Editorial: Red faces at FAA/Eclipse hearing

 - October 9, 2008, 10:51 AM

The congressional hearing in Washington last month about the process that led to FAA certification of the Eclipse 500 took the lid off the FAA’s sausage-making apparatus, and it was a decidedly unappetizing spectacle.

To hear DOT IG Calvin Scovel tell it, there was skullduggery at the top as the agency charged with ensuring the safety of civil aviation fast-tracked the signoff paperwork for a radically new and heavily computer-dependent type of airplane designed and built by a company that was painfully new to the game. FAA senior management, Scovel asserted, circumvented the expertise of experienced people in the front lines–inspectors whose opinion it was that the airplane was not yet ready to be unleashed on the flying public.

To hear FAA associate administrator for safety Nick Sabatini tell it, aircraft certification is a complex process of give and take in which the applicant gets to develop his idea for a better flying machine, and the agency makes sure it’s still safe and durable enough for the innocent to ride in. The agency sets certain standards that must be met; it is up to the applicant to prove that it meets those standards, by whatever means, methods, shapes and materials it chooses that the FAA will accept.

In the two years between FAA troops’ blowing their whistles in October 2006 and the gathering on the Hill last month, there has been no shortage of theories about the forces at work behind the alleged improprieties, including:

Theory 1: FAA management bonuses hinged on the airplane’s getting its papers by the end of September 2006;

Theory 2: Then-Administrator Marion Blakey needed to hold aloft the Eclipse 500 certificate of airworthiness paperwork as proof that the era of the VLJ overcast is upon us and we need user fees to make sure they pay their way;

Theory 3: Eclipse founder Vern Raburn is a persuasive fellow and he had the FAA under his spell just as surely as he had entranced his investors, customers, suppliers, the media and state economic development boards. Raburn had made a point of castigating the status quo in airplane design and manufacturing when he unveiled the Eclipse in 1999, and the FAA was loath to be the villain that blocked Raburn’s vision of progress with overly pedantic enforcement of the rules.

The hearing did little to officially answer that sampling of theories, but did provide copious material to strengthen whichever theory one happens to subscribe to.

Continuing Saga
Elsewhere in this issue, AIN senior editor Matt Thurber’s account of the proceedings last month could stand as a riveting chapter in the Eclipse saga, which is still far from fully told. It’s now unfolding across distant borders, with news that a bank chaired by Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin expects to provide money for the construction of an Eclipse manufacturing facility in the land of that former Cold War superpower.

The display of sausage ingredients revealed at the hearing last month raises the disturbing question of whether the FAA’s seal of approval actually means much these days. Sadly for the FAA and for Eclipse, all this soiled laundry could have been kept much closer to the hamper if the agency had responded promptly to a legitimate grievance filed by its workers.

Thankfully, at least for anyone who cares about the quality and transparency of the FAA certification process, FAA leaders are like many when faced with “troublemakers.” They stick their heads in the sand instead of figuring out how to communicate and solve problems, and a festering sore has burst into a public mess. The FAA’s credibility and Eclipse’s struggle both took a battering at last month’s hearing.