Congressional scrutiny proves newest travail for battered Eclipse

 - September 29, 2008, 11:01 AM

An extraordinary confluence of events has embroiled Eclipse Aviation in intense scrutiny, all without a single fatal accident to act as a catalyst. During the past few months, the manufacturer has witnessed the departure of company founder Vern Raburn, an FAA special certification review of the Eclipse 500 very light jet, a congressional hearing on the Eclipse 500 certification program, airworthiness directives on important systems, layoffs of large numbers of employees, the shutdown of its largest customer, lawsuits stemming from customers demanding refund of deposits, delayed payments to suppliers, delays in upgrading in-service airplanes to the latest configuration, delays in receiving European certification and delays in certifying the Garmin 400W navigator upgrade.

The latest challenges facing Eclipse began on August 11, when the FAA launched a special certification review (SCR) of the Eclipse 500. This review was prompted by a high number of service difficulty reports (SDRs) submitted by charter operator DayJet and focused on four specific areas: cockpit displays/screen blanking, stall speeds, trim and flaps. Lasting just 30 days, the SCR was not a full review of the Eclipse 500’s certification, although it was unusual in that the FAA chose to initiate the SCR process so soon after the VLJ was certified on Sept. 30, 2006, and without fatal accidents to spur the examination.

The FAA completed the SCR and released the generally favorable results just days before the congressional Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a somewhat hostile hearing about the certification of the Eclipse 500. The hearing came about because the committee asked Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel to investigate the certification of the Eclipse 500, following filing of a grievance in 2006 by FAA inspectors alleging that FAA management pushed the certification through without listening to inspectors’ concerns.

The hearing itself gave nearly all parties involved–FAA managers and inspectors, the DOT Office of the Inspector General (OIG), politicians and Eclipse leaders–a chance to express their concerns and opinions, yet it resolved none of the issues and failed to address many questions raised during the hearing. A congressional hearing is not a trial, and only the  politicians on the committee are allowed to ask questions. In addition to political bias, their questions often reflect a  lack of understanding of the complicated process behind designing, building, certifying and producing a jet.

The official title of the September 17 congressional hearing was “FAA Aircraft Certification: Alleged Regulatory Lapses in the Certification and Manufacture of the Eclipse EA-500.” The 15-page hearing summary outlines the committee’s interest in this subject and details the specifics that spurred the politicians into action.

According to the summary, early this year FAA Aircraft Certification Service engineers and inspectors approached committee staff with documents “alleging that FAA had inappropriately certified the EA-500 VLJ.” This was not, however, the first time that these allegations had surfaced. On Oct. 20, 2006, Tomaso DiPaolo filed a grievance against two FAA managers, Michelle Owsley and John Hickey. DiPaolo is aircraft certification national representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (Natca), which represents FAA inspectors.

DiPaolo’s grievance raised issues that would be explored in the congressional hearing, nearly two years later. The grievance accused FAA management of issuing a type certificate (TC) to Eclipse Aviation for the EA-500 VLJ “without allowing the certification engineers and flight-test pilots to properly complete their assigned certification/safety responsibilities.” There were “several outstanding safety/regulatory issues identified before September 30,” according to the grievance, yet “FAA management certified the Eclipse 500 on or about September 30.”

The grievance, however, didn’t ask for any specific action against the FAA managers, except for a request that the agency meet with Natca to address union issues. The grievance hinted at an issue that would later be raised in the hearing, asking that engineers and inspectors “be applauded for their efforts to maintain safety-first engineering principles and not be rebuked or yelled at in meetings.”

AIN twice made requests to DiPaolo, asking him to disclose the nature of the “outstanding safety/regulatory issues” and other problems mentioned in the grievance. DiPaolo and Natca refused to provide any more information, withholding it until the hearing took place nearly two years after filing the grievance.

The Hearing Summary
In discussing their concerns with the committee, the FAA engineers and inspectors provided much more detail than was in the grievance and alleged that “serious design problems with the EA-500 were identified during the certification process”; that FAA managers relieved from Eclipse duty those who insisted that these deficiencies be corrected; and that they were surprised when the EA-500 received its type certificate on a Saturday and despite the fact that “they had made the case that the aircraft was not ready for certification.”

