Eclipse jets into Lenin town
What would Vladimir Ulyanov have made of it? Last month´s unveiling of Eclipse Aviation´s new Russian assembly plant in Ulyanovsk - the Bolshevik leader´s birthplace - was, in its way, a revolutionary moment. When the first examples roll off the new production line next year, the Eclipse 500 very light jet will become the first US aircraft built in Russia. Eclipse founder Vern Raburn hopes the venture will be the launch pad into a new market in the former Soviet Union, where a growing group of executives and entrepreneurs need a solution between creaking domestic airlines and the need for big corporate jets to cross vast territories. As he said at the ceremony: "Eleven years ago, I had an idea, to create a modern, safe, economical, comfortable airplane that can change how people travel. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be standing here in Russia and changing how people travel in this country. The aviation heritage of Russia has created such names as Antonov, Tupolev, Ilyushin. And now we have two great countries joining together to create modern aviation history."
Eclipse´s move took many by surprise. The announcement that a European plant was being considered came in January after the Albuquerque-based airframer sealed a rescue package with its distributor, European Technology and Investment Research Centre. The deal involved an equity investment "substantially in excess of $ 100 million" and ETIRC´s founder, Roel Pieper, taking a 51% stake in Eclipse and becoming non-executive chairman. It also gave ETIRC rights to set up local assembly of the very light jet in its expanded territory covering Europe, Turkey and the CIS.
However, Sergei Stepashin, chairman of Russia´s budget watchdog and a former prime minister, told Flight International talks with ETIRC took place back in 2004. "I had a meeting with Roel Pieper, when he put forward an idea to localise production of an all-new, US-developed VLJ in Russia," he says. "Others tried to talk us into copying outdated products, while he offered a truly innovative project shaped by Bill Gates´ fellows [Raburn was an early Microsoft manager]."
The 85ha (210-acre) plant is next to Russia´s biggest aircraft factory and a new industrial zone to which the regional authorities have lured US food giant Mars and brewer SABMiller. The Aviastar Aircraft complex is, in dimensions, Europe´s largest aviation plant. Construction began in 1976 and nine years later Aviastar rolled out the Antonov An-124 Ruslan heavylifter, then the first Tupelov Tu-204 twinjet in 1990. The complex had an annual capacity of eight Ruslans and 40 Tu-204s, but the Soviet Union´s collapse saw production decline and in 2007 the plant produced just four aircraft - hence the local authorities´ desire to create jobs.
Ulyanovsk regional governor Sergei Morozov thinks the Eclipse 500 can restore the city´s status as Russia´s aviation capital. "I expect a lot from this project," he says. "In addition to 600 well-paid jobs, the project promises to generate 1.5 billion roubles [$ 62 million] into local budgets."
It is unclear how Russia will treat the parts that will be imported from Eclipse´s suppliers around the world. Moscow imposes a 20% import tax and 18% sales tax on foreign equipment. In theory, the rules can be bypassed through a special order of the government. Stepashin hints this will be the case. "As a rule, the government gives tax exemptions in cases where new technologies and know-how are imported, from which the whole of Russian industry will benefit," he says.
Clearing the way for the Eclipse 500 and other VLJs to operate in Russia will need another law change. Amendments to the air code are expected this year, permitting air taxi services on general aviation aircraft. "We need to change our air code, which does not address general aviation issues properly," says Stepashin. "Russia lists 5,000 general aviation aircraft, but few really fly."
Moving into Russia may have saved Eclipse Aviation which, until ETIRC´s investment, was struggling to generate enough cashflow to stay afloat. However, Raburn was keen to focus on the historic significance of "joining the two best aviation nations in the world that were, until recently, enemies. Now they are going to co-operate."