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Mon, Jul 09, 2007

Eclipse's Raburn Says Pitot Certification Flight Testing Completed

Says Company Expects To Deliver "Over 20" Aircraft In July

By most measures -- make that all of them -- the first half of 2007 has been challenging for Eclipse Aviation.

Faced with a variety of problems -- including revamping the heart of the Eclipse 500 aircraft, its Avio avionics system; a range of production and supplier problems, all conspiring to delay volume deliveries of the 500; parting ways with United Airlines for pilot training; and, most recently, a VFR-only, two-pilot mandate from the FAA due to a pitot/AOA tube freezing problem -- Eclipse has, to date, struggled to meet the lofty performance and delivery promises it made for its very-light-jet throughout its development.

Those issues have overshadowed the positive developments seen this year -- including delivery of the first customer aircraft, and the first jets to its largest customer, DayJet; and receipt of its production certificate from the FAA in April. And, fairly or not, the problems have also given ample fodder to critics of the aircraft... the company... and its outspoken CEO, Vern Raburn (right).

In his most recent update to customers, Raburn acknowledges "both the significant problems and very significant progress we have made." As for good news, Raburn notes flight testing recently wrapped up on the redesigned pitot/AOA assembly, and the plane passed with flying colors. Those results are now in the hands of the FAA for recertification.

"Although I'm glad to report that this problem is behind us there are lessons to be learned," Raburn writes. "The Eclipse 500 was one of the most tested aircraft to be certified in the last 20 years. We accumulated over 3,400 hours including typical operational flights using a marketing aircraft. There was extensive and thorough FAA involvement including approval of the test plans for the airdata/pitot/AOA system that resulted in an unrestricted Type Certification of the aircraft.

"Yet this problem was caused by fairly unique meteorological conditions that went undetected even though we did numerous tests in Texas, Florida and even the Climate Test Chamber at Eglin Air Force Base," he continues. "Perhaps the fact that we live and work in a high desert environment contributed to the problem. So the fact that the problem went undetected is not the lesson, but how we as a company have responded to the problem is."

Raburn also notes Eclipse certified 26 planes in the second quarter of 2007. That's far fewer than Eclipse had planned on, but a noteworthy improvement over the four planes the Albuquerque, NM-based planemaker was able to certify in Q1. That numbers is also higher than the GAMA total for Q2, of 17 planes delivered and out the door. Raburn says the company considers a plane completed when it receives its airworthiness certificate; GAMA, when the plane is out the door.

"As our processes continue to improve the difference between the two points will decrease," Raburn says, noting Eclipse also plans to "deliver over 20 aircraft" by the end of this month.

As for performance modfications made to the aircraft throughout its production run -- including larger, aluminum tip tanks, and a redesigned tail bullet fairing -- Raburn says "Certification flight testing is on track to be completed this week, and we are expecting certification of the performance improvements within the next couple of weeks." The final certification date will be dependent on the FAA's approval of the AFM changes and other certification documents, Raburn adds.

"We have submitted 44 of the 56 documents requiring FAA approval, and 41 of these are already FAA approved," he continues. "The remaining 12 documents will be submitted in the next few days. As previously announced, the new performance numbers have been met and will be reflected in an updated AFM. The FAA is required to amend the Type Certification Data Sheet within 30 days of certification completion. A service bulletin will be issued shortly after certification and aircraft retrofitting will begin. We are still on track to cut the performance modifications into the production line at aircraft 39. In fact, aircraft 39 is currently in final assembly with all of the performance modifications incorporated."

Not Even N Numbers Escape Scrutiny

When it rains, it pours. Recently, the FAA determined the size of registration numbers on the Eclipse 500 -- previously approved by the agency to be an unobstrusive six-inches tall -- aren't large enough, after all. Raburn details the issue...

"As part of our type certificate data sheet that we received on September 30th of last year, the FAA approved six-inch registration numbers via note 8 on the TCDS," Raburn says. "However, the FAA reversed that decision and is now requiring registration numbers that are as large as practical on all Eclipse 500s. Working with the FAA we have defined a maximum sized area on the tail for the placement of the N numbers.

"If your N number is something like N1K then the numbers will be 12 inches in height," he adds. "But if your N number is something like N777WW then the height will be closer to 9.5 inches. Our plan is to paint the larger registration number on your plane when you return for the performance modifications. Beginning with aircraft #29, all Eclipse 500s are being delivered with the larger N numbers."

And if that's the final issue to plague the Eclipse 500... then the second half of 2007 might just go a bit more smoothly than the first for Raburn, and Eclipse Aviation. Stay tuned.

FMI: www.eclipseaviation.com

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