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Defense-spending bill contains ‘good news’ for Eclipse

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque-based Eclipse Aerospace could learn by the end of the year whether it’s in the running to provide its very light jet to the Air Force as a training plane for aspiring pilots.

The defense-spending bill for fiscal year 2015, released this week by the Senate Armed Services Committee, gives the Air Force 90 days from the bill’s passage to report on options for modernizing or replacing its more than 20-year-old fleet of 178 Beechcraft T-1A Jayhawks.

“The committee is concerned about the Air Force’s aging fleet of training aircraft used in its specialized undergraduate pilot training,” says a report by the powerful 25-member committee that accompanied the defense-spending bill.

The report on the options would start the wheels in motion to budget for T-1A’s modernization or replacement. Federal fiscal years begin Oct. 1.

“Still a lot of work to do, but this is very good news for ABQ and Eclipse,” Vice President Mike Press told the Journal in an email Thursday.

Among the options that Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is directed to look at are either a long-term or short-term lease of aircraft or services. While the bill and its accompanying report do not specifically name the very light jet category of planes, the lease option is understood to mean a very light jet, Press said.

“This language is the catalyst we needed to get the Air Force to seriously consider our proposal,” he said.

The T-1A, which is the military version of Wichita, Kan.-based Beechcraft’s Beech 400A, requires an avionics upgrade to be certified to fly in national airspace past 2020.

For more than two years, Eclipse officials and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have lobbied the Air Force to switch to the Eclipse 550.

Their sales pitch is that it is much cheaper to maintain and operate the Eclipse 550, the upgraded version of the company’s original twin-engined Eclipse 500 model first delivered at the end of 2006, than modernize the T-1A. The switch could mean 300-400 new production jobs at Eclipse.

Faced with budget cuts, the Air Force and other branches of the military have become more cost conscious than in the past. The Senate committee’s bill directs the Air Force to provide a cost comparison of the different options.

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