According to the committee, “various informants” reported that Eclipse founder and CEO Vern Raburn was “very assertive at FAA headquarters.” On July 27, 2006, on stage at EAA Air-Venture Oshkosh, Raburn and former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey proudly announced [provisional] certification of the EA-500, and in his speech that morning Raburn thanked Blakey and the FAA for helping Eclipse during the certification process, adding that he thought criticism accusing the FAA of holding up certification work was “ill-founded. There’s no reason you cannot have a productive relationship with the FAA. The FAA has gone to bat for us.”

The informants further alleged that John Hickey, FAA director of aircraft certification, “was personally involved in pushing the Eclipse certification program and replaced personnel who created delays in the process.”

The investigation by the DOT IG for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee “confirmed many of the allegations and raised numerous significant concerns and regulatory policy questions.”

One significant regulatory policy question might result in a rule change. The FAA now says that it is considering issuing a notice of proposed rulemaking to add new VLJ certification rules. Part 23 regulations aren’t as stringent as Part 25 transport category rules, and this is one reason that VLJs cost less. The Eclipse 500 also falls under even less stringent rules for airplanes weighing 6,000 pounds or less.

According to the committee summary, the FAA did not hold Eclipse to the DO-178B standards that apply to airplanes with complex software-based avionics and electronics systems. “Instead, the FAA accepted what the OIG characterizes as an ‘IOU’ from Eclipse, which stated that the aircraft would meet the accepted standard at a later date.” The IG investigation found that “When the TC was issued, Eclipse had completed only 23 of the 65 tests needed to meet the approved industry standard for software certification.”

In fact, the Eclipse 500 received FAA certification before the jet had full avionics functionality, no matter which standard applied to the software. And now, two years after FAA certification, as this issue went to press, the EA-500 has yet to receive FAA certification for basic navigation functionality planned with installation of dual Garmin 400W navigation systems. “We expect Garmin certification very soon,” an Eclipse spokeswoman told AIN on September 22.

Besides lack of some avionics functionality, including GPS moving-map, the freshly certified EA-500 also lacked flight-into-known-icing approval and had to undergo an aerodynamic performance upgrade to meet promised range and payload targets. Essentially, the Sept. 30, 2006 certified Eclipse 500 was not ready for customers to fly in normal service, and customer deliveries did not begin right away.

Even after deliveries began to ramp up early last year, the first few dozen lacked the performance modifications. Avionics functionality improved after the Avio NG system was certified in December 2007. The OIG’s characterization of IOUs from Eclipse might also reflect that all Eclipses delivered to date lack some promised functionality, a unique circumstance in the business jet world. Another prominent example of delivery of new aircraft without full functionality is the Adam A500 piston twin, which lacked pressurization, IFR and night capability, known icing and other capabilities when deliveries began.

The OIG noted that the FAA granted Eclipse an equivalent level of safety (ELOS) exemption for the design of the jet’s pitot-static system without a moisture drainage system “contrary to the normal design standard for this system.” According to the OIG, the Fort Worth, Texas certification team “did not want to approve it,” and another FAA office approved the ELOS exemption. Ongoing problems with this system have resulted in issuance of two airworthiness directives.

The FAA Flight Standardization Board, which assesses type rating requirements, recommended that the EA-500 be a two-pilot airplane. According to the OIG, “FAA headquarters officials overruled the Board’s recommendation and approved the EA-500 for single-pilot operations after receiving a [customer service] complaint from Eclipse.”

The OIG also explored intermittent erroneous stall warnings, cockpit display failures and flap movement failures, which were issues mentioned in some service difficulty reports (SDRs) submitted to the FAA. Most of the SDRs were written by (and expected of by regulation) DayJet, which for a time operated the largest fleet of charter Eclipses. The OIG characterized the number of SDRs on the Eclipse as large “during its relatively short time in service.”

