Part Three Of An Aero-News Interview With Eclipse
CEO Vern Raburn
By Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien
to Part III of our interview with Eclipse Aircraft CEO Vern
In this segment, Raburn discusses his vision of the Eclipse as
an airplane built to have the consistency and reliability of an
appliance, and contrasts that with the hand-fitting and early
Industrial Age approach of some competitors. We talk a little more
about his T-6, his friendship with the late, great Jeff Ethell, and
you'll learn what the one flying thing is that his family begged
him not to do.
Vern Raburn: We just flew 1400 miles here in an
all-electric, all-digital, all-computerized airplane. With all the
production systems in it, from electric actuators to electric pitch
trim, to, you know, a computerized electric power distribution
system. Electric actuators on the gear. Using a total glass cockpit
to control everything. Electronic circuit breakers.
It just worked.
You know, it just did what we said it was going to do.
Aero-News: Like people expect machinery to do.
Vern Raburn: Like cars run today. Like...
*washing machines* run today.
Aviation -- and specifically, General Aviation -- is the only
industry left in the world where there's two unique attributes to
One is, everything is bespoke. Every single airplane is
different. You can't take a door off a Cessna Caravan and put it on
another one. It won't fit. Cause each one of 'em is individually
hand-fitted. You can't take a wing off of a Citation and put it on
another Citation. Because each one is individually fitted and
rigged to that airplane.
It's the same way Jaguar built cars until 1995 -- five years
after Ford bought 'em. And invested five billion dollars in
retooling the factory and the cars.
Aero-News: And now, amazingly, you can drive
them in the rain. [Anyone who owned an older Jag or other old
British sports car knows what we mean].
Vern Raburn: You can drive them in the rain!
And in 1995, they had a significant
event: they were able to take a door off one car and put it on
another car, and it actually fit.
Aero-News: Good heavens! For the first time
since the 1930s when they started building Jaguars.
Vern Raburn: Exactly, Exactly! Citations.
Cessnas. Virtually all the aircraft.
Even -- to a lesser extent, but even the Cirruses are that way.
They're still sort of individually fit up.
You can take any part off this airplane [indicates N503EA] and
put it on another airplane. Take the empennage off. You can take
the wing off.
Aero-News: So you're the Eli Whitney of
Vern Raburn: I prefer to say, Lexus of
aircraft. In that we maintain the tolerances and therefore... we
design quality, as opposed to inspect, or try to craft quality.
The other aspect of general aviation that's really pathetic,
besides this sort of bespoke nature, this handbuilt nature of the
product, it's an industry that believes innovation is irrelevant!
It's an industry that believes that innovation is at best to be
avoided, at worst to be accepted grudgingly.
So we just think that that can all change.
Aero-News: How do you say that? Can you give me
an example of, "innovation accepted grudgingly?"
Vern Raburn: We've had the technology to do
glass panels for at least a decade.
It's just now available. And as you pointed out, it's being driven
by the upstart competition. It's coming in and forcing the
established guys to say, "Oh gosh, golly, I guess we'll do it."
Systems. I mean, this aircraft uses 142 electronic circuit
Electronic circuit breakers are multiple orders of magnitude more
reliable. We know now that mechanical thermal circuit breakers,
after about ten years, don't work either reliably or predictably.
Meaning, either they don't work, or they don't [Vern is drowned out
by a low pass of multiple T-6s].
Aero-News: It's music!
Vern Raburn: I used to fly with a team like
that in Phoenix, in my T-6.
THESE guys are good. The Aeroshell North American team. They're
the best guys in the world.
Aero-News: So, I reckon perhaps when Eclipse is
a little more ...
established, we might see you back in the T-6 again?
Vern Raburn: I sure as hell hope so! You're out
of airplanes when you're out of T-6s, as far as I'm concerned.
Vern Raburn: I mean, you're not a real pilot
until you can fly a T-6.
Aero-News: When did you learn to fly the T-6?
How did you prepare? Let's change gears again, back to the back
Let's see... I got checked out in the T-6 in... 1985. I'd never
flown a tailwheel airplane.
