Eclipse Pains

You all know about it and many of you might have gotten a close-up look. It is a marvelous looking little jet that has performance akin to the stable of legacy real jets like the Citation series and similar machines but weighs in at only a little more than 6,000 pounds. It seems to have provoked the same excitement as the Learjet did many years ago. Flight to 410 at 300+k. At the point the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, 259 of them had been produced.

A company that is essentially controlled by the current CEO has offered to purchase it in a Bankruptcy Court proceeding. The purchase transaction in the Bankruptcy Court has not been completed at this writing, and two more offers have surfaced. The type certificate (TC) is held by the Bankruptcy Court along with all of the other assets.

The original proposed aircraft price was in the vicinity of $0.8 million and it soon reached $1.3 to $1.6 million, depending on options. I understand from recent statements in the press that the new price (if the company survives) will be on the order of $2.6 million, if and when production ever resumes.

I have a friend who took delivery almost a year ago. Of course, there was no hint that the company was on the way to perdition. Due to maintenance defects his aircraft has less than 25 hours flight time since that date. Like other buyers he has lost warranty coverage, a $60,000 maintenance pre-paid deposit, and other completion items that could not be finished before delivery.

However, he is the lucky one. I pity the poor purchaser who paid for his aircraft the day before bankruptcy was filed and could not get his aircraft or his money back! Another local Eclipse had a serious leak of the (PhostrEx System) fire suppression cartridges in the engine compartment after delivery but he fortunately returned to the factory and had them fix it. The contents had somehow leaked into the engines and required them to be partly disassembled and cleaned and some parts had to be replaced. He was lucky this happened just before the bankruptcy filing. His aircraft would probably still be locked in at the factory had he not got it out before then. It would have been seized by the trustee.

Missing completion items
Some of the delivery items that needed completion were things like the hardware for flight into known icing (no approval so far), cockpit panel wiring, GPS operational items, electrical system defects ... the list goes on. Interestingly, however, flight into known icing has since been re-defined and is now much more liberal insofar as it gives pilots much more discretion on the matter of flying into known icing conditions. Maybe the factory knew something we did not? Again, a jet such as this one, of necessity, must frequently fly, at least, through known icing conditions, in order to get to its cruise altitude. There is a specific AD note that cautions pilots and ATC people that this aircraft cannot be vectored through known icing when on a IFR flight plan, and thus it can complicate the job of ATC in separating traffic. Does this suggest to you that the aircraft was pushed out the door and type certificated by the FAA too fast?

None of the aircraft delivered, even those delivered for air carrier work, some 28 at DayJet in Florida, were approved for flight into known icing conditions, and still are not. It had ordered 1,000 of the aircraft and is now bankrupt. Apparently this did not hold up the TC issued to the factory for the Eclipse. I can only wonder why. Eclipse had to repossess these aircraft.

An Eclipse accident on landing in Chicago some months ago was apparently caused by the pilot’s inability to reduce engine power when there was an apparent failure of the engine control unit due to a lack of power signals to the computer. An AD that addressed this subject was sent out after this incident. The pilot’s inability to shut down an engine when power should fail to the computer appears to be a serious defect. The engines cannot be shut down from the flight deck when the computer loses power for any reason. (There is no emergency battery or other manual shutdown.) This fact alone, in my opinion, should have been enough to delay certification.

Of course we will hear more about flight into known icing conditions and the use of autopilot control when the final report on the Q400 crash on approach to Buffalo is released. You may also recall that in 1994 an Airbus ATR 72 had a very similar accident in a flight out of Chicago where all hands were also lost. Tailplane icing was thought to be the culprit.

The French connection
To the extent that the engine controls are “fly-by-wire,” the systems in the Eclipse mimic the French philosophy of building aircraft. Their design technique is, in essence, to have a computer replace the pilot as the primary control feature.

Consider the A320 that went into the Hudson River. Few people are aware that the engines rolled back to idle when the plane’s engines ingested the birds. The engines simply were told by the computer that they were getting false data. The Eclipse has the same design. There is no hand control connection from the flight deck power levers to the engines. All you get is a voltage signal from a potentiometer that is positioned by the power lever. That is the reason for the accident in Chicago. The power levers were pushed too far beyond the stops and then failed to provide signals … the computer locked up the engine rpm at the last setting. There was no way to vary the thrust.

If the Hudson River A320 had been a Boeing, the engines most likely would have just kept churning and providing the thrust to return to the airport, rather than landing in the river. I’ll stick with Boeing, thank you.

