FAA employees raised concerns about Eclipse certification

 - September 26, 2007, 10:24 AM

Last October, an FAA certification engineer and a flight-test pilot filed a grievance against their managers at the Fort Worth, Texas FAA Aircraft Certification Office, complaining that the certification of the Eclipse 500 very light jet was granted despite “several outstanding safety/regulatory issues.” The two employees, who were not named in the grievance, are represented by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (natca). Their grievance was filed against Michele Owsley, manager of the Fort Worth Aircraft Certification Office, and John Hickey, head of the FAA Aircraft Certification Service.

The grievance claims that the FAA awarded the type certificate for the Eclipse 500 to Eclipse Aviation on Sept. 30, 2006, “without allowing the aircraft certification engineers and flight-test pilots to properly complete their assigned certification/safety responsibilities. This is in violation of Federal Aviation Regulations 21 and 23, Order 8110.4 and other related FAA regulations, orders and policies.”

The document does not specify exactly what part of the certification of the Eclipse 500 concerned the employees. The main reason for filing the grievance, according to Tomaso Di Paulo, natca national representative for FAA aircraft certification employees, is that the employees feel that speaking out about their concerns had a negative impact on them. “They were denied pay increases for that year,” Di Paulo said. “According to the employees I talked to, they were told directly by management that their technical decisions had resulted in their not getting an increase.”

The grievance provides another clue about the employees’ complaints, saying that certification engineers “should be applauded for their efforts to maintain safety-first engineering principles and not [be] rebuked or yelled at in meetings.”

According to Di Paulo, “The employees have informed me that they were not ready to approve that airplane design.” The matter apparently came to a head on Friday, September 29 last year, he said. The next day, a Saturday and not a normal FAA business day, the design was approved. “It was our understanding that management came in on a weekend and approved the airplane design. September 30 also happened to be the end of the fiscal year. When I talked to the guys the Monday after that, they were shocked to find out it had gotten approved. As far as they knew, there was still outstanding testing and reports to be accomplished, and yet here the airplane design had been approved,” Di Paulo said.

The next step for the grievance is for natca to seek arbitration to restore the employees’ pay increases, according to Di Paulo. “Usually both parties try to get together and resolve the grievance in a positive manner,” but, he said, “the FAA has refused to answer or resolve any grievances we’ve had.”

Eclipse Aviation declined to comment about this grievance. While the Eclipse 500 has had teething problems such as lower-than-expected cockpit window and windshield life, freezing of the pitot/angle-of-attack probe and an earlier problem with loose bushings in the wing-attachment structure in flight-test airplanes, technical issues are not unusual for a new airplane design. Many airplanes designed by more experienced manufacturers had problems after entry-into-service and well into their service lives.

In a Customer/Investor update issued on July 6, Eclipse president and CEO Vern Raburn contrasted the Eclipse 500’s early problems with Cessna’s experience following certification of the first CitationJet. “The early Citation CJs have had well over 100 service bulletins issued to correct design and reliability issues,” Raburn wrote. “These included serious issues such as runaway pitch trim that caused the loss of a CJ and generated three different ADs [airworthiness directives]. The point is not that CJs are bad aircraft. They are in fact great aircraft. But virtually all newly certified aircraft have had problems inherent in the design that were not discovered in the certification testing.”