One statement that generated a sharp response from Eclipse Aviation was the OIG’s claim that “the European Aviation Safety Agency [EASA] has declined to certify the EA-500.” The OIG said this is “due to many of the defects that were originally reported by FAA engineers and inspectors.” The OIG provided no information to back up this claim. The EASA declined to respond to AIN’s request for information on its plans to certify the EA-500, referring us to the manufacturer instead, in a departure from the agency’s previous willingness to communicate on the certification status of aircraft.

FAA Lenience for Start-up OEM
Even after receiving its production certificate (PC) on April 26, 2007, which allows a manufacturer to speed production by inspecting aircraft with much less FAA involvement, Eclipse was having problems during production. “Eclipse encountered numerous problems replicating its own aircraft design on the assembly floor both before and after receiving its certificate,” the OIG said.

The FAA Production Certification Board evaluation, completed on April 12, 2007, identified “a number of deficiencies” as well as “significant problems with Eclipse suppliers.” Yet the FAA awarded the PC “with 13 known production problems that had not been addressed, and the [board] did not close those open items until almost a year later, in February 2008.”

In one example cited, an Eclipse FAA designee signed off an EA-500 with
no nonconformities, yet it had approximately 20 airworthiness deficiencies, the OIG said. The OIG also found supplier quality control issues, significant problems not identified by Eclipse inspectors and deficiencies in the manufacturer quality control program.

Investigators for the committee “interviewed a number of FAA certification engineers and inspectors who confirmed these problems. A number of former Eclipse manufacturing employees also contacted the committee with reports of serious problems in the production process.”

The OIG accused the FAA of being excessively lenient with Eclipse because the FAA had identified the EA-500 as a top priority for FAA management. “This finding raises the concern that the FAA may have been more intent on promoting aviation and new technology than it was with its safety oversight mandate.”

According to the OIG, FAA Rotorcraft Directorate manager David Downey was removed from his job “apparently because [he] refused to sign off on the PC because he believed Eclipse had not met the requirements. In a seven-page letter of reprimand sent to Mr. Downey, FAA officials stated that he failed to meet expectations associated with meeting its customer service initiatives such as ‘building relationships with our customers to achieve operational results.’ In fact, FAA Headquarters officials required that Mr. Downey undergo a peer appraisal, and directed that the [COO] of Eclipse would be one of the individuals appraising his performance in certifying the EA-500.” This appeared to be an “obvious conflict of interest position,” the OIG said, “for an FAA manager charged with evaluating the safety of a new aircraft type.”

Downey wasn’t the only FAA employee removed from the Eclipse program, and engineers and inspectors were reassigned due to “performance issues.”

The OIG reported that FAA officials allegedly pressured FAA San Antonio manufacturing inspection district office manager Ford Lauer “to sign a document that prohibited FAA inspectors from conducting detailed inspections, and to specifically prevent them from looking under the floorboards and removing interiors of the aircraft.”

After Ron Wojnar, manager of the FAA’s transport airplane directorate, took over the manufacturing audit team, he allegedly told the PC audit team to “look no more than one inch deep,” according to the OIG. “Specifically, Mr. Wojnar’s newly implemented production certification plan did not require Eclipse employees to remove floorboards or interior panels for FAA inspection. Before the establishment of this new plan by the new manager, FAA inspectors had been routinely finding numerous deficiencies on aircraft that had already been inspected and ‘certified’ by Eclipse-designated inspectors.”

In February 2007, the FAA manufacturing inspection office manager sent an e-mail to Eclipse detailing steps needed to comply with FAA requirements to achieve type certification. This was sent “after multiple occurrences of aircraft being presented to the FAA for airworthiness certifications with numerous design and production deficiencies,” the congressional committee reported. “In March 2007, this manager was removed from the project. The senior FAA official in charge of certification, Mr. [John] Hickey, told Committee staff on Sept. 5, 2008, that he thought the requirements imposed in the e-mail to Eclipse were ‘excessive’ and ‘very inappropriate’ and that this was the reason for his decision to remove the manager.”

FAA personnel spent more than double the number of hours and a “disproportionate share of resources” on the EA-500 program compared with a typical certification project, according to the committee, at a cost of about $3 million.

