Eclipse Gets FAA Approval; Questions Raised About Earlier Certification

April 30, 2007
The certificate would speed up the manufacturing process to one plane off the assembly line every day by this summer and eventually three a day.

Eclipse Aviation passed the Federal Aviation Administration's final test Thursday, winning production certification for its $1.5 million light jet.

"We are transitioning from a development company to a production company," Chief Operating Officer Peg Billson said during a ceremony with FAA representatives outside company headquarters.

Billson said the certificate would speed up the manufacturing process to one plane off the assembly line every day by this summer and eventually three a day.

Meanwhile, Eclipse and FAA officials downplayed allegations that the FAA rushed type certification of the jet last year.

A grievance was filed in October against two FAA managers by the union that represents the agency's inspectors and test pilots.

The grievance, which was made public on a Web site this week, alleges the FAA issued the Eclipse 500 type certificate "without allowing the aircraft certification engineers and flight test pilots to properly complete their assigned certification/safety responsibilities."

The grievance claims inspectors and test pilots had identified several outstanding safety and regulatory issues, and sought to indemnify any inspectors or test pilots against legal action should there be an accident involving an Eclipse 500.

Tomaso DiPaolo of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association confirmed the grievance had been filed.

He said it was the first regarding safety of an aircraft since the union began representing FAA certification engineers in 2000.

When the plane was set for certification at the end of September, "my guys were telling me it wasn't ready, but the FAA managers went ahead and approved the plane design," DiPaolo said in an interview with the Journal.

"I don't think any of my engineers that were involved signed off."

He declined to identify any of the inspectors or pilots involved.

The grievance is still under review by the FAA, DiPaolo said.

FAA spokesman Roland Herwig said he couldn't comment specifically on the grievance, but he said the FAA had no safety concerns with Eclipse.

"Eclipse Aviation Corp. has satisfactorily completed all immediate and corrective action plans resulting from the FAA's production certification audit," he said.

"The FAA will, of course, continue oversight of Eclipse for both production and operational safety."

Highest approval

The certification issued Thursday in front of many of the company's 1,200 employees means the federal agency has signed off on Eclipse's production processes and the company can issue its own airworthiness certificates for each plane.

"Production certification is the highest approval the FAA issues to manufacturers, and we're very proud to issue that to you today," said Vaughn Schmitt, manager of the FAA's Manufacturing Inspection district office in Fort Worth.

Since Eclipse received type certification for its twinengine Eclipse 500 jets last year, the FAA has had to individually test each plane before delivery. The process is common for companies building a new aircraft, but it is cumbersome.

Eclipse has delivered eight aircraft since late last year.

Safety concerns

Since its type certification, Eclipse has revealed a list of planned or completed modifications to fix problems such as cracking windows, and it has scrapped its original avionics system.

DiPaolo said he believes a new FAA pay system that ties performance to manager pay may have been to blame for rushing certification.

"We're very concerned here that there may have been undue pressure brought on employees because managers had their pay linked to the success of the Eclipse program," he said.

"We'd be more than happy to see these guys succeed, but we have safety concerns with Eclipse. We want the FAA to ensure they'll give these guys protection."

The grievance was published Thursday on a blog, Eclipse Aviation Critic, written by Stan Blankenship, a semiretired engineer who has worked on other business jets, such as Learjet and Gulfstream. Blankenship's year-old blog also has alleged political pressure on the FAA to certify the Eclipse 500.

"We have never asked anyone to pressure the FAA," Eclipse spokesman Andrew Broom said Thursday.

Representatives for Gov. Bill Richardson and several members of the state's congressional delegation said they had not applied any pressure.

As he has previously, Broom said the blog is a result of heated competition between older, established aircraft manufacturers and upstarts like Eclipse.

Longs hours for FAA

FAA representatives have worked long hours, frequently on weekends, alongside Eclipse engineers to solve problems with the Eclipse 500. The FAA has also made some concessions, such as giving Eclipse an early "provisional-type" certification, which gave the company a schedule to complete a few fixes.

In addition, the FAA agreed to work with Eclipse on future adaptations to its certification as it makes adjustments to the plane, such as adding new wingtip fuel tanks and a reworked avionics system, later this year. The provisional-type certification last summer allowed Eclipse to tap into $225 million in investments in the startup company. Eclipse's Billson said the FAA worked hard on the project because of its mission - the commercialization and safety of air travel. "The very light jet movement, and especialy the Eclipse 500, represents an expansion of the commercialization of air travel," Billson said. "They've been terrific helping us realize this dream."

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