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Eclipse, Jetting to Stardom

Individuals involved in the aviation business are a terrific combination of romantic adventurer and practical businessperson. Nowhere is that more true than at Eclipse Aviation, creators of the newest Very Light Jet: the Eclipse 500.

A revolutionary new design, the Eclipse is a lightweight, five-seat business jet that is targeted to sell for around $1.5 million. That may sound like a lot of money, until you consider that even low-end Learjets sell for $10 million or more.

The Eclipse is powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW610F turbofan engines mounted in tail-end nacelles. Yes, the same Pratt & Whitney that makes lawnmower engines, but a different division. Needless to say, these babies deliver a little bit more thrust than your average grass cutting machine. Cruising speed is 375 knots (403 mph/672 kph) with a range of 1,280 nautical miles (1472 mi/2,455 km).

The airframe required the development of radically new manufacturing techniques and Eclipse engineers stepped up to the plate. Replacing riveting with a system of welding for the skin and underlying structure, the design calls for a composite body made from an aluminum skin laid in a mold. The structure is then built on top, just the reverse of how one typically thinks of manufacturing processes where the skin goes on last.

But reversing traditional conceptions is what innovation in business jet engineering is all about and Eclipse Aviation has done that in spades. Incorporating the latest cockpit technology, with all new AVIO Avionics rarely found in low-cost aircraft, the crew has all the best systems at its disposal.

Having received provisional FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certification in July 2006, Eclipse Aviation is ready to take off. The company already has 2,500 orders and another 1,000 are expected over the next two years. In order to meet the demand, it plans to add to its Albuquerque, New Mexico plant and build another in Gainsville, Florida. A third in New York may not be far behind.

Those jets will be able to land at any of 10,000 airports throughout the U.S. (many of them underutilized) thanks to the takeoff and landing distance of just over 2,000 feet (about 610 m). Putting the arrival and departure points nearer the clients will help propel the company to the top ranks of 'air taxi' business jets in very short order.

That the company is both innovative and committed to delivering a low-cost business jet perhaps should not be surprising. The CEO of Eclipse, Vern Raburn, is a former senior executive at Microsoft. Bill Gates is one of the major investors in the company.

Eclipse has the engineering talent, the management experience, the investment muscle and most of all the vision to bring to life one of the most important changes to business jets in aviation history. In an industry whose history is full of starry-eyed dreamers with practical savvy, that's quite a coup.