for a safe test flight – though the units weren’t yet delivering 770 pounds of thrust, so the test plane was kept extremely light. Following the first hour-long flight, however, numerous failures occurred while running the engines on the ground, according to Raburn, and so the Eclipse stayed in its hangar. “We never would have two engines that worked at the same time,” says Raburn.
Raburn says the president of Williams International, Gregg Williams, traveled to Albuquerque, assuring Eclipse that the problems would be fixed by November 1. But when that date passed with only a fraction of the fixes complete, according to Raburn, he felt it was time to hire an outside consultant to examine whether Williams would be able to deliver a workable engine.
“They told us that this engine was a minimum of 18, and perhaps as much as 36 months behind schedule,” Raburn says. “And they didn’t believe that this engine would be reliable enough.”
Raburn went to Williams chairman Sam Williams with an ultimatum: complete the development of the EJ22 engine on your dime, at the per-engine price tag your company originally promised. “Sam said he couldn’t take the risk,” Raburn recalls. (Williams’s two top executives, Sam and Gregg Williams, declined to comment for this article.)