Aircraft Certification 101
In accord with the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the FAA Administrator has a duty to promote safety of flight of civil aircraft by prescribing minimum safety standards governing the design, materials, construction, and performance of aircraft. The Administrator is further authorized by law to issue type certificates (TCs) for aircraft and the law requires the manufacturers to complete certification requirements prior to issuance of a certificate. After a TC is issued, a prototype is built — if it meets all of the FAA’s standards, a production certificate (PC) allows the manufacturer to then build aircraft in conformance with the TC.

Each aircraft leaving the production line is then inspected to ensure it conforms with the TC. If it is found to conform then it is issued an Airworthiness Certificate. This document is placed in the aircraft and is its so-called birth certificate. The road to an Airworthiness Certificate is a long and labor-intensive process and can take years to complete.

The law requires that the aircraft manufacturer must analyze and test its new designs. Based on the engineering and test data, the FAA is then charged with determining the airworthiness of those designs. If the factory demonstrates that its design complies with the regulations, the FAA can issue a TC. In addition, the manufacturer must certify that no feature or characteristic of the aircraft makes it unsafe.

FAA engineers and inspectors are supposed to look over the aircraft in its various phases of production to determine that it meets required minimum standards. Testimony at the congressional hearing clearly shows that this did not occur. (See below.)

Field maintenance
Since there is now no field maintenance support for the EA-500, it remains for technicians in the field to fend for themselves when it comes to trouble shooting and repairing the operational defects in the aircraft. Experience has shown that although there had been some telephone aid from the factory, it was limited. It has now ceased with the furlough of the remaining 800 employees.

There was some support from contract workers who could examine and download data to send to the factory for analysis. I met two while they were downloading data from an Eclipse computer. They sent the data to the factory for analysis. I am not aware that this process solved any problems or even exists any more.

Owners can provide their technicians with a computer disc that contains the maintenance manual, but it appears that the information on the disc is very difficult to examine in detail because of the small format. Some have proposed having the disc copied to paper for more practical examination.

Few owners have sent technicians to the Eclipse maintenance school. The one technician I talked with that had attended said it was poorly presented and of little value. The factory school is now closed.

What the owners need is another source of information that will aid in maintaining these aircraft. Some talk of the aircraft owners acquiring the TC and/or continuing some sort of support program for the aircraft. Time will tell whether this fine design can continue to be produced and improved.

Postscript
The latest report as of this writing is that yes, there will now be a liquidation of Eclipse Aviation under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy rules. Whoever gets to acquire the assets of the company will have a huge job on their hands. Many feel that the company and production of this fine aircraft may never come back. The existing aircraft will then be true orphans.

Stephen P. Prentice is an attorney whose practice involves FAA-NTSB issues. He has an A&P certificate and is an ATP rated pilot. Send comments to aerolaw@att.net.

Congressional Hearing, September 2008
FAA Aircraft Certification: Alleged regulatory lapses in the certification and manufacture of the Eclipse EA-500

In 2006 FAA inspectors involved with the certification aspects of the EA-500 filed an official grievance with the DOT Inspector General’s Office alleging that FAA management pushed the certification of the EA-500 without listening to the inspectors’ concerns about the aircraft. The provisional type certification was presented to Eclipse at EAA 2006 AirVenture by Marion Blakey, former FAA Administrator.

The provisional certificate meant that even though there are many discrepancies left to the factory to correct, and some to be completed after aircraft are delivered, nevertheless, the aircraft can be produced and pushed out the door for delivery to purchasers.)

The Inspector General’s report was completed just prior to the congressional hearing. The FAA aircraft certification service engineers alleged that the FAA had inappropriately certified the EA-500. Prior to this complaint, another FAA engineer (the national aircraft certification representative of the Air Traffic Controllers Association) filed a grievance against two FAA managers. He stated in his grievance that the managers issued the TC (type certificate) even though the flight test and certification engineers had not completed their certification and safety inspections. It was alleged that there were outstanding safety and regulatory items yet to be completed. Nevertheless, the aircraft was certified by FAA management on Sept. 30, 2006. The Production Certificate was issued in April of 2007. The Inspector General was concerned that the FAA may have been more intent on promoting aviation and new technology than it was with its primary safety job.

The FAA has a duty to perform certification inspections in a non-negligent manner, and the breach of that duty may be the basis of government liability if accidents and or losses result. There have been numerous cases brought against the government because of alleged FAA negligence regarding certification performance. Some observers believe that this may be the case with the Eclipse certification.

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