On opening day of Oshkosh AirVenture 2007, the Very Light Jet (VLJ) manufacturer Eclipse Aviation was celebrating the certification and first deliveries of its Eclipse 500 twinjet.
It was simultaneously going through great financial distress, and that was no secret to any of the hundreds of people at the company’s press conference at its exhibit on opening day. And few in attendance would be surprised when, about a year later, things started to go south for Eclipse, resulting in its bankruptcy, possibly the biggest such collapse in the history of light general aviation.
But what did surprise everyone was when Eclipse on that July day introduced a brand-new jet, the Eclipse EA400, a single-engine offshoot of its EA500. People were flabbergasted. The question on everyone’s lips was, how could the company, which was under extreme financial strain, spend precious resources to build a second model?
The answer was, it really was indefensible, despite the company’s explanations of how it was financing the program. In retrospect, these dozen years after Eclipse went down in flames, the one thing I find myself thinking is, wasn’t that single-engine jet really cool?
It, like a number of other intriguing models across the decades and across the industry, never really stood a chance. Many were, like the EA400, victims of economic factors beyond their builders’ control, and others were abandoned in the wake of corporate decisions not to pursue the program, some of which look foolish in the luxury of 2020 hindsight. Others were the victims of what’s likely the second-most-common reason for the failure of a design—that is, after the failure to find enough cash to build it—the inability to find the right engine for the plane.
The pressures on GA plane makers are so great that, if anything, it’s a wonder that there aren’t more cool planes like these in our informal lineup of cool planes that never were.
You might know the BD-5 from its jet-powered version, the BD-5J, which we recently featured in a roundup of Very Light Jets. That plane was in a James Bond movie, and several plied the airshow circuit for years. But the BD-5J is more of a novelty than a practical plane. This is not the case for the BD-5B. It is the only kit plane on our list, but a production version was in the works when Bede Aircraft went belly up in the mid-1970s. The company actually took around 12,000 deposits for the plane, and it delivered more than 5,000 kits, most of those for a purchase price including engine of less than $2,000. Everything slowly ground to a halt as the company searched in vain for a suitable engine for the model. But what a plane.
The BD-5 is a single-seat, single-engine pusher with enviable performance numbers—around 200 knots on just 70 hp. Over the years that Bede tweaked the design, it worked out most of several problems, in part by enlarging a too-small wing and simplifying its systems. And one might quibble that there are plenty of BD-5s out there, but the truth is, there are only around 30 flying examples, of which a few are jet versions. So while Bede Aircraft sold thousands of kits and took many thousands of deposits for a production model that never got close, the story of the BD-5 is that of a fast, cool, efficient and affordable plane that never made it.