Vern Raburn, the founder and long time CEO of Eclipse Aviation, was shown the door this summer after failing on his promise to turn out Eclipse 500s in the super-high volume, and at consequent low prices, that had been key to the outfit's original business plan.
Now beached in Albuquerque and fully separated from the company (although he still holds stock), he's considering what next to do with his life. He and I have spoken several times recently, both on the phone and in person, and I've published parts of those exchanges in Business & Commercial Aviation and in Show News. We also put part in a podcast you can access at: http://www.aviationweek.com/media/audio/NBVern.mp3
What follows are Q&As from those sessions.
To begin Raburn's personal history well known to many. After opening one of the first computer stores in 1976, he joined then tiny Microsoft Corp., and rose to become president of its Consumer Products Division. He moved to Lotus Development, then Symantec Corp., and finally oversaw the technology investments for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
An avid pilot, Raburn in 1998 melded his work experience and aviation passion to launch a low-cost, high-production, compact twinjet he called the Eclipse 500, and in the doing created the very light jet (VLJ) aircraft category. The decade that followed was marked by hype, hoots, howls and high drama as the Eclipse program alternated between advance and near collapse.
Nevertheless, in 2006 the EA500 received its FAA type certificate, the Eclipse factory delivered the first of what has since become hundreds of aircraft, and the company was awarded the Collier Trophy. However, continuing production and vendor challenges have kept the delivery rate well below target, forcing layoffs, an increase in pricing and heightened concern among investors, who forced him out this past July.
Always direct and unambiguous in his comments to the press while in charge of Eclipse, he remains so now in his new role of industry observer.
Q: You've had a couple of months to reflect on your directed exit. What went wrong?
Raburn: In development we clearly bit off a lot, but to achieve our objectives we had to do all those things. Our most serious setbacks came when vendors, Williams and Avidyne prominent among several, failed to develop what they promised. And once in production, we'd no idea how radically unreliable the supply chain was. If the epitaph of Eclipse is written some day, it will say the aerospace vendor base was not ready to join the 21st Century. Of course, there were wonderful exceptions; for example Pratt's engine is a miracle.
Q: You were shown the door after Eclipse failed to deliver on its high-volume promise. Was the problem with parts, production or something else?
Raburn: It's the nature of aircraft manufacturing that you don't have second sources for a lot of things – the expense is too high and volume too low. So, when a single vendor fails, it brings the line to a screeching halt. Hampson Industries in the UK, was responsible for the entire empennage. They sent craftsmen who did a great job hand building the preproduction tails, but the company plain lied about their capacity, their ability and what they were going to do. Their list of failures is just egregious. We also had challenges in adapting to high-rate production techniques in the factory
Q: Your critics regularly attacked you in personal ways, questioning your integrity, ability and honesty. Why?
Raburn: I made some people uncomfortable. The industry was slowly dying and increasingly elitist and with Eclipse I was trying to change that, which in turn put pressure on them. Also, I speak my mind. I came from the world of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs where you call a spade a spade. And I refused to back down and play nice in what is a phenomenally genteel industry, one where everyone is hugs and kisses at a cocktail party, and then stabs each other in the back.
Q: At what cost to you personally?
Raburn: I divorced after nearly 30 years and Eclipse is partly to blame for that. I turned down several offers to be CEO of start-ups that would have made me lots of money. I dedicated 11 years to the project and gave up all kinds of things, including a Constellation, to make it a success. And now I'm out in the cold. So, the cost has been substantial. But I wouldn't change a thing. It's been an amazing experience.
Q: The Eclipse 500's certification has been the focus of attention at the FAA, which subsequently blessed it, and on Capitol Hill, where the process was faulted. What do you make of all that?
Raburn: The airplane does things differently, and that causes some aviation people to say it must be unsafe because that's not how they've done it before. But it's not only safe, it's got the best safety record of any Part 23 aircraft introduced into the fleet. By this point, the Cirrus had two fatal accidents that killed four people. We've hurt nobody. There's been one accident, an overrun, just like the Mustang. The Cessna's happened four times sooner than ours, but no one's said the Mustang is unsafe, and it's not.
Q: Do you suppose politics could be a factor?
Raburn: Sure, and blame me for that. When Netscape, Sun and others couldn't compete in the market against Microsoft, they called in political favors. I saw my friend Bill Gates get attacked by the FTC and Justice Department as a result. I didn't want that to happen to Eclipse, so I spent a lot of time in D.C. trying to make FAA, Congress, NTSB and everyone else understand what we were trying to do. The program got a high profile and Marion Blakey put Eclipse on her dashboard because she thought it was important to the industry. So now the liberal left and unhappy government employees are teaming up to get at FAA management and are using the Eclipse to do it. If I don't remain in aviation, it's because of crap like this.
Q: That high profile has been drawing unfriendly attention for some time.
Raburn: There's been some personally nasty stuff said about me. Several people have even called me liar. That bothered me because I've never said one thing that wasn't vetted internally and didn't have a good shot at achieving. Some people have a difficult time distinguishing between taking a risk and failing, and saying something you know you couldn't do. To succeed with a new aircraft from a new company, you have to set your sights really high to compete; it has to be so much better for people to accept the risk. We did that and accomplished a lot – we've developed and certificated an very innovative aircraft, built a factory, training center, three service centers and delivered 250 aircraft so far – but not as fast or as much as we had hoped.
Q: What's the most challenging aspect of your current situation?
Raburn: Not being involved some days is really tough. I miss walking around the factory floor and talking to people. I've been sort of ostracized, which I understand. Ultimately the company and I both had to sever all ties to move on.
Q: And to where or what will you be moving?
Raburn: It will be six months before I know. What I do best is start things. I know that whatever area I choose, be it aviation, energy conservation, space exploration or something else, it will be fun, challenging and hopefully I'll make positive changes. Meanwhile, my business card says IDKY, which stands for "I don't know yet."
Editor's note: If you would like to hear more, Raburn will be addressing AVIATION WEEK's VLJ Forum, Nov. 11-12 at the Crowne Plaza in West Palm Beach, Fla. For more info, contact Helen Kang at 212-904-6305.