Courtesy Of Eclipse Aviation
The six-seat Eclipse 500 -- seen during a test flight -- will be able to use many smaller, less frequented  airfields, allowing its passengers to shorten their trips.
By Jon Bonné
updated 5/5/2004 12:54:18 PM ET 2004-05-05T16:54:18

Vern Raburn has this habit of finding the next big thing — way too soon.

In 1976, he opened the third computer store in Los Angeles, years before PCs came to the masses. Struck with the computer bug, he headed to Albuquerque, N.M., where he joined up with some guys who wanted to sell software.

That happened to be Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and Raburn was one of the first employees at Microsoft (a partner in MSNBC). But he bailed when Gates shipped the company north to Redmond, Wash., and moved on.

So what is he doing back in New Mexico, in an airport hangar?

“If in 1996, you’d told me I’d be running an airplane business,” Raburn says, “I’d tell you you're absolutely, completely, totally out of your mind.”

He aims to make small jets affordable enough for the rest of us. Raburn’s vision is to build a large fleet of these jets barely more expensive to fly than the price of an airline ticket. Except they take you exactly where you need to go, exactly when you need to get there.

FAA certification expected in two years
The plan isn’t quite as expansive as Herbert Hoover’s promise of “a car in every garage” (or Gates’ of “a computer on every desk”). But Raburn's Eclipse 500 jet, on schedule for Federal Aviation Administration certification in 2006, just may have the right factors to finally make personal air travel a reality.

By no means is this the first plan to build an airplane for the masses.  After World War II, the aviation industry envisioned fleets of personal aircraft; it built some popular planes, but the dream never quite materialized. Learning to fly was hard, the nation’s new interstate system made long driving trips a breeze and the jet age soon arrived.

Raburn’s real invention has been to create a twin-engine jet — already being flight-tested — at a cost no one had imagined possible.  The result isn't one revolutionary leap forward but many small, ingenious advances.

“Is this all like ‘no one’s ever done it before’ type of innovation? To be blunt, no,” he says.

Riveters need not apply
From its inception, Raburn's Eclipse Aviation has set out to build an aircraft without the baggage toted by most seasoned aerospace designers.

Eclipse Aviation
Vern Raburn
Case in point: While many plane builders have grown fond of high-tech composite materials for aircraft skin, Raburn wasn’t convinced. He believed modern aluminum was light enough and thin enough to be cost-effective, and far more reliable. But he needed to create a skin without rivets, which are a major pain to aircraft builders — time-consuming on the assembly line and a big added weight.

Instead, Eclipse uses stir-friction welding, an advanced process that fuses two metal sheets almost seamlessly. The company didn't invent the process, but Raburn believes Eclipse is the first to use it on aircraft.  Rather than a moving assembly line, he emulated automakers’ use of movable tooling platforms.  “We build this airplane the same way you see Nissan or Ford building their newest cars in their newest factories,” Raburn says.

He also embraced a growing movement to computerize small cockpits. With microprocessors replacing many expensive, old-fashioned avionics systems required for jet flight, just a few video screens would substitute for rows of dials — and function like equipment in commercial jets, but for far less money.And he committed to a policy of transparent development not just for the 2,100 customers who have already placed orders, but also to help expedite FAA approval.

The development of smaller, powerful jet engines also allowed him to drive down operating costs such that the Eclipse 500 will fly for an estimated 69 cents per mile.

Those engines, though, almost proved his undoing. An early turbine prototype from Williams was an utter failure — and was the one Eclipse 500 system without a backup plan.  The company retrenched and now uses Pratt & Whitney engines, but setbacks in time and money nearly ended the project.

Strictly a private venture
Otherwise, though, money hasn’t really been that big a challenge. Raburn’s Microsoft days left him with a bit of extra change — and with friends like Allen (for whom Raburn used to work privately) with even deeper pockets.  While the company has spent an estimated $200 million or more of the $325 million it has raised, Raburn keeps Eclipse privately held and privately funded; venture capitalists need not apply. “Those guys wouldn’t know a venture if it came up and bit them on the ass,” he says.

Courtesy Of Eclipse Aviation
The Eclipse 500's interior lacks certain amenities (a toilet, for example) but should be comfortable for the relatively short-haul flights for which the jet has been designed.
Even if Eclipse turns out a projected five planes per day, Raburn knows most people still won't be buying his tiny jets.  With a price tag just under $1 million, the Eclipse 500 is stunningly reasonable for a corporate airplane — a new single-turboprop Piper Meridian costs $1.6 million, Cessna’s Citation jets easily top $5 million — but still a bit more than an Ford Explorer.

Rather, Raburn hopes many of the planes will be operated as air taxis, providing affordable direct point-to-point service to the average traveler.  They can use the relatively open airspace between 20,000 and 25,000 feet and land at smaller, secondary airstrips. The flights would save passengers from the chaos of major airports, which is a welcome option for fliers fed up with the endless delays and extra route segments that plague major airlines’ hub-and-spoke systems.

“That kind of nonsense is what is going to help drive Vern’s business,” says Jeff Myers, executive vice president of communications for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Competition already in the wings
Wait … Upstart firm undercuts an industry’s economics, shapes a new market and makes a fortune? Founded in Albuquerque?  Raburn hates the inevitable Microsoft comparisons (“they’re so trite”) and Eclipse already has competition. Several other firms, including Cessna, are developing their own very small jets. (Or mini-jets or personal jets — no one can settle on what to call them.)

Raburn would rather focus on getting the Eclipse 500 finished than on building an aviation giant, an increasingly popular decision among modern aviation mavericks, including people like Burt Rutan , whom Allen funded to build the world’s first private spacecraft. (Raburn says he introduced them.)

Raburn, who pilots everything from business jets to World War II bombers, obviously enjoys his decision.  “I grin a little bit each morning as I drive to work,” he says, “because I’m going to the airport, and it’s my job.”

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