The first of a new class of passenger jets to win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration will take to the skies thanks in part to research done by NASA and its industry and university partners.
The Eclipse 500 is soon to be the first "very light jet" or VLJ certified and delivered ready for flight. Very light jets are designed to be fast, safe and reliable four-to six passenger planes capable of using very small airports. What make them different from most traditional small planes are technologies that reduce the cost and revolutionize the ease of flying at jet speeds. These technologies help the pilot to more easily and safely fly the airplane by showing where he or she is and where other traffic and bad weather are. Displays can even help pilots see through that weather, see the traffic, and see a picture of the terrain outside.
Image to right: The Eclipse 500, built by Eclipse Aviation Corporation in Albuquerque, N.M., will soon be the first "very light jet" certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and delivered ready for flight. Credit: Eclipse Aviation Corporation
"The Eclipse 500 and other very light jets have the potential to change the way people fly with the help of innovations that NASA and its partners worked on for more than a decade. Those advancements improve the safety, ease of use, reliability and affordability of small aircraft," said Bruce J. Holmes, former head of two NASA/industry alliances that worked to improve small plane technology at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
"As a result of technology investments by government, universities and industry several new jets and on-demand transportation services are emerging in the marketplace," added Holmes. "Many of the new air transportation companies that plan to operate large fleets of these new planes as air taxis have based their business planning in part on the results of NASA’s research."
The Advanced General Aviation Transportation Experiments alliance and its follow-on, the Small Aircraft Transportation System project, were public-private partnerships that advanced affordable new technologies, operating capabilities and industry standards, design guidelines, and certification for next-generation single pilot, near all-weather light airplanes.
One NASA-supported technology that has helped make the Eclipse 500 a reality is friction stir welding, which allows a faster, more automated assembly process of the jet's aluminum structure.
"Testing at NASA Langley verified the effectiveness and safety of our friction stir welding manufacturing technique," said Vern Raburn, Eclipse chief executive officer. "That testing helped us gain FAA approval for friction stir welding a year ahead of schedule. Friction stir welding enables a drastic reduction in aircraft assembly time and eliminates the need for thousands of rivets resulting in reduced assembly costs, better quality joining and stronger, lighter joints," he added.
"No one has ever welded a plane together before. They're usually riveted," said Scott Forth, a senior engineer in the Mechanics of Structures and Materials Branch at NASA Langley at the time of the testing. "Eclipse is using a solid-state weld that doesn't melt the materials. A tool is inserted into the parts that need to be bonded and it plastically mixes the materials together. It makes a really nice weld."
NASA is testing to see how effective the welds are for aircraft flight loads. "We had to come up with all new procedures because the welds have never been tested like we're testing them," said Forth. "Our testing has shown the bond created is incredibly effective … better than I anticipated."
Other companies are also developing very light jets. Many of those planes are expected to feature some of the advancements in cockpits, materials, crashworthiness, lightning protection, aerodynamics, propulsion, and other technologies developed with NASA aeronautics cost-shared research with industry and academia.
NASA has also been contracted for wind tunnel testing by one of the new very light jet manufacturers. Last year Honda R&D Americas, Inc., Greensboro, N.C., used the National Transonic Facility at NASA Langley to collect data for Honda engineers as they were designing the HondaJet.
Honda has announced plans to incorporate the U.S.-based Honda Aircraft Company and start selling the HondaJet commercially, aiming to deliver the first aircraft in 2010.
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