According to the OIG, the investigation is not over, and it “will attempt to determine if problems identified during the certification and manufacturing process have been corrected” as well as “evaluating the current manufacturing process to determine the effectiveness of the Eclipse quality assurance system, the adequacy of training for production personnel and the competence of the FAA designees.”

The committee concluded that “a broad policy review of FAA certification practices” is needed. The FAA “seems to have been unusually lenient given the priority it assigned and the collaborative relationship that was developed with Eclipse management.” When it comes to certification deadlines, “It is clearly not the FAA’s responsibility to meet a manufacturer’s certification deadline, which is used to satisfy potential customers and company investors. The FAA’s only responsibility should be to respond in a timely fashion to an applicant’s approval documentation and to provide a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision on whether an aircraft is ready for certification or not.”

Selected Testimony
Space doesn’t permit an exhaustive recounting of the rest of the testimony from the Eclipse hearing, but the following are key portions.

Tomaso DiPaolo, aircraft certification national representative for Natca, gave the following testimony:

• In late 2001, Randy Griffith, the former FAA project officer overseeing Eclipse, left the FAA and became Eclipse’s aviation airworthiness coordinator. “Griffith thus became the principal point of contact to the FAA on behalf of Eclipse.

This appears to be in violation of FAA ethics standards. According to the FAA ethics training manual for 2006, a former agency employee who accepts a job may have some limitations in communicating with his former agency on his company’s behalf and one cannot, for a period of two years, represent his or her new employer before their former agency.

• “In one case, an engineer was opposed to an ELOS that was written to address how the airspeed indicating system and pitot static system were created, but his concerns regarding the ELOS and the performance of the Eclipse 500 jet were dismissed by FAA management.

• “Because the design of very light jets (VLJs) differed so significantly from conventional jets, [FAR] 23 proved ill-adapted for Eclipse certification. It was brought up to me, well after the filing of the grievance, that the Small Airplane Directorate had issued an ‘unofficial Part 23 Jet Certification Guide’ to address the application of new safety conditions to various classes of light jet. It is my understanding that the document was not applied in total to the Eclipse 500 jet due to the objections of the Eclipse company…

• “During September of 2006, I was informed by bargaining unit engineers that the Eclipse Avidyne electronics suite was still not functioning safely, had not complied with the TSO requirements, and needed further research and development. At times, one of the two screens the pilots were using would blank out for 15-second intervals and thus deprive the pilot of critical information.

• “On September 29, 2006, I spoke with one of the engineers and was told that they were not going to sign off and approve the TC for the Eclipse aircraft. These engineers did not sign off on the TC approval. According to my understanding, the next day, September 30, 2006, FAA management ordered the Eclipse project manager to come into work on a Saturday and convinced her to sign off on an Eclipse document approving of all engineering and flight test aspects of the Eclipse 500. The final TC was then signed by the Ft. Worth AWS-150 manager, Michele Owsley. The Eclipse TC document allows the aircraft to fly with almost no limitations, despite the clearly stated noncompliance of its software systems.”

Dennis Wallace, FAA software engineer, gave this testimony:

• “My specific role in this project was to provide typical FAA certification oversight of Eclipse and its suppliers’ development of airborne software for this aircraft to ensure that it satisfied the safety requirements defined in the applicable [FARs]. According to what the company submitted, and the FAA agreed to under aircraft-level Plan for Software Aspects of Certification (PSAC), Eclipse and its suppliers were to develop their software in accordance with the guidelines of RTCA DO-178B as a means to secure FAA approval of their digital computer software as a showing of compliance to 14 CFR 23.1301 and 14 CFR 23.1309. As there are no specific regulations that discuss how to certify software, these are the governing safety regulations and DO-178B is the standard, FAA-recommended approach for the certification aspects of airborne software.”

• At a meeting on Sept. 13, 2006, “I was prepared to report to those attending the meeting the facts that the supplier had not yet completed final design review, had not entered test readiness review, and that the company was aware that ‘dead code’ [inactive code] still needed to be removed. Most important, I was also going to report that, in my opinion, only approximately one-third of the required objectives of RTCA DO-178B had been satisfied.

