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.
When it comes to figuring out why airplanes that seemed promising never made it, sometimes, as is the case with the next plane, the Eclipse EA400, it’s easy to say. In the case of the Cessna NGP (for Next Generation Piston…later changed to Next Generation Prop), the answer isn’t clear. Its origins are pretty easy to guess at, though. Leadership at Cessna likely saw the success of the Cirrus SR22, which was outselling Cessna’s entire piston lineup at the time, and it was concerned that the future might pass it by. So the company came up with a composite fuselage, metal-wing fixed-gear, 300-hp class piston-engine model that would eventually form the basis for single-engine Cessnas to come. In 2006, the company brought the prototype to Oshkosh AirVenture, where it made quite an impression. There was even talk of going in the direction of diesel or even turboprop power. But things stopped happening with the plane shortly after its Oshkosh launch. The following year, Cessna purchased the assets of Columbia Aircraft, which made a model very similar to the Cirrus SR22, and the Cessna NGP was abandoned.