Air Taxis’ May Soon Revolutionize [Business] Travel

Tuesday, January 30, 2007
‘Air taxis’ may soon revolutionize jet travel
By ALLISON GATLIN
The Antelope Valley (CA) Valley Press

LANCASTER – Someday soon, proponents say, travelers may avoid the crowds and inconvenience of major airports by taking “air taxis” between small airports, a point-to-point service operating on their time schedule and flying directly to their desired destination. Eclipse Aviation is one such proponent, an early entrant into the market for very light jets, as these small aircraft are known. “The goal is to make this airplane your own personal 737,” said Terry Tomeny, director of flight test engineering for Eclipse.

Editor’s Note: Will your municipality be ready when the business travel paradigm changes? Not if it doesn’t promote and perserve their airport. Tomeny described the aircraft and its development Saturday for members of Chapter 49 of the Experimental Aircraft Association, during the organization’s annual awards banquet.

A retired Air Force and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. test pilot who spent many years on various programs at Edwards Air Force Base, Tomeny joined Eclipse Aviation in early 2005 and has led the flight test effort since then.

The very light jet movement is a means of returning general aviation to relevance, he said, by making it a viable alternative to commercial air travel and cars.

For New Mexico-based Eclipse, this meant developing a jet that would cost less – both to purchase and operate – than existing private jets, be simple to fly and reliable.

Part of fulfilling this goal was designing a simple aircraft, using an aluminum airframe and mechanical controls.

“Even though it’s a jet airplane, there’s no reason it needs to be complex,” Tomeny said, adding that the most complex part of this jet is its avionics.

The digital displays in the cockpit of the Eclipse 500 have more in common with the latest military jets than the traditional general aviation steam gauges. Three computer display screens contain the relevant information, which may be configured to suit the pilot and situation. A stowable keyboard may be used to input flight information.

These displays show systems status, gathering information from all over the airplane, correlating it and offering alerts if problems arise.

“What we’re trying to do is put intelligence through the entire airplane,” Tomeny said.

One innovative manufacturing technique used on the Eclipse 500 is friction-stir welding. This technique is faster and stronger than the traditional riveting used to fasten pieces together, Tomeny said.

The company also uses a system of suppliers delivering parts as needed. “What we’re trying to do is build airplanes like they do cars,” he said.

The Eclipse 500, which recently received its initial certification from the Federal Aviation Administration and was delivered to its first customer, is capable of flying more than 1,000 miles at up to 41,000 feet altitude, cruising at 370 knots (about 425 mph). It can carry up to five passengers plus a single pilot. More than 2,500 of the jets have been ordered, with a price tag of about $1.5 million.

Design on the jet began in 1999, with the first flight in August 2002. However, the engines used in that early design proved unacceptable, and only one test flight was made, Tomeny said.

While waiting for new Pratt and Whitney engines, the jet’s aerodynamics were tested in flights in 2003, using a missile engine for propulsion.

The first flight of the Eclipse using the new engines was in December 2004. Since then, the program has logged more than 1,850 flights and 3,000 hours, using five test aircraft, he said. No flight has ever ended with only one engine working, nor has damage from foreign object debris been a problem, Tomeny said.

With FAA certification for the aircraft design, the company is awaiting certification of its production process. Until then, each aircraft must be individually certified.

“We are anxiously awaiting rolling them out regularly,” Tomeny said, with a goal of nine to 10 days to complete each airplane at the Albuquerque, N.M., plant.

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