• “Instead of support, what I received was a rather harsh line of questioning from the FAA AIR-1 and AIR-100 managers that basically questioned the validity and utility of the long-accepted RTCA DO-178B software certification procedure. They also harped on the fact that there were no airworthiness rules specifically related to software certification. I tried to explain to them that Eclipse had signed up to comply with DO-178B for themselves and their suppliers via the aforementioned aircraft-level PSAC. I went on to state to them that while it is true that there are no Part 23 rules that are unique to software approval, DO-178B is a traditionally and universally accepted means to secure FAA approval for digital computer software as a showing of compliance to the general rules 14 CFR 23.1301 and 14 CFR 23.1309.

• “I was told by the AIR-1 manager in what I perceived to be a very direct, animated and threatening manner, that my position on this constituted ‘antiquated thinking’ and that I’d best ‘start thinking outside the box.’ He further stated that we were here to ‘save a company’ and then, looking directly at the then Rotorcraft Directorate manager, said he ‘shouldn’t have to come to Albuquerque to do his job.’”

FAA Defends Itself
Nicholas Sabatini, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, provided this information:

• “This was a situation where there was an FAA field office that had not previously been responsible for the certification of a high-profile, complex project and an applicant that had never been through the certification process. The change in Eclipse’s compliance strategy came relatively late in the program and left little time for the FAA to develop a response strategy. It was entirely appropriate that headquarters evaluate the differences of opinion about how the matter should proceed.

• “I realize that this decision created resentment and raised questions for some people. No one likes to be second- guessed or overruled. I know that. It takes a strong manager to intervene in a process when he knows his input will be unpopular. But making difficult decisions that are the right decisions is what leadership is all about.

• “During the production certification process, two FAA professionals were removed from the production certification team, at the direction of the FAA manager of the local manufacturing inspection office. Their removal was endorsed by Ron Wojnar, the head of the independent team. The management officials concluded that these FAA professionals were frustrated with their interaction with their Eclipse counterparts. Understandably, their frustration may have led to a lack of objectivity–a factor that FAA management appropriately considered.

• “…the [Flight Standardization Board] process worked exactly as it should have. The applicant presented the aircraft to the FSB for evaluation and a type-rating determination. The FSB tested the aircraft and found it lacking in certain respects. The team required that the applicant resolve the problems before proceeding further, and the applicant did. While it was an undoubtedly frustrating process on both sides, all the issues were in fact resolved, and the FSB, in accordance with the law and FAA policy, issued the appropriate [single-pilot IFR] type rating.

• “Our bottom line is that FAA has a vested safety interest in the certification of new aircraft. Each new generation of aircraft tends to be safer than the ones that preceded it. Our regulatory standards continue to raise the safety bar as new technologies are introduced. For this reason, the FAA wants new airplane programs to succeed. But by succeed, I mean we want to help manufacturers meet all the regulatory requirements for their product. But helping them succeed never means giving them a pass on regulatory safety requirements so they can meet delivery schedules.”

Peg Billson, president and general manager of  Eclipse Aviation’s manufacturing division, refuted statements made during the hearing, saying that she wanted to “clear up a lot of misstatements, misconceptions and misunderstandings.”

• Regarding EASA, she said, “It is not accurate to state that EASA has denied certification. We expect EASA certification to be completed in the next few weeks.” Billson also noted that Eclipse had never been interviewed by the DOT inspector general’s office. “We look forward to that opportunity,” she said.

• During FAA Flight Standardization Board flight testing of the Eclipse 500, a nonconforming airplane was used for some flights, and Billson admitted that Eclipse made a mistake. “I gave them an immature airplane, twice,” she said. “I won’t do that again. This was the first time I went through the FSB process. It was perfectly logical that I needed to give them a type design airplane. It was an inefficient process.

• “Eclipse cooperated fully with all levels of FAA management through the certification process. Yes, we had challenges, we’ve been at this a long time. When we did [have disagreements], we would work up the layers with the FAA until we could reach agreement on how to go forward.”