September 18, 2008

Eclipse Jet FAA Approval Probed

By Copyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal By Michael Coleman Journal Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A congressional panel heard allegations Wednesday that Eclipse Aviation won federal approval for its new jet despite safety concerns and possibly because of "cozy " relationships between the company and federal aviation officials.

The Albuquerque - based jet maker disputed testimony critical of the airplane's certification process and issued a pointby-point rebuttal to concerns raised in an inspector general report.

The daylong hearing, spurred by union complaints, examined whether the Federal Aviation Administration rushed to approve the new Eclipse EA-500 in September 2006 and then allowed for mass production seven months later despite concerns raised by agency engineers and safety inspectors.

About 250 of the small sixseat jets are in use today. The airplanes are manufactured in Albuquerque.

Eclipse CEO Roel Pieper told the Journal in an interview that his company's planes are safe and that Wednesday's hearing was motivated at least partly by presidential politics. The certification was done under the Bush administration, but New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a prominent figure in Democratic presidential politics, has been a vocal defender of the company and supported investing millions of state money in Eclipse.

Calvin L. Scovel III, inspec-

tor general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, gave House members a 25-page report outlining his investigation of the jet's approval process. The report raised numerous concerns, he said. "While the industry was generally excited about the (new) jet, some FAA employees were concerned it was pushed through the certification process too quickly," Scovel told the House Subcommittee on Aviation Safety. Scovel also said he received a complaint during his inquiry that senior FAA officials "prevented FAA inspectors from properly inspecting the production" of the aircraft by reassigning inspectors who had raised safety concerns. Furthermore, the company was allowed to use "alternate means" -- referred to in the hearing as "IOU's" -- to meet design certification requirements, he said. "Those alternate actions may have contributed to problems that are still reported by

Eclipse users today," Scovel said.

But when a panel member asked whether the aircraft was safe, Scovel replied, "My office has no evidence it is unsafe."

James Oberstar, a Michigan Democrat chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said it appeared from Scovel's testimony that the inspection and certification process was flawed.

"It seems to me the process was driven by something other than safety within the FAA," Oberstar said.

Nicholas Sabatini, FAA's associate administrator for safety, rejected findings that the agency ran roughshod over employees.

"FAA professionals would never -- and in this case did not -- certify an aircraft that they knew to be unsafe or one that did not meet standards," Sabatini said.

Pieper, in an interview with the Journal outside the hearing, questioned the timing of the hearing, headed by Jerry Costello, an Illinois Democrat. The harshest criticism of the FAA inspection process and Eclipse generally came from Democrats on the panel.

"I'm surprised this is coming up now right before the elections, because this is an issue that's been around for three years," Pieper said. "If this was so superurgent, why wasn't this discussed three years ago. Why now?"

He also said no one has proved the plane isn't safe.

"The world's best experts have reviewed the aircraft, Number One, to be compliant in 2006, and to be safe today," Pieper said. "That's the most important thing that came out of this today." Pieper said Eclipse is willing to work with FAA officials to re-examine the production certificate for the new jet.

He also questioned why Scovel never talked to Eclipse.

"The IG report doesn't mention they've never talked to us never, ever," he said. "The inspector general makes conclusions and statements that we will correct."

Ronald Wojnar, senior advisor of the FAA's Aircraft Maintenance Division, said the 13 deficiencies that inspectors found weren't enough to prevent Eclipse from earning its production certificate.

The six-seat Eclipse weighs slightly less than 6,000 pounds -- about as much as a fully loaded sport utility vehicle -- and flies up to 425 mph. Online

ABQjournal.comTo read a point-bypoint Eclipse response to the inspector general, go to .

(c) 2008 Albuquerque Journal. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.