Aero-News: [eyebrow raised] That was your first
Vern Raburn: Well, I went out and got about
four hours in a Citabria. And never even really got signed off for
solo. And then I learned to fly from a great guy, who really was
one of the most unique guys in the world. He was a true aviation
historian, really specialized in World War II, wrote something
like... 35?... books.
Aero-News: Are you talking about Jeff--
Vern Raburn: Ethell!
Vern Raburn: Yeah, Jeff taught me to fly T-6s.
I learned to fly B-25s and T-6s from Jeff. Also, Jeff checked me
out in a P-51.
Aero-News: It's a sad business, sad business
[referring, as Vern understands, to Jeff's premature death]
Vern Raburn: Yeah. Well. Jeff's kids -- I
bought the first PC for Jeff. Rather than pay him for some
instruction, I got him set up on that, and we were really good
friends. I've stayed in touch with Betty and his kids.
Aero-News: He was a great guy.
Vern Raburn: He was a wonderful guy! I mean,
the whole family was... you know, it was really interesting. I was
so torn up over that, because I lost another very good friend about
six months later, who also taught me a lot about flying.
And I saw Betty and the kids at Oshkosh. We had a big formation
We did a missing man formation for Jeff. I went up in the
Connie -- and Jeff had flown co-pilot in the Connie -- it was so
right, because he taught me how to fly T-6s and P-51s, and I taught
him the Connie. Oh, he loved to fly the Connie.
Aero-News: So you got him some payback while he
was still alive. OUT-standing.
Vern Raburn: Absolutely!
And, you know, I was still very torn up. It was really -- it
really -- it really deeply affected me.
And it was a couple years before I stopped thinking, "Hey, I
think I'm gonna call Jeff this afternoon and talk to him
But THEY [Jeff's family] -- they were so happy, because their
faith was SO strong. And it was just such a testament, such a
testament... the strength of their faith, the strength of JEFF's
faith, they knew he'd gone to a better place and they were happy
They really, really, really were happy. That helped a lot of us,
to get through that time. That they were so happy.
But he's the guy that taught me how to fly the T-6!
And then, I played around with racing for a while.
Aero-News: With racing? How'd you do?
Vern Raburn: I never actually got into a
Of all the things I've done in aviation: airshow aerobatics,
helicopters, gliders, everything else; that's the only thing that
my wife, and my dad, and my mom all said, "No. We don't want you to
do this." So they all kind of ganged up on me, and I figured,
Aero-News: So we had what AA would call a
"family intervention" here!
Vern Raburn: [laughing] That's right!
Aero-News: Aviators Anonymous. A 12-step
Vern Raburn: That's right. They never said "no"
to anything else, but that one they said, "T-6 racing is
A FAN (interrupting): I want to say congratulations on the first
Vern Raburn: Hey! Thank you. Glad we made
FAN: Oh, yeah. You flew it over?
Vern Raburn: No, I didn't fly it. I flew the
chase plane. But everything just worked! The way it's supposed
Aero-News: Anyway, thank you for sharing that,
about Jeff and the T-6. I never met him, but I was a fan of his.
The first book I picked up of his, I remember, it was over 20 years
ago. He co-wrote it with somebody. It was about the Falklands
Vern Raburn: Yeah! I remember that book.
Aero-News: Air War South Atlantic. And a guy I
knew was a survivor of that helicopter that turned over, one of the
SAS guys in the back. And I sent him the text about that crash, and
he said. "Where did this guy learn all this stuff?" So I looked for
his name ever after.
Vern Raburn: He was phenomenally, he was an
extremely intelligent guy, besides just being a really, really nice
human being. And he could just absorb stuff and remember stuff, and
very few people I know are like that. He could just recall stuff.
