Greg Gates was like a kid at Christmas. In fact, he was at his country club's holiday party, quietly enjoying an eggnog, when he first heard the news that quickly had him quivering with glee. His pal Bob Cecka, a longtime Delta Airlines pilot, had happened upon a new type of aircraft that he thought would revolutionize flying. He mentioned his find to Gates, a fellow member at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, and any talk of sugarplums and fairies promptly ceased. In that instant, Gates knew exactly what he wanted for Christmas: an Eclipse 500. He grasped that if what Cecka said was true about the innovative design and astonishingly low price point, he could travel hassle-free to every great North American golf course he ever wanted to play.
The Eclipse 500 is the first of a brand new breed of plane—the Very Light Jet, or VLJ—that is expected to transform the nation's skies in the next two years. The introduction of VLJs to America's airspace is predicted to spur a huge spike in jet purchases—until now the exclusive province of Fortune 500 top executives—by an entire class of folks who had previously been shut out from doing so by the prohibitive price tag. The new planes' affordability—starting at less than $1.5 million, or about $350,000 a person when split four ways—also means private jets will no longer be used primarily for business travel. Picture leaving your home in Atlanta early one Saturday morning, tossing your clubs aboard, buzzing down to the Jacksonville area to duke it out with the TPC at Sawgrass, zipping up the coast to Hilton Head for more Pete Dye fun at Harbour Town, then telling your pilot to head home so you can catch the late SportsCenter back in your own den. No airline schedules; no arriving an hour and a half early; no waiting in lines.
It took Gates less than a week to find three partners to go in with him on the plane. Glenn Hughes, Russell McCarty and Dave Laughlin are all friends and fellow Desert Mountain members. "A lot of people who live here fit the same bill as us," said Hughes, 40, an entrepreneur whose business interests have included timber, oil and gas, real estate and television. "We're semiretired and tired of fighting airports. What's kept everybody from pulling the trigger [on buying a jet] is the cost. But the Eclipse came in at a price people can afford."
Santa will deposit the Desert Mountain boys' present in March 2008, making them among the earliest VLJ owners in the world. Eclipse plans to produce eighty-seven planes this year, six hundred in 2007 and up to a thousand in 2008. The demand is such that if you have a high place in line, you may ultimately be able to sell your Eclipse 500 for double or triple what you paid.
The idea for a superlight jet sprang from the mind of former Microsoft executive Vern Raburn, who is a pilot certified to fly more than fifteen types of airplanes. He founded Eclipse Aviation in 1998 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the goal of "revolutionizing the transportation market" and has raised nearly half a billion dollars in capital to do so.
The Eclipse 500 is made for regional travel. It has a range of 1,400 miles and can cruise at 430 m.p.h. at an altitude of 41,000 feet. These statistics are comparable to the current lightest jet on the market, the Cessna CJ 1+, which is priced at $4.5 million—three times the amount of the Eclipse. Industry experts also predict the Eclipse will cost about half as much to operate as the Cessna. But price is just one of many advantages of the Eclipse 500, said Bassam Al-Sarraj, a Toronto-based aviation journalist, pilot and president of Easy Air Share, which sells fractions in aircraft. "It's economical to operate and it's an excellent investment as well," said Al-Sarraj, who was one of the few who had actually flown an Eclipse 500 as of May. "If you own an Eclipse and fill it with three buddies, it's like flying privately for the price of coach."