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Wed, Sep 17, 2008

House Committee Hears Arguments Concerning EA500 Certification

Hearing Ends With Little Sign Of Resolution

ANN REALTIME UPDATE 09.17.08 1700 EDT: Did the FAA rush the certification of the Eclipse 500? Calvin Scovel, DOT Inspector General, believes so... telling the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday the plane was certified by FAA officials despite known issues with the plane's flight control software, avionics functions and displays, wing flaps, and stall warning system.

In some of those cases, the FAA issued an Alternative Method of Compliance (AMOC), which is a fairly common practice. To solve the problem of the Eclipse 500's stall warning horn sounding while on final approach to land, for example, the FAA signed off on Eclipse's raising of book approach speeds -- taking the plane above the speed threshold where the horn sounded, but still keeping it within the safe range for touchdown.

To address other concerns, Eclipse submitted what essentially were "IOUs" to the FAA, promising compliance at a later date AFTER the certification was issued. Scovel slammed that practice, saying the FAA essentially allowed Eclipse to skate by with an aircraft design that didn't meet agency standards.

When questioned by Representative Robin Hayes (R-NC), Scovel conceded his office had found "no evidence" to suggest the Eclipse 500 is an unsafe aircraft. Scovel added, however, that given what the FAA knew of the plane's shortcomings -- brought to the FAA's attention by several of its own inspectors, who refused to sign off on the plan to give Eclipse a TC -- "a reasonable decision would have been to defer the granting of the type certificate."

As ANN reported, the FAA granted Eclipse Aviation its final type-certificate on September 30, 2006, two months after then-Administrator Marion Blakey issued a much-touted "provisional" certification at AirVenture 2006 (below).

The final certification date is noteworthy in that it was a Saturday, and the end of the FAA's 2006 fiscal year. The date was also Eclipse's own self-imposed deadline to achieve certification. 

After Scovel's testimony and subsequent questioning by the committee, lawmakers heard from Maryetta Broyles, an engineer involved with the Eclipse 500's type-certification. She told lawmakers of what she termed a curious, and ominous, similarity between what she said were her marching orders from the FAA, and what she later heard from Eclipse personnel:

"He stated that we should do a high level or overview of the system because the company had already been audited numerous times. It was then stated "in other words we need to only go an inch-deep when evaluating the quality system." I was shocked when I heard this statement. I had never been told to go only an inch-deep when conducting an audit...

"I am a very thorough evaluator. During my evaluation I found issues with the Horizontal Stabilizer Assembly... These discrepancies should have been corrected before the Eclipse inspector signed it off. I requested the drawings to evaluate the condition further. When looking at drawings, one drawing led to another and so on. My escort said to me "Maryetta you are going more than an inch-deep. You are going too deep." I was surprised that my escort had heard that statement. I do not know how he received the same information that was briefed only to the FAA. I acknowledged his remark."

FAA managers David Downey and Ford Lauer submitted in writing to the committee their concerns about Eclipse's certification to the FAA.

Downey told the committee his team felt "undermined and threatened" when they raised their concerns to officials in Washington; Lauer added his team found "improperly installed fasteners, misrouted electrical wiring, unsatisfactory safety wire, wrong fasteners being used, inadequate clearances between moving parts, etc." on ostensibly production-quality aircraft.

"Eclipse management would not hesitate to complain to FAA management when they perceived FAA inspectors were interfering with Eclipse's ability to deliver airplanes," Lauer added.

Representatives from the FAA also had the chance to make their case -- led by Nick Sabatini, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety. In his prepared testimony, Sabatini pointedly said "FAA professionals would never and, in this case, did not, certify an aircraft that they knew to be unsafe or one that did not meet standards. I am unaware of any FAA safety professional who would choose to put the safety of the flying public at risk by certifying an unsafe product for introduction to the NAS [National Airspace System.]"

When questioned directly, Sabatini adopted an equally defensive tone... attributing most of the employees' concerns about the certification to inexperience, saying the Fort Worth FSDO had no experience with certifying a "high profile, complex project." He also defended those instances when FAA headquarters got involved, and overruled those workers -- calling such steps "entirely appropriate."