His Dad was a great guy, I got to know his Dad, flew with his Dad
Aero-News: His Dad was a P-38 pilot, wasn't
Vern Raburn: That's why he [Jeff] was flying
the P-38 that day [his fatal accident]. His Dad actually flew both
P-38s and P-51s. He was in the same squadron as [Chuck] Yeager and
[Bud] Anderson. And so, his Dad used to tell me stories that were
Aero-News: All those old heroes are
Vern Raburn: [sadly] They're just about all
Aero-News: We've got to try to do the best we
can to take their place. They left a lot of big flying boots for us
to fill, that's for sure.
Vern Raburn: Absolutely, Absolutely. I
Aero-News: Well, I really look forward to the
day that I see you back in your T-6...
Vern Raburn: Me too! [laughs]
Aero-News: ...and Eclipses all over the
Vern Raburn: Yeah! Then I'll... then... I sold
the Connie, but as soon as Eclipse is certified, and we get things
going, then I'm gonna buy a P-47. That's the airplane I lust
Aero-News: Not many of those to be had.
Vern Raburn: No, but -- with enough money,
you'll find one.
Aero-News: If you want it badly enough, you'll
Vern Raburn: Yeah. I like round engines, I
don't like pointy-nose airplanes! I like round engines.
Aero-News: The ultimate ones are that and the
Corsair, I suppose.
Vern Raburn: For some reason -- I've flown the
Corsair a couple of times, but for some reason, they're not it. For
me, the P-47 is it.
Like for a lot of people, F-86 is, like, the real jet. To me,
the P-47 is the real fighter. I just like it more than the
Aero-News: Most people can't really pick. The
more you fly, the more you realize, "I want one of each."
Vern Raburn: Of course! [like it's the most
natural desire on Earth -- maybe it is]
Aero-News: But -- apart from the Eclipse,
because I'm sure that's in a special place in your heart -- do you
have a favorite. Do you have something special --
Vern Raburn: That I fly, or just in
Aero-News: Would that be two different
Vern Raburn: Yeah. I think. There's a couple
aircraft that I would truly, truly love to fly. There's three or
four airplanes that I would give anything to fly. An SR-71. The
Concorde. I got a full cockpit checkout in the Concorde once, One
of the guys who was the senior captain flew our Connie for us. So I
got to do a fifteen minute flight on the flight deck of the
Concorde from Heathrow to Farnborough.
And I actually got to fly in it just before they retired it. I
said, screw it, I don't care what it costs, I'm gonna do this one
more time. I'd love to have flown that airplane.
I'd give anything to have flown an F-105. To me, a 105 is...
talk about a serious, balls-the-size-of-watermelons type of
Aero-News: The jet successor, ultimately, of
Vern Raburn: Exactly.
Aero-News: From the Republic Iron Works.
Vern Raburn: Exactly.
Aero-News: I'll tell you what, I've been
involved over the last couple of years with a couple of things with
Vietnam veterans. I'm obviously not, at my age, a Vietnam veteran.
But I served, and the guys that trained me, the older guys, all my
mentors were. And so there's been a bunch of events, and there's a
bunch of F-105 pilots still kicking around.
Vern Raburn: Oh, yeah.
Aero-News: And those guys, those guys are as
big and as bold and as brave as that airplane that carried 'em.
Vern Raburn: Brian Barents is one of our board
of directors. Chairman of Learjet, and Galaxy before it sold to
Gulfstream. And then he started Aereon, the guys that are doing the
supersonic business jet.
He was a 105 driver, he was a Thud driver in Vietnam. And I
asked him -- when he retired as a Brigadier General in the Air
Guard in Kansas: B-1, F-16, F-15, I said, Brian, what's your
He said, "Oh, the 105, without any question."
And I love the F-100; to me, the F-100 is about the prettiest
airplane ever built.
And then, in terms of piston-engined aircraft, the [Beech]
Staggerwing, and the P-47.
Vern Raburn: Can't fault your taste, there.
Right down the line, outstanding machinery. I guess that's probably
a good note to close on!
Do you have any other message you'd like to send to our
Anything you'd like to say?
Vern Raburn: I guess two things.
