FAA, Congress Turn a Critical Eye to the Eclipse 500

 - August 20, 2008, 11:56 AM

Since August 11, the FAA has been conducting a special certification review (SCR) of the Eclipse 500 very light jet, the agency said today. A team of seven FAA experts led by former Boeing safety executive Jerry Mack is examining aircraft safety, certification of aircraft trim and flaps, avionics screen blanking and stall speeds. These are issues raised in Service Difficulty Reports (SDR) submitted to the FAA since the Eclipse 500 was certified on Sept. 30, 2006, according to the FAA. “The team will look at whether or not any of these issues were raised during the certification process and if any of the issues are currently a threat to safety,” it noted.

The FAA’s Service Difficulty Reporting System database is currently unavailable due to system upgrades that are due to be completed within a month, and an FAA spokeswoman said that the agency cannot release the Eclipse SDRs except via the Freedom of Information Act request process. An April download of the Eclipse SDRs, however, reveals a number of issues raised by Eclipse 500 operators. These include flap failure; smoke from an MFD; airspeed disagreement between the two primary flight displays; autopilot disengagement; damaged upper right cockpit beam; dings in the vertical stabilizer leading-edge panel; com and nav failure; pixelated PFD; yaw damper failure; stuck right elevator trim tab; uncommanded pitch trim CAS message before takeoff; landing-gear indication problems; brake pedals going to the floor after landing; fire bottle leaking; blown tire on landing; sticking control sticks; and rudder trim runaway. The FAA expects to spend 30 days on the Eclipse 500 SCR.

The SCR process is used periodically to examine safety issues with particular aircraft types. The Robinson R22 helicopter and Mitsubishi MU-2 twin turboprop both share the distinction of having received three FAA SCRs over the years. Other aircraft types subjected to an SCR include the Raytheon/Hawker Beechcraft Premier I and Beechcraft T-34; Cessna 208 Caravan turboprop and 400-series piston twins; Piper Malibu; and Learjet 23. Generally, an SCR follows an unusually high number of accidents in the particular type. “The FAA has never conducted this type of review on an aircraft model with no history of any accident resulting in injuries or fatalities,” Eclipse wrote today in a letter to Eclipse 500 owners and buyers.

Also today, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announced that it will hold a hearing on September 17 to hear testimony about the certification of the Eclipse 500, according to a committee spokesman. Congress had asked the Department of Transportation Inspector General to investigate the Eclipse 500 certification, and DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel is expected to testify, along with FAA, NTSB and Eclipse personnel and former Eclipse employees. This effort stems from a union grievance filed on Oct. 20, 2006, by FAA inspectors over certification of the Eclipse 500. The grievance accuses FAA managers of not “allowing the aircraft certification engineers and flight test pilots to properly complete their assigned certification/safety responsibilities.”

The 245 Eclipse 500s delivered thus far have logged more than 32,000 hours, according to Eclipse. Only one Eclipse 500 has suffered an accident, an apparent runway overrun on July 30 at Brandywine Airport in West Chester, Pa. A June 5 thrust-lever failure that caused uncontrollable maximum engine thrust in an Eclipse landing at Midway Airport in Chicago was addressed by an Airworthiness Directive and doesn’t appear to be part of the SCR.

In a statement issued today, the company said: “Eclipse is confident the review will find that the Eclipse 500 was in full compliance with all federal regulations at the time of its certification, and that all FAA testing was completed with the highest degree of thoroughness, accuracy and integrity.” Eclipse further noted that it completed more than 5,000 hours of testing on six airplanes, almost five times as much as the average GA airplane.