Raburn and his team started to examine their alternatives. If they abandoned the EJ22 and sought out another engine maker, Raburn reckoned it would set back the delivery of the first FAA-certified airplane by about two years. Also, he knew that a replacement engine would entail substantial redesign work to the aircraft, and it’d probably send the price over the $1 million mark. And there were plenty of unknowns: how many customers would ask for their deposits back? Would he be able to raise the $60 million he estimated he’d need to keep the company going?
Harness recalled saying, in a presentation to Eclipse’s board, that even if Williams could have somehow delivered an engine, “we would’ve had so many service difficulties with it, it would’ve bankrupted us.”
But Raburn wasn’t convinced the company could survive if he dropped the Williams engine. “What we decided was that we wanted to take our chances,” he says. “It’s like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.” Just before Thanksgiving 2002, Eclipse put out a press release announcing that it had severed its relationship with Williams.
“We were now selling a million-dollar glider,” Raburn says, “and those don’t sell very well.” But the company had already drawn up a list of alternative suppliers, and Eclipse eventually struck a deal with Pratt & Whitney Canada to buy a slightly heavier, slightly thirstier engine, called the PW610 F. But one benefit of the P&W engine was that it would increase the aircraft’s top speed by 20 knots. Raburn promised Eclipse’s customers that the plane would be back in the air with its new turbofans by the end of 2004.
Only about fifty customers asked for their money back after the switch was announced. At $1.5 million, the plane’s current list price is still about $500,000 cheaper than its closest rival, the A700 from Colorado-based Adam Aircraft. (Like the Eclipse, that plane has still not been FAA certified.) The increase in price was due to the higher cost of P&W’s engines and a jump in the cost of aluminum, from which most of the plane is constructed. On December 31, 2004, Raburn delivered on his promise: the Eclipse flew twice that day with its new engines.
Still, it wasn’t until this past summer that Harness, who had flown Blackhawk helicopters as an Army test pilot, got to go up in the plane for the first time. “I want to have first-hand knowledge of any aerodynamic problems we might be having,” Harness says, adding with a chuckle: “Besides, flight test belongs to me, so I get to do whatever the hell I want.” In June, he flew with one of Eclipse’s test pilots, running through a “test card” that included some touch-and-go landings, basic performance handling, and midflight engine flame-outs. These flame-outs, thankfully, were simulated.
- Total money raised: $400 million
- Total orders to date: 2,300 planes
- Aircraft’s top speed: 430 mph
- Biggest customer: DayJet (a startup air taxi service), which has ordered 239 planes
- Projected manufacturing time: 4.5 days for construction, 2 for flight test, 2 for painting
Scott Kirsner is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.