One is, we really do believe, and I think we're proving it on
almost a daily basis, that Eclipse can change the paradigm, can
change the rules in general aviation. Which means, in turn, that
general aviation can go back to the role it once played, which is
the role of an important central component of the transportation
Aero-News: In the 1920s and 1930s, aviation was
going to change the world.
Vern Raburn: I would say that lasted well into
the fifties. General aviation and air transportation held a parity
with each other until the turbine engine came along. And you can
really set that mark in 1959, when the 707 came along. And the
transition wasn't complete until the very late sixties. I think the
last Connie flew [passengers] commercially in 1969.
Aero-News: Well, you could pick other
transition points. Like when Pan Am drove the cost of seats down on
international flights. until then, jet flight was strictly for the
Vern Raburn: The guy who really did that was
Don Burr at People Express. (NOTE TO EDITOR: most readers won't remember that 1980s
carrier. He's the guy who said, $49.95, I'll take
you to Florida.
I think the were two big changes, though, that have taken
General Aviation from the role of "important component of the
transportation system" to being, either, just for the extremely
rich, extremely elite, or just, purely recreational in nature. And
one is the advent of the turbine propulsion system. Because I don't
care how you cut it, I don't care what you say, I don't care about
what the guys at Continental and Lycoming say, or Bombardier.
Piston engines are inherently less reliable than turbine engines.
Period, end of discussion.
Aero-News: Absolutely. You've got more moving
parts... more friction.. it's an engineering fact.
Vern Raburn: It's just physics. It's not
opinion. Besides which, the data back it up, that piston engines
are generally about ten times less reliable than turbine engines.
And in fact, you can go back and trace the safety record that the
airlines have today back to the 707. Because the airlines are so
much safer today than they once were.
And then you had this business change of airline deregulation.
And so you had a technology change and a business change. We're
trying to do the same thing -- a technology change and a business
change. The way we build airplanes is very different than how
Cessna builds airplanes.
And so we think that we can bring general aviation back to
parity [with the airlines]. We think we can bring general aviation
back to relevancy again. Which means, not as a recreational
endeavor -- which is wonderful! And I think that the stuff that the
EAA's done on Light Sport Aircraft and the Sport Pilot license is
actually going to radically help that, and reintroduce that,
aviation as sheer joy --
Aero-News: Well, I think you will actually help
them by driving interest in aviation.
Vern Raburn: Exactly! It's going to be very
synergistic -- and so, if we can do that, and the other parts of
this business can play their role, then I think what we can do is
take general aviation back to the days when it didn't matter
whether you got in a Beech 18 or a DC-3. It was basically the same
airplane except for the number of seats. And that's what we're
really trying to do here.
We do that, and will
change, not only what people use general aviation for, but we'll
change the relevance of general aviation. We'll just become a
healthy, vibrant industry. Airports will be important to
communities again as opposed to being a rich playboy's hang out,
and people will start thinking about traveling in little airplanes,
not just big airplanes.
Aero-News: And you'll have second order and
third order effects in the economy --
Vern Raburn: Absolutely.
Aero-News: -- because of the greater efficiency
of using GA --
Vern Raburn: Absolutely!
Aero-News: -- than the very inefficient
hub-and-spoke airline system we have now.
Vern Raburn: Absolutely.
Aero-News: You can't beat it for a long trip;
you know I took the mailing tube here from Boston.
Vern Raburn: And I'm going to go home on
Southwest. Because they're the only ones with a nonstop flight from
Orlando to Albuquerque. And for 250 bucks, I'm going to get home a
whole lot cheaper than I flew down here [in the Mu-2 chase plane --
Ed.] But boy, I came down here on my schedule. Now I gotta leave at
a certain time --
Aero-News: On their schedule. And that's the
way it is.
Vern Raburn: That's right.
Aero-News: That's why, despite all of the push
behind mass transit, people want to have their cars. Why? Because a
car is freedom.
Vern Raburn: Sell a lot more cars than we do
Aero-News: And there's your car for the 21st
Century (indicating the Eclipse 500).
Vern Raburn: (Laughing) I'm not sure I'm
ready to go THAT far!