The Little Engine That Couldn't
The new Eclipse 500 lightjet will no doubt make a lot of customers happy
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, November 2005
(Page 3 of 6)
In 1978 Williams signed a deal to develop the WR44, an engine with 850 pounds of thrust for the five-passenger Foxjet 600, an aircraft eerily similar to the Eclipse but doomed to mockup status. A subsequent flirtation with the ill-fated American Jet Industries Hustler likewise went nowhere, and it wasn’t until 1988 that a Williams engine finally took wing with a human aboard. A pair of 1,800-pound-thrust FJ44s powered Burt Rutan’s Triumph, a proof-of-concept prototype for a Beech light business jet.
It was Cessna that jumped on the light-jet concept, however, and in 1992 the Cessna CitationJet, with a pair of FAA-certified FJ-44-1As, rated at 1,900 pounds of thrust and weighing 450 pounds, became the first production aircraft with Williams engines. At a bargain $3.2 million, it quickly became the best selling bizjet in history. Once again, Williams had jump-started a whole new class of aircraft, and once again he had the niche to himself.
But the elusive Foxjet category still beckoned. In the early 1990s, Williams began developing a fanjet in the 700-pound-thrust class. The new engine would be a clean break from the philosophy of gradual evolution and refinement that had guided the 35-year progression from Jet No. 1 to the FJ44. Developing this new technology would be expensive, but again Williams’ timing was impeccable. The General Aviation Propulsion (GAP) initiative, a pet program of NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, promised to revitalize the moribund lightplane industry with innovative engine technology. In 1996 Williams teamed up with NASA for a four-year, $100 million effort to “reduce the cost of small turbine engines by a factor of ten and revolutionize the concept of personal air transportation,” as a NASA press release put it.
When NASA engineers first saw Williams’ radical new GAP design, the FJX-2, they were skeptical. “We weren't sure if they could really do this,” recalls Leo Burkardt, the GAP program manager. “Their projected performance, weight, and cost were so much better than the other proposals that even if they only got halfway there, it would still be better than anybody else.”
John Adamczyk, the NASA senior technologist on the project, still remembers his shock upon first seeing the FJX-2’s parts laid out. “I just shook my head in amazement at how small it all was. It looked like someone was assembling a Swiss watch.” A five-stage compressor from the FJX-2 that Williams showed off at the 1997 Oshkosh, Wisconsin airshow looked more like the business end of a Cuisinart than the seeds of an aeronautical revolution. With each stage intricately carved from a single piece of titanium, it weighed one pound, three ounces. “You could hold it in the palm of your hand,” recalls Adamczyk, still awestruck.
But the doubts vanished a year or so into the program, after the first test of the main compressor. “All the numbers matched our analysis,” remembers Adamczyk. “It really gelled at that point.” The complete engine first ran in August 1999 and was soon hitting its predicted thrust numbers. Four engines eventually accumulated a total of almost 900 starts and more than 500 hours of running time in the test cell. Testifying before Congress in 2000, Sam Williams declared the FJX-2 a “major success.” Adamczyk, a 30-year veteran who has worked on numerous jet engine projects, calls the FJX-2 “one of the high points of my career.”
All the while, Williams had been promoting the concept of a very light jet (VLJ) that could eventually use his new engine. In 1996, he’d hired Burt Rutan to build a demonstrator aircraft, the four-seat V-Jet II. Williams’ contract with NASA called for the V-Jet II to fly with a pair of FJX-2s as the capstone to the GAP project. But it initially flew with FJX-1s, man-rated versions of the F107 cruise missile engine rated at 550 pounds of thrust. With Goldin in attendance, the V-Jet II created a sensation at Oshkosh in 1997 with the noisy, underpowered FJX-1s. Among the thousands of salivating airplane buffs in the audience was a wealthy pilot and businessman named Vern Raburn.
An early Microsoft executive and stockholder, Raburn had just left a job overseeing the technology investments of billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, for whom he jetted around the country at the controls of a Williams-powered CitationJet. Raburn had the restless soul of an entrepreneur, and he had long nurtured the same vision as Williams: a small, inexpensive jet airplane. Galvanized by the V-Jet II and reports of the extraordinary little FJX-2, Raburn signed a deal with Williams in May 1998 to jointly develop a five- or six-seat VLJ. It would be powered by an FAA-certified version of the FJX-2, to be called the EJ22. Together, Sam Williams and Vern Raburn were going to revolutionize aviation.