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Watchdog says new jet won FAA approval despite safety concerns

'Unresolved design problems' didn't hinder the Eclipse 500's OK, U.S. inspector says.

September 18, 2008|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A government watchdog said Wednesday that federal officials approved a new type of small jet despite problems with the plane's design and production, overruling safety concerns.

The Transportation Department's inspector general, Calvin Scovel, told lawmakers that the Eclipse 500 won certification despite "unresolved design problems." He cited significant production troubles and said the manufacturer, Eclipse Aviation of Albuquerque, had difficulty reproducing the Federal Aviation Administration-approved final design.

His investigation did not try to make a judgment on the jet's safety. But Scovel said he was concerned about "alarming" problems with the FAA's certification process.

To members of a House panel, the FAA's decision to proceed despite concerns by agency engineers and inspectors was further evidence that the FAA gave priority to promoting the aviation industry over public safety.

"I am very concerned that we have another example here that complacency has crept into the highest levels of FAA management," said Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

FAA officials pointed to poor communications between agency managers and employees who worked on the certification. At least one mid-level manager who expressed concerns was removed from the project, they acknowledged.

"I believe the aircraft was properly certified," Nicholas Sabatini, the FAA's associate administrator for safety, told the aviation subcommittee. "This aircraft is safe and has met applicable regulations."

Peg Billson, Eclipse's general manager for production, said the firm "had some false starts" and that she twice gave the FAA an airplane that was not ready for testing. The end results, she said, "were effective. We have a compliant airplane. We have a safe airplane."

But Scovel and other witnesses said the FAA appeared to have exercised much less scrutiny than when it certified new planes from more established manufacturers.

When problems with the design were not resolved before the FAA's target of Sept. 30, 2006, for certifying the jet, FAA officials accepted promises from Eclipse to fix things later, and then granted certification.

Dennis Wallace, an FAA software engineer on the team that worked on Eclipse's design certification, said he refused to sign off on the software days before the certification was awarded. He said there were unresolved issues and that he was surprised to learn later that the jet was certified.

Another FAA employee on the production certification team, Maryetta Broyles, said an FAA manager told the team that it needed to go only "an inch deep" when inspecting Eclipse's production facilities. She said that when she asked probing questions during her inspection, an Eclipse employee chided her that she was "going more than an inch deep."

The manager in question, Ronald Wojnar, denied making the comment.

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