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20060830 Wednesday August 30, 2006

Eclipse Aviation

Last week I was in Albuquerque for some family time and relaxation. It was truly wonderful to see the desert in full bloom; the monsoonal flow of weather coming up from the Gulf of Mexico this time of year has brushed the whole landscape with lovely shades of green. The weather was mild, the raspberries lucious and abundant and, though the trout weren't biting, the rivers roared beautifully; it was really great. No, I didn't accept payola from the New Mexico visitors bureau, really, my gushing is legit.

Anyway, I also took the opportunity to do some geeky oogling at the Eclipse Aviation facility in Albuquerque. I'm not normally an airplane nerd but last Friday, I was. What interested me about this company is that they are producing a truly disruptive technology. Commercial aviation and metropolitan airports are high ceremony affairs; security lines, taking off your shoes and taking out your laptop, finding the right carousel to get your luggage... and praying that it shows up there in tact. The Eclipse jets will commoditize high altitude cruising in a pressurized cabin at speeds that aren't too far behind the big boys (and twice the speed of propeller planes) and do so at a price point on par with the cost of many single family homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. What will that mean for you? What would it mean to you if 2 to 3 hour rides up and down the west coast of the United States are cheap and abundant? If a two day drive or commercial jetliner and airport rigamarole can be replaced with fast, low ceremony travel, then the world gets a lot smaller again. That would mean a lot to me! Welcome to reality, the smaller world where commodization is good.

Eclipse is a newcomer, a startup (I know bit about disruptive startups) in the aviation industry. As you'd expect, they're doing things differently. Which isn't a surprise given founder Vern Raburn's pedigree. Raburn is an early Microsoft and Lotus guy, has been a pilot since he was teenager and has a passion for innovation (along with some cash to throw behind it). Eclipse's friction stir welding process for joining the aluminum shell results in a light but strong hull (without relying on composites); most planes are pieced together with rivets. Eclipse has extensive IT infrastructure that provides flight plans, collects metrics on the planes while they're in flight, detecting component failures and poised to assist from a state-of-the-art operations center. The avionics are displayed on redundant touch screens and the controls are vastly simplified over what you find in traditional aircraft. Here are some specs on the Eclipse 500:

So, do the math and this works out a lot cheaper than flying most piston engine planes (costs per hour may be lower but you're in the air twice as long with those). OK, I admit I don't have one and half mill to drop for one of these babies (however, I have aspirations to be a "qualified buyer") but still, the potential to bring this kind of travel within easy reach is at hand. Even if you don't buy one of them, using one like you'd use a cab seems like huge improvement over current modes of air travel. On your next trip, as you endure the TSA confiscating that toothpaste you forgot was in our carry-on luggage, imagine jet travel that operates more like a car service, like a cab. DayJet is going to provide exactly that using fleets of Eclipse jets. On the factory floor, I saw a few DayJet-logo'd planes getting prepped for delivery. Apparently a gaggle of "air taxi" services similar to DayJet are in the works, they'll also be powered by fleets of Eclipse 500's. We'll embark on the era of very light jets (VLJ), when the first customers start taking delivery of their aircraft within the next month. This may not be Kitty Hawk but I do think this will be rank high in the list of significant aviation events.


( Aug 30 2006, 09:09:06 PM PDT ) Permalink


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