Eclipse certification premature, House committee says

September 17, 2008

Despite a recent determination by an FAA review panel that the certification of the Eclipse Aviation 500 in 2006 was the “right call,” the House aviation subcommittee said it disagreed during a Sept. 17 hearing.

Both the aircraft type certification and the production certificate were premature, according to a report from the aviation subcommittee of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The production certificate was awarded April 26, 2007, and the type certificate was awarded Sept. 30, 2006 (the last day of the FAA fiscal year), despite warnings of problems with the aircraft that continue today, the subcommittee said in a report. The FAA had set the Sept. 30, 2006, date as a deadline a year earlier because the agency wanted to certify a very light jet by the end of the fiscal year.

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The report is partially based on interim findings by Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel and on research by Transportation and Infrastructure investigators.

When David Downey, then-manager of the FAA Rotorcraft Certification Directorate in Fort Worth, Texas, refused to sign off on the production certificate in 2007 because he believed Eclipse had not met the requirements, he was removed. (Despite its name, the directorate also had responsibility for the Eclipse 500.) Downey said he was hit with a “humiliating verbal assault in front of my employees.” What followed was a seven-page letter of reprimand and a peer review that included the chief operating officer of Eclipse, the subcommittee report said.

Nicholas A. Sabatini, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, said it wasn’t just one official that was booted off the production-certification team—it was two.

“The management officials concluded that these FAA professionals were frustrated with their interaction with their Eclipse counterparts. Understandably, their frustration may have led to a lack of objectivity—a factor that FAA management appropriately considered,” Sabatini said. He asserted that the FAA did not certify an aircraft that it knew to be unsafe and did not give Eclipse “...a pass on regulatory safety requirements in order to meet delivery schedules.”

Scovel said the FAA had a “fill-in-the-blanks-later” approach to the certification. He said the FAA took an “accommodative approach” to what ultimately was a “calendar driven” certification effort. The certification effort was “removed from local officials,” Scovel said. He emphasized that his audit to date does not allege the Eclipse 500 is unsafe or that the FAA certification process itself is flawed.

Eclipse President and General Manager, Manufacturing Division, Peg Billson said concerns about the Eclipse certification are based on misstatements, misconceptions, and misunderstandings. She said the company expects certification in Europe in a few weeks. Billson told the committee that she did work her way up the levels of the FAA to obtain clarity on the production certification process and asked FAA headquarters for assistance. She did admit to twice providing the FAA with an “immature” airplane that did not meet certification standards. “We had some false starts,” she said.