GE Aviation denies the claims in a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee report released last week that a member of its Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) unit reviewing conformity testing of the company’s new Catalyst turboprop engine—powering Textron Aviation’s new Beechcraft Denali turboprop single—was “overwhelmed by non-ODA unit duties” and not “given enough time to fulfill properly his ODA unit duties.”
The report overviewed details from whistleblowers on conflicts of interest surrounding Boeing 737 Max and 787 certification activities but also included claims that GE Aviation failed to meet its obligations to prevent interference or conflicting duties that affect the performance of authorized functions as an FAA designee surrounding the GE9X and Catalyst programs. As a result of the whistleblower claims, the Commerce Committee is calling for further reviews. The FAA further said it is limiting delegation authorities.
Addressing claims regarding Catalyst activities in a statement to AIN, GE Aviation disagreed that its ODA unit member in Prague who oversees conformity testing was unable to fully perform his ODA duties and was saddled with duties outside his capacity within the ODA. The company noted that its 17-member ODA unit includes four regulatory compliance inspectors in Europe—including Prague—all of whom are available to assist each other.
Further, GE Aviation said neither the claims of the whistleblower, GE Aviation ODA deputy administrator Richard Kucera, nor the report have affected activities or resulted in changes in Prague. The engine OEM also noted that Kucera was “inaccurate” in his claim that he was told he was responsible for the condition of the Catalyst while representing the FAA in conformity determinations.
Kucera was responsible for developing the conformity plan for the Catalyst, aligning ODA resources with the scope and schedule of the planned certification, GE Aviation said. The company added Kucera was never asked to be accountable for hardware, and he was never held responsible for inspection results.
When asked if the whistleblower claims in the report were of concern to Textron Aviation because the Catalyst is the Denali’s powerplant, a spokeswoman said the company would defer comment to GE Aviation.
So far, the engine has completed a third of its certification tests and is performing well, GE Aviation said. The prototype Denali began flight testing on November 23, completing a two-hour and 50-minute flight. Two additional Denalis will join the flight test program next year.
Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), meanwhile, has given notice that it plans to continue heightened scrutiny of the FAA’s certification activities, particularly in light of the whistleblower report. Cantwell wrote FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, calling for a review of each allegation in the report and a determination to where conduct has been contrary to the FAA's policies and procedures. She further anticipated this would be a subject of future hearings.
“These allegations illustrate the importance of a course correction that puts safety first and listens to the voices of line engineers,” she said in the letter, adding that the committee is focusing on the need for the FAA to strengthen its direct oversight of the ODA program; taking measures to address alleged undue pressure at Boeing ODA; ensuring that the FAA has adequate technical and engineering oversight capacity; and limiting delegation until human factors assumptions are validated. She also renewed Congress’s call for manufacturers to adopt safety management systems and for improved safety culture for the FAA’s frontline staff.
In response to the letter, the FAA stressed that it takes whistleblower allegations seriously and “does not tolerate retaliation against those who raise safety concerns.” The agency said it was addressing ODA reforms, including those mandated by Congress, and reiterated that it is delegating fewer responsibilities to manufacturers and demanding more transparency. This has come in part through a few memos.
Ahead of the release of the whistleblower report, the agency had issued two memorandums addressing delegation authorization reforms. Both were issued in October; one specifically addresses the FAA teams for Boeing, Pratt & Whitney, and General Electric, and the other is a broader memo on the ODA process.
For the more specific memo, the FAA is calling for the assignment of agency safety personnel with appropriate engineering and flight test expertise to serve as advisors to the oversight offices for each company.
This move was actually a requirement contained within Section 107 of the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act that passed Congress in late 2020. The directive required such expertise in cases involving transport category aircraft with a maximum takeoff gross weight of more than 150,000 pounds or produced and delivered to Part 121 operators. It also covered activities surrounding associated engines.
However, the October memo gave 60 days to follow through on that assignment.
The more general memo directs the FAA to approve additions to ODA offices to ensure they meet agency qualifications. Again, this was a requirement included in the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act. This takes effect in January.
Facilitating this is a new office the FAA staffed this fall to oversee the ODA process.