Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee remarked in his opening statement that it is: “inexcusable and unacceptable to ignore rules, regulations and standard practices to accommodate those you have responsibility to regulate especially when you have people’s lives in your hands.” With that in mind, the Subcommittee heard testimony from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) that the FAA had “alarming problems” and “severe lapses” in judgment in its certification process for the Eclipse EA-500, a Very Light Jet (VLJ). VLJs have been heavily promoted as a potential solution to congestion around larger airports, and as a means tobring a convenient, fast transportation alternative to smaller communities that cannot support network commercial air service.
In particular, the OIG made three findings concerning the EA-500 certification process. First, OIG found that the FAA permitted exceptions to its usual design certification process. For example, the FAA accepted an “IOU” from Eclipse that it would meet accepted standard at a later date for the avionics software. For an aircraft that relies heavily on software, the OIG would have expected the FAA to perform rigorous analysis and testing. Second, the OIG found that the FAA awarded Eclipse a production certificate even though the company failed to demonstrate the ability to replicate the approved design. This was despite that fact that Eclipse encountered numerous problems replicating its won aircraft design on the assembly floor both before and after receiving its certificate. Finally, Senior FAA management identified Eclipse as a priority certification and appeared to be lenient with the manufacturer.
Nicholas Sabatini, Associate Administrator for Safety, and John J. Hickey, Director of the Aircraft Certification Service, offered excuses for the Eclipse EA-500 certification process. Mr. Sabatini told the Subcommittee that he assembled a “Special Certification Review” team, headed by Jerry Mack, a former Boeing executive. That team concluded, according to Mr. Sabatini, that the FAA’s certification was appropriate because it did meet the required standards. That being said, what was not mentioned in Mr. Sabatini’s remarks were the SCR’s criticisms of the process and what changes he believes need to be made to the process.
At its core, the Committee seemed to have the FAA’s “Customer Service Initiative” in its sights. That Initiative, whereby the airlines and aircraft manufacturers are treated more as the FAA’s “customers” as opposed to regulated entities have become firmly rooted in recent FAA culture, has come under scrutiny with respect to the safety inspections conducted on the airlines. In the end, the investigation and hearing is less about Eclipse, and more about the regulatory failure of the FAA, once again, to adhere to its primary mission of safety and protection of the flying public.
Also testifying were:
Clyde R. Kizer, Retired Aerospace Executive
Peg Billson, President and General Manager, Manufacturing Division, Eclipse Aviation Corporation
Thomas Haueter, Director, Office of Aviation Safety, National Transportation Safety Board
Maryetta Broyles, Technical Program Management Specialist, Federal Aviation Administration, Aircraft Certification Service, SW Region Rotorcraft Directorate, Manufacturing Inspection Office
Ford J. Lauer III, Manager, Federal Aviation Administration, Manufacturing Inspection District Office
Dennis Wallace, Federal Aviation Administration, Software Engineer,
David A. Downey, Vice President, Flight Safety, Bell Helicopter – Textron, formerly Manager of the FAA Rotorcraft Directorate.
For a video of the full hearing, click here.