FAA, Congress revisit Eclipse 500 certification

August 20, 2008

FAA inspectors are conducting a special certification review of the Eclipse 500 jet. The move is apparently in preparation for a Sept. 17 congressional hearing questioning the FAA’s awarding of a type certificate to the company in 2006.

Eclipse officials said they welcome the review and believe the aircraft was properly tested and certified.

The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will hear results from the Department of Transportation inspector general’s office and receive testimony from former Eclipse Aviation employees. Committee chairman Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) has invited FAA and NTSB officials to testify. The committee requested the inspector general’s report.

In 2006 the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) filed a grievance stating “...aircraft certification engineers and flight test pilots had not completed their assigned certification and safety responsibilities before the aircraft was certified on Sept. 30, 2006," a Saturday. NATCA officials said at the time it was highly unusual for a type certificate to be awarded on a Saturday. NATCA represents FAA employees involved in the certification approval process. At the time, FAA officials said the agency stood behind the certification.

“Without a doubt, this special review will uncover what we already know—that the Eclipse 500 marks the safest new airplane introduction into service in 20 years,” said Roel Pieper, Eclipse Aviation’s CEO. “Customer safety has always been a priority at Eclipse, and we look forward to this investigation dispelling any inaccuracies about the certification of this airplane for once and for all.”

Special certification reviews are not unusual and normally occur after an accident to investigate specific aircraft systems on various aircraft from airliners to business jets and piston-engine aircraft.

The special certification review comes at a time when Eclipse is trying to contain costs, yet ramp up production. It now appears Eclipse will work on cost-cutting first, briefly reducing production.

Production to be slowed

Albany International Corp. says Eclipse Aviation will substantially reduce production of the Eclipse 500 jet for the rest of this year and into early 2009. Albany International supplies composite materials to Eclipse. An Albany International press release indicates production will return to and surpass previous production levels in the last half of 2009.

On Aug. 22 Eclipse confirmed the Aug. 19 report from Albany International, saying Eclipse is laying off 650 workers, many of them temporary employees and people employed less than six months. That amounts to a 38-percent reduction in the workforce in all departments and facilities, including Albuquerque, N.M.; Gainesville, Fla.; and Albany, N.Y. The total employment after reductions stands at 1,100.

"In my effort to take Eclipse Aviation to the next level of growth and sustainability, I am 100 percent focused on operational excellence and a plan to achieve it," said CEO Roel Pieper. "Financial stability is critical for this company and unfortunately, a reduction in workforce was necessary to achieve it. I am confident this action will set the company on the path to profitability so that we can continue to lead the very light jet category."

Sales to Eclipse are a substantial portion of business for an Albany International subsidiary, Albany Engineered Composites, located in Boerne, Texas. The profitability of the Texas company will, as a result of a cutback in Eclipse production, fall below the break-even point for the final two quarters of 2008.

Other problems surface

Eclipse has also reported operational problems. The latest concerns the Pratt & Whitney Canada engines.

An in-flight shutdown of one of two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW610F engines on an Eclipse 500 has been traced to carbon buildup in the combustion chamber.

Pratt & Whitney Canada is working with Eclipse Aviation to investigate the issue. A Pratt & Whitney spokesman said initial findings indicate the carbon forms in the combustor during high-altitude operation with full cabin bleed selected. There are no recommended changes to maintenance or operational procedures associated with the PW610F engine.

The PW600 series of engines powers the Eclipse 500, the Cessna Citation Mustang, and the under-development Embraer Phenom 100. The Eclipse 500 fleet has accumulated more than 50,000 engine flight hours since introduction to service on Dec. 31, 2006. Overall feedback on the engine continues to be positive, Pratt & Whitney officials said.

A Cessna spokesman said there appear to be no such problems to date with the Mustang. It is powered by the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW615F. However, Pratt & Whitney is doing testing on the 615 in coming weeks to confirm this, a spokesman said. The Cessna spokesman added that the 615 is engineered a bit differently than the 610 engine.

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | "AOPA Pilot" Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.