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Next Generation Personal Jet
12/14/2007 8:34:19 PM

This is an awesome little aircraft and the innovation needed to get companies like Day Jet off the ground....   

This article was from Portfolio  

Little Jets, Big Problems

A new generation of tiny, cheap jets could bring commuter air travel to the masses–if the planes can ever get off the ground. Vern Raburn, the controversial C.E.O. of Eclipse Aviation, wants to lead the way, if he can overcome a three-year production delay and financing shortfalls.

 

The Eclipse

In the spring of 1997, Vern Raburn, a technology executive and recreational pilot, took Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to a dusty landing strip in the Mojave Desert. Raburn had been an early Microsoft employee, and he was now working for ­Allen, helping the billionaire invest his fortune. The pair had flown in on Allen’s Boeing 757 from Seattle to meet storied aircraft designer Burt Rutan. He was working on concepts that had commercial potential, and Raburn wanted his boss to have a look. Seated in a conference room overlooking the runway, Rutan presented his designs to the two visitors, including his latest idea: a civilian rocket he believed would herald the age of space tourism. Rutan would need an angel investor, and Allen, an amateur space geek himself, liked what he saw.

After the presentation, Rutan brought the two men to a nearby hangar, where he was assembling another prototype, something called the V-Jet II—a four-seat jet created by Williams International that was smaller than a Ford Explorer and capable of flying faster than 300 miles per hour. The V-Jet was powered by a pair of new engines—the tiny motors weighed just 85 pounds each, yet they could produce more than 700 pounds of thrust. Rutan told his visitors that swarms of these affordable mini-jets could be used for personal travel and as air taxis, shuttling fliers to little-used municipal airports.

Raburn was hooked instantly. “I got really excited,” he recently recalled. “I tried to sell Paul on the idea.” But Allen balked. The personal computer, yes; a personal jet, what’s the point? Allen, who owned two Boeings and a Gulfstream, thought private planes were a luxury for billionaires, not the masses. After all, Warren Buffett called his jet the Indefensible.

Allen invested $20 million in Rutan’s rocket several years later, but spent not a penny on the mini-jet. A few months after meeting with Rutan, Raburn decided that if no one else would finance and build the V-Jet, he’d do it himself.

It’s June 2007. Raburn and I bounce 16,000 feet above the broad mesas of the New Mexican desert in the successor to the V-Jet, which he has christened the Eclipse 500. He fiddles with the autopilot as blasts of summer air shake the cabin. The auto­pilot refuses to engage, which forces Raburn to take control. “This sucker is so easy to fly,” he says, guiding the Eclipse into a wide arc. Below, the modest Albuquerque skyline slides past.

Albuquerque gave birth to the personal-computer revolution—Bill Gates launched Microsoft from a hotel room here in 1975. A few years later, Raburn went to work for Gates as Microsoft’s 18th employee, but he left in 1982 and sold his options before the stock’s meteoric rise. Today his 5 percent stake would be worth billions, but that doesn’t bother Raburn. “Money never motivated me,” he says. “I’ve made more money than most people ever dream about making. I’ve also lost more money than most people dream about losing.”

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