The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold a hearing on Sept. 17, at 10 a.m. EDT, regarding the Federal Aviation Administration's issuance of its type certificate (TC) granted to Eclipse Aviation Corp. for its Eclipse 500 very light jet (VLJ). The event can be viewed live at http://transportation.house.gov.
The committee, chaired by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., ordered the Department of Transportation’s inspector general’s office to investigate whether the FAA should’ve issued the TC on Sept. 30, 2006, after an unprecedented grievance was filed on behalf of FAA-employed engineers and test pilots, who were responsible for validating compliance of the Eclipse VLJ. According to the grievance, FAA management awarded Eclipse Aviation with the TC for its airplane without allowing aircraft certification engineers and flight test pilots to properly complete their assigned certification/safety responsibilities. According to media reports, former Eclipse personnel will testify before the committee, validating that the VLJ was not safe to fly at the time of certification.
The engineers and test pilots’ concerns were partially vindicated on June 5, 2008, when an Eclipse 500 landing at Chicago's Midway Airport experienced uncontrollable, maximum power on both engines during the approach to land. Skillful piloting saved the lives of the four on board, after the plane’s computer that controls the engines experienced a condition it was not programmed to handle—uncontrolled maximum engine thrust on landing, and one engine rolling back to idle position, after the pilot-in-command and copilot got the plane back up in the air, as they were running out of runway.
In a move to obscure the thrust of Oberstar's investigation, the FAA last month initiated a 30-day review of the Eclipse 500. While a complete investigation of the Eclipse certification process would take a year, this investigation was limited to specific areas related to known problems brought forth by Eclipse operators since the aircraft entered service. The team looked at whether these issues were raised during the certification process, and if any of the issues are currently a safety threat.
Despite the narrow scope and brief time allocated for this investigation, on Sept. 12, Robert A. Sturgell, acting FAA administrator, issued a statement: "The team found that the airplane was certificated in accordance with safety regulations…” Further, her said, “This review tells us that while we made the right call in certifying this aircraft, the process we used could and should have been better coordinated."
However, the DOT’s IG’s office began its investigation after the FAA refused to hear the grievance formally, choosing to ignore documented safety issues.
In a related effort to influence the hearing, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson traveled to Washington on Sept. 3 to meet with Oberstar. Richardson's office issued the following statement: "We will emphasize the state of New Mexico's commitment to Eclipse Aviation and highlight the pivotal role that Eclipse has played in our efforts to create high-wage jobs. As a former congressman, I know how important it is to hear directly from communities that benefit from the presence of companies like Eclipse."
Richardson failed to address the safety issues. He failed to mention the alleged breakdown of protocols within the FAA of allowing unfettered hands-on experienced professionals to determine whether a new design was safe or met the intent of FAA regulations. He also failed to mention whether he had a hand in influencing the FAA to accelerate its issuance of the TC to Eclipse.
Meanwhile, Eclipse has admitted to being a cash-strapped company that recently laid off nearly 40 percent of its work force, halted aircraft production, refuses to return position holders' deposits, albeit lawsuits mounting, and is betting on the recent "FAA special review team audit" to clear its name, so it can continue its 10-year history of broken promises—delivering non-completed aircraft. Currently, the company is seeking additional funding to continue operation and open an additional production facility in Russia. Eclipse has burned through more than $1 billion; however, the company is seeking an additional $200 million to $300 million so it can produce aircraft.
Eclipse Aviation Critic NG