Fresh Hell for Eclipse: A Poster Child for FAA Mismanagement

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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.

Comments (12)

The old saying goes..if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Eclipse should take a page from Boeing on how to properly certify a real airplane. Not the kiddie toy they're building. It takes alot more than sweet talk.

Posted by: Clint Tolbert | September 19, 2008 4:22 PM    Report this comment

How does this apply to the Virgin Galactic space travel enterprise? I've wondered how they could talk about sending paying passengers into space in just a few years on such a craft without certification. Seeing the difficulties of getting a fairly conventional VLJ certified has me mystified as to how Virgin Galactic expects to have a commercial operation certified within a few short years.

Posted by: Frank Motycka | September 19, 2008 6:05 PM    Report this comment

It is not new or surprising that pressure is brought to bear and shortcuts are taken in business and in government.......but......the most important question is "was the safety of the aircraft compromised by what happened?? The Buyers of any aircraft have the right to expect the product they have invested their hard earned $$$$$ and in many cases the entire future of thier company is as safe as is humanly possible.

Posted by: Don Wilfong | September 22, 2008 9:14 AM    Report this comment

I am very interested to see how Honda does certifying their new Honda VLJ...

Posted by: Steve Zeller | September 22, 2008 3:28 PM    Report this comment

I find it hard to imagine any way that Eclipse can survive . The one-two punch of endless bad news specific to Eclipse, and the overall bad market create an uphill battle they will not win.

Posted by: todd stuart | September 22, 2008 6:15 PM    Report this comment

Frank, as I recall, the space tourism folks convinced the FAA that the "passengers" on their flights are not the "innocent public" but are willing "crew members" who are trained and informed and willingly assume the risk of flying into space in experimental aircraft. It's a little like sailing on a Tall Ship, where under Coast Guard rules, the passengers are considered part of the "crew," and the ships can operate under different rules than ships like ferries and cruise ships that sell tickets to the public.

Posted by: Mary Grady | September 23, 2008 1:22 PM    Report this comment

I was a FAA test pilot for 8 years, 1958-1966. Just want to congratulate Paul B. for recognizing and telling it like it is, ref. the last 5 paragraphs. It's true there were just a few FAA dumb jerks, and the only way to get results was to bite your tongue.
But there were also some shade tree operators who would lie, cheat, and steal to get certified.

Posted by: James Patton | September 25, 2008 1:38 PM    Report this comment

I can't believe anybody would support or condone how the FAA functions. Any system that requires a year and 1000+ pages of documentation to certify a rubber door moulding is definitely inept and broken. This should NOT be a wakeup call for manufacturers to follow the existing rules, it should be a wakeup call to the FAA to get their shit together and make the certification process smoother, faster, and more predictable.

The FAA acts like they're financially responsible if they certify a plane with a problem. They are not. There is no way a plane is going to be perfect from day 1. That is what AD's are for. Streamline the certification process and let economics be the judge. A plane with problems won't be around long. Buyers and pilots are smart enough to decide what to buy and what not to. Have any Eclipses crashed because of the "long list of open shortcomings" identified by the FAA? I doubt it.

Posted by: JIM DUNN | September 25, 2008 2:43 PM    Report this comment

I don't think the acid test is whether or not any aircraft have crashed. We bought 2 EA500's and discovered that most of what we bought other than the aluminum was covered under a 'IOU' (they will fix it in Aug 2007). We sold and the items are still not fixed. Will one crash because of the problems? I hope not but there are numerous distractions to help produce a crash. Remember the Cessna 500 to get single pilot approval they had to add a Transponder ident button on the control yoke. This on a airplane that did not have numerous 'IOU's'.
I too was in Experimental Flight test for a manufacturer and I never experienced an airplane being certificated with so much wrong!!

Posted by: J H Webb | September 25, 2008 4:33 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Mr. Webb. The acid test should not be whether or not any aircraft have crashed.
I do have to wonder though just as a comparison. There are what, 240ish Eclipse 500s flying now? How many fatalities occurred in first 240 certified Lear 23s, or the first 240 certified Beech Bonanzas? I don't believe there have been any fatalities in the Eclipse 500, thus far anyway.
As I listened to the congressional hearings on the Eclipse certification I came away with two thoughts:
1) First and foremost, if anyone had any doubts, it's definitely an election year.
And 2) What a wonderful opportunity for the growing Asian and Russian aerospace industries to step in and at least participate in, and potentially dominate this technology.
It will be interesting to see if, as Eclipse Aviation claims, EASA really does certify the Eclipse 500 in the next couple months.
John Mininger

Posted by: JOHN MININGER | September 27, 2008 8:46 AM    Report this comment

Reference to Mr. Mininger's comments the first accident in the FAA data base for the Lear 23 was 1978 for an airplane certificated in the early 60's. This answer may be suspect though as the FAA database is not complete.

Posted by: J H Webb | September 27, 2008 11:46 AM    Report this comment

I did a simple search on google of "lear 23 accident history". This is from "Within three years, 23 Learjets had crashed, four of them with fatal results. In a fleet of only 104 aircraft, that was a shocking statistic. By 2005 more than half of the Lear 23 fleet had suffered accidents, 13 of them fatal. One out of eight Lear 23s ever built has ended up killing somebody."

Posted by: JOHN MININGER | September 27, 2008 2:01 PM    Report this comment

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