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.
The Eclipse 400 is a single-engine, four-seat jet that Eclipse Aviation was just beginning to develop when it went bankrupt in 2009. It had attracted about 30 deposits of $100,000 each, which would-be customers never got back when Eclipse went under. As mentioned in the introduction, the EA400 was a single-engine jet with a lot of promise. Powered by a single Pratt & Whitney PW615 turbofan (the same engine that powers the EA-500 twinjet), the EA400 was a 330-knot cruiser with a range of nearly 1,500 nm. Eclipse said it was aiming for a ceiling of 41,000 feet, but that was an unprecedented number for a single-engine production aircraft, and it’s not clear how much of the plane’s range was calculated using that very high ceiling. Jets become far more efficient at higher altitudes. But even if you take a couple of hundred miles of range off that reach-goal number, the EA400 would have had numbers in line with the Cirrus Vision Jet, which does seat at least a couple more people.
But it was not to be. The Eclipse EA400 never got close to FAA certification—in fact, Eclipse said it never even started the formal process. Could it have gotten there? Based on what we know of Eclipse’s hard-won success in getting FAA approval for its twin-engine EA-500—which is a great flying airplane, by the way—and judging by Cirrus Aircraft’s ultimate success with its SF-50 Vision Jet, there’s no question that the EA400 could have gotten there, but it would have been a lengthy and expensive endeavor. ONE Aviation, the company that wound up in control of Eclipse’s assets, holds the rights to the EA-400, but it has expressed no interest in pursuing that project.