Fresh Hell for Eclipse: A Poster Child for FAA Mismanagement
If you're in the aviation business—maybe you build airplanes or you're a busy STC house or a charter operator—the last thing you want to see is a televised Congressional subcommittee hearing on how flawed the FAA's oversight is. Yet that's exactly what happened this week in Washington as House Aviation Subcommittee grilled various FAA and Eclipse Aviation witnesses about the not-so-tidy way the type certificate was issued to Eclipse in 2006. I'll get to the details in a moment, but the bottom line is there are likely to be consequences.
The history dates back to 2006 when Eclipse breathlessly announced at Oshkosh that it just received a provisional type certificate for the Eclipse 500, making it the first certified VLJ, or so the ad copy claimed. What those of us in the press found immediately fishy was that the full TC was issued a couple of months later on a Saturday in September and it came out of the Department of Transportation, not the FAA, where such mundane bits of paperwork normally originate. This is sort of like your tax stimulus check coming from the White House instead of the treasury department. It just didn't add up, but no one knew why.
Then, a month later, the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers filed a labor grievance complaining that the FAA hadn't followed proper procedures in issuing Eclipse's TC. (Anti-distraction notice: NATCA also represents engineers and technical workers involved in certification. This has nothing to do with air traffic control.) Since NATCA is always complaining about something, it was impossible to know if this grievance had substance or was just the result of some engineer getting his nose out of joint over some minor procedural point. Evidently, as the hearings this week revealed, it was the former, not the latter.
The committee heard complaints from FAA witnesses describing a pattern of pressure from FAA upper management instructing its troops to see that the Eclipse was certified by a certain date. Eclipse, at the time, had contractual requirements with customers related to performance and progress milestones, one of which was the full type certificate. FAA engineers complained that the TC was issued despite a long list of open shortcomings in the airplane that Eclipse had been asked to fix. In other words, said the witnesses, the TC was ram-rodded through the process. One FAA manager told the committee he was removed by upper management for failing to toe the FAA's line in supporting Eclipse. No Eclipse pressure tactic, the committee was told, was considered out of bounds.
And for whatever immediate grief this causes Eclipse, the longer term impact will spill over and affect anyone involved with certification dealings with the FAA. Anyone who has certified so much as an aftermarket toggle switch will tell you that gaining FAA certification is a delicate dance. It is done in a certain way and the rules can be stretched, prodded and poked, but not circumvented. Everyone deals with a different FAA. One ACO may be terrific one year, terrible the next or uniformly awful all the time, but at least predicable. I make no moral judgment on this. It's just the way things work.
But the way they don't work is to run around the guys in the trenches by going to the top. "Going to the top" may involve a friendly call from a congressman's office to grease the wheels. The reason this doesn't work so well is because of a lasting and undeniable truth: The bureaucracy is eternal. Administrations and congress members come and go, but the low and mid-level bureaucracy will always be there and these are the people you deal with every day. The smart operators learn this early on and they learn how to grin and bear it, even when sitting across the conference table from what may be the biggest, dumbest jerk the FAA ever hired.
But Eclipse was in a hurry. Vern Raburn and company came out of private industry and had lavish capital to work with. They were on a mission to disrupt technology and had neither the time nor the patience to suffer through some FAA apparatchik digging in over a line of software code or questioning some mechanical design decision. So they exerted pressure from the top and got their way, at least in the short run. Now that these chickens are coming home to roost for Eclipse, the flock is going to find a home at other manufacturers, too. "This is really going to hurt us. A lot," one executive told me this week. Raburn may enjoy a reputation as a visionary in some quarters, but where the coal is eked out of the certification seam, he's seen as anything but, in my view. None of this is a good thing for Eclipse, which is trying to dig itself out of the post-Raburn era to emerge as a profitable company.
The industry will survive, of course. But the bureaucracy likes to work unmolested in the dark and when the bright light of a congressional hearing is shined into the dark corner, that's not a happy thing. ("Congress, you want by-the-book oversight and management? Fine. We'll give you by-the-book oversight and management.)
Unfortunately, that means things don't get done or they take longer and cost more money. And we all know who eventually pays for that.