John Hickey, the FAA official in charge of certification, conceded Eclipse took longer than average to achieve certification -- over five years, compared with the typical three-year period for a plane the size of the Eclipse 500. Such timeframes are not uncommon, Oberstar pointed out, noting Cirrus Design took a similar amount of time to certify its SR20.

In a relatively short statement to conclude the session, Eclipse president and general manager Peg Billson (above) reasserted the Eclipse 500 is a safe aircraft... adding some of the testimony took her by surprise, noting that the DOT's Scovel has yet to speak with anyone at Eclipse about his concerns. (Curiously, Eclipse Acting-CEO Roel Pieper -- who was present throughout the hearing -- left shortly before his panel was called on to testify -- Ed.)

The hearing ended Wednesday with no clear indications of what would be done to address concerns about the Eclipse 500, or the FAA's certification process. But one thing appears certain: that the FAA's current "Customer Service Initiative" -- intended to present a less-confrontational atmosphere between the agency and companies seeking its authorization -- is likely not long for this world.

Chairman Oberstar pointedly noted that system may be addressed -- or even "abolished" -- by future Congressional action.

Original Report

1200 EDT: We're just under two hours in to a hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, looking into the FAA's alleged rush to certify the Eclipse 500 very-light jet... and so far, only one panel witness out of the 12 scheduled has testified.

By all indications, it's going to be a very long day... for committee members, for those persons called to testify, and for Eclipse Aviation. One thing is clear: that committee chairman Jim Oberstar has serious concerns about how the FAA conducted itself in regards to certifying the EA500.

Commenting on the FAA's "Customer Service Initiative" -- which Oberstar believes led to an overly-friendly relationship between FAA senior officials and Eclipse management -- the Minnesota congressman said he was not reassured by the FAA's repeated assertions the agency's safety record speaks for itself, and shows that the process works.

"I fear that complacency may have set in at the highest levels of FAA management, reflecting a pendulum swing away from vigorous enforcement of compliance, toward an industry-favorable cozy relationship," he said.

Oberstar added that such apparent complacency amounts to a "graveyard mentality," which doesn't recognize problems until serious accidents occur. "Safety should not amount to lucky breaks," Oberstar said in later comments. "The FAA has clearly made some serious mistakes."

Specifically, Oberstar questioned how a newly-formed company like Eclipse was able to obtain Organization Designated Airworthiness Representative (ODAR) approval, which allows the company to appoint its own representatives to handle areas of certification compliance.

Calvin Scovel, the Inspector General for the Department of Transportation, conceded "it would be very difficult" for a new company like Eclipse to demonstrate the technical expertise necessary to receive ODAR status. (It's apparently not impossible, though; in addition to Eclipse, other fairly new planemakers that have attained ODAR status include Adam Aircraft, Spectrum Aeronautical, and Cirrus.)

In his testimony before the committee, Scovel also expressed apparent wonderment as to why Eclipse submitted a non-conforming aircraft for tests related to single-pilot operations approval, as was revealed by the FAA's Special Certification Review team. Scovel was "puzzled" why the company would do that, particularly since the EA500's success as an owner-flown plane was so vital to the company's business model.

If Eclipse has a "friend" on the committee, it would be North Carolina Congressman Robin Hayes... who cautioned the committee in his opening comments that "we need to really be careful what we're doing here," maintaining the committee shouldn't lose sight of the larger picture when it comes to aircraft safety.

Hayes also pointedly asked Scovel the question on the minds of many in the aviation industry: is the EA500 a safe plane to fly? "My office has no evidence that it is unsafe," Scovel replied.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association -- which, in addition to its primary role in representing controllers, also represents FAA aircraft certification workers -- filed a grievance in October 2006, alleging "several outstanding safety/regulatory issues" raised by several engineers and test pilots involved with the EA500's certification. 

The grievance didn't mention specific issues with the plane, and was denied by the FAA... which continues to stand by its certification.

Having been shut down by the FAA, the inspectors took their concerns directly to the Department of Transportation, and to Congress... where they found an audience. The inspectors' complaints prompted Wednesday's hearing.

"What did the FAA slip up on?" Oberstar asked. "There are system shortcomings we have to assure the FAA fixes in the future."

ANN will continue to monitor the hearing throughout the day.

FMI: www.transportation.house.gov (Streaming video available), www.eclipseaviation.com, www.faa.gov

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