Nearly 10 years ago, the then-CEO of Eclipse Aerospace (EAI) vented his exasperation at the multitude of "phoenix rising from the ashes" stories to describe his company and its hallmark product, the Eclipse 500 very light jet. Alas, comparisons to that mythical bird, reborn from its own remains, are probably even more apropos today.
On November 30 last year, following a protracted and often calamitous trip through the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, assets of the Eclipse 500 program were purchased by British entrepreneur Christopher Harborne out from under the umbrella of beleaguered One Aviation. Among Harborne's portfolio of companies is international fuel provider AML Global.
The purchase staved off almost certain liquidation and the probable end of the Eclipse 500 as a going concern. Harborne is estimated to have spent approximately $6 million, including court costs, for assets including production equipment; MRO facilities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Aurora, Illinois; and a built-in customer base of more than 280 aircraft delivered since 2006 in need of parts and maintenance support.
The now two-decades-long Eclipse saga has witnessed two bankruptcies, along with four company name changes and at least six controlling interests along the way. And yet, perhaps improbably so, the Eclipse flies on.
Once again doing business as EAI, the Albuquerque-based company is operating with "over 50 employees and looking for more," interim CEO Mike Press told AIN. All are former Eclipse workers "so far," he added.
Press co-founded the first iteration of EAI more than a decade ago, following the liquidation of the company’s first iteration, Eclipse Aviation. After focusing on upgrading the existing Eclipse fleet to the specifications promised by the original company and resuming limited production of Eclipse aircraft, EAI merged with Kestrel Aircraft in 2015 to form One Aviation; that entity entered liquidation in February 2021.
Top priorities for the new company include stabilizing the parts and maintenance situation for current Eclipse jet owners and shoring up vendor relationships. EAI is also working to upgrade as many as 30 aircraft for what Press described as a "large fleet operator in Europe."
As of May 2021, the FAA registry shows 22 Eclipses, ranging from the earliest models to the most recent Eclipse 550 standard, registered to TAK Aviation. Press confirmed that the entity is related to the order but said that he was "not at liberty to disclose" details.
"European fleet owners have purchased these used aircraft for operations in Europe and have contracted EAI to refurbish and upgrade them to [the current Eclipse] 550 standard configuration," he added. "New European operators expand our footprint and customer base. We are not completely dependent on the North American customer market."
Even with those orders, the existing owner base comprises the largest near-term, stable income stream for the company. Press emphasized that EAI is working to rebuild both owner and vendor relationships that grew strained as One Aviation struggled under bankruptcy.
"Most, if not all vendors have an interest in returning," Press said. "We are working hard to support our current fleet customers and believe we can solve most if not all AOG issues within days. It took a couple of months to build up inventory and fulfill backorders from the bankruptcy." Press also alluded to an eventual restart of Eclipse 550 production.
For the moment, however, the primary challenge will be to support the existing Eclipse fleet and restore the company's relationship with its vendors, including outside support providers.
Cary Winter, former senior vice-president for manufacturing, engineering, and technical operations for the previous incarnation of EAI, founded Resurgent Aviation Solutions (RAS) in 2016. His goal: to provide another option for Eclipse parts support when “it became obvious there would be a point in the future when a third-party provider would be needed for the parts and support for the aircraft.”
RAS supports the Eclipse's primary role today as an owner-flown aircraft, far different from its originally intended mission, which was to support large-scale fleet utilization with air taxi operators. "The original vision was of operators flying thousands of operations a year; now, it's become an owner-operated plane flying 150 hours a year," Winter said. "When using an aircraft for personal transportation, you move from thinking of budgets to checkbooks.”
Winter noted that Eclipse systems were designed around swappable line-replaceable units to sustain high utilization. "But owners don't want to take a big part out and put a big part in; they want to send in a part to be repaired," he continued. "That's our place in the world, to make cost-effective repairs to keep ownership costs down. Direct operating costs may be amazing, but high ownership costs will negate that value quickly."
Ron Lebel, board member and forum moderator of the Eclipse Jet Owners and Pilots Association, expressed his appreciation for Winter's efforts. "RAS has been an extremely helpful organization when we had major parts shortages, and Cary continues to be a source for parts that are, in some cases, unavailable from Eclipse," he said. "Without RAS many Eclipses would be AOG."
Both Lebel and Winter also expressed cautious optimism about the latest iteration of Eclipse, with the latter stating that his company's dealings with AML Global have been "definitely better" than with prior ownership.
"They've reached out at the staff level and they're using us to repair parts," Winter said. "Our hope is to get to a higher level and find ways to work together on projects, but for the moment they've got their hands full. We'll help them where we can."
Added Lebel: "AML Global has been very customer-friendly, and it's obvious they're working hard to secure parts and develop good relationships with customers and suppliers. Harborne is in this for a pretty good chunk of money; he loses his investment if the aircraft can't be supported. We've seen some concrete indications that he's committed to this program, and that benefits all Eclipse owners."
When asked what has made the Eclipse program resilient despite numerous challenges, Press recalled many of the same attributes that first attracted attention to the aircraft at the turn of this century. "It's a brilliant design [offering] continued economical utility," he said. "It is also the most 'green' airplane ever built, [with low] carbon, noise, and other pollutants, and its 60-gallons-per-hour fuel flow at cruise. The Eclipse 500/550 has a bright future."