WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal aviation officials approved a new type of small jet despite problems with the plane's design and production, overruling safety concerns voiced by government engineers, inspectors and test pilots, according to federal and congressional investigators.
Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said in testimony prepared for a congressional hearing Wednesday that Federal Aviation Administration officials hastily certified the Eclipse 500 very light jet for flight despite "unresolved design problems" and such significant production problems that the manufacturer -- Eclipse Aviation of Albuquerque, N.M. -- had difficulty reproducing the jet.
The House transportation committee's staff, which also investigated FAA's approval of the Eclipse, said in a briefing paper for panel members that "there is a disturbing suggestion that there was a 'cozy relationship' and reduced level of vigilance" by the agency during the jet's approval process.
Even though the plane represented a new type of aircraft, powered by a new technology and produced by a new manufacturer, the FAA appears to have exercised much less scrutiny than when it certifies new aircraft produced by more established manufacturers, the briefing paper said. It recommended a review of FAA's entire aircraft certification program.
Very light jets are small aircraft usually seating five to 10 people with advanced technologies that cost less than other business jets. The FAA has been promoting the jets for several years as a means to bring convenient, fast air service to smaller communities. Aviation forecasters predict thousands of very light jets will start flying over the next two decades, servicing a new market for on-demand, point-to-point air taxis.
The Eclipse weighs slightly less than 6,000 pounds -- about the size of a fully loaded sport utility vehicle -- and flies up to 425 miles per hour. About 250 of the jets are in service.
The FAA has been the target of strong criticism from Congress in recent months that it places too much emphasis on serving the needs of airlines and aircraft manufacturers and promoting commercial aviation rather than its primary mission, which is public safety.
The agency and its defenders counter that modern aviation is so complex that safety is often better served by a climate in which airlines, manufacturers and others feel able to bring safety issues to the attention of regulators without fear of punitive action.
Nicholas Sabatini, FAA's associate administrator for safety, rejected investigators' findings that the agency ran roughshod over employees concerned about the Eclipse's safety.
"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 in prepared testimony.
Peg Billson, Eclipse's president and general manager, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the Eclipse's safety record "is comparable if not better than any other" small or business airplane "that's been certified in the last 20 years." She said the planes have been flown 32,000 hours by 375 pilots "without a death or an injury."
Billson also complained that Scovel did not interview Eclipse officials during his investigation, which is still under way. She said company officials are "confident they didn't get any special consideration. Nor did the FAA usurp any of their regulations during the entire process of certifying this airplane."
However, Scovel and other witnesses cite repeated instances in their testimony in which FAA officials applied pressure and stretched rules to gain the aircraft's design and production certifications, even removing some employees who raised safety concerns from the agency's certification team.
Among the inspector general's findings:
- The FAA gave Eclipse Aviation the power to approve and document aircraft parts as they were manufactured -- an unusual move given Eclipse was "a new manufacturer with no history of manufacturing an aircraft or shepherding a design through the design certification process." FAA inspectors later found numerous deficiencies on the plane that had been accepted and approved by Eclipse inspectors.
- The agency replaced the production inspection team that found deficiencies with the Eclipse and then limited the ability of the new inspection team "to fully inspect the aircraft for airworthiness."
- The FAA chose to certify the Eclipse -- as well as other light jets -- using certification requirements for smaller, business aircraft with older technology rather than the more stringent requirements that apply to commercial airliners that have similar technology.
More than 80 "service difficulty reports" have been filed with the FAA by aircraft operators on problems they've encountered with the Eclipse. While service difficulty reports are to be expected with any new aircraft, Scovel said it is "troubling" that many of the problems "appear to relate back to design issues."
For example, on June 5 a throttle failed on an Eclipse approaching Chicago's Midway Airport, resulting in both engines getting stuck on maximum power. The pilots were able to make an emergency landing. At the behest of the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA issued a safety directive related to the throttle.
The NTSB, which investigated the incident, expressed concern the root of the problem might be a flaw in the design of the software that controls the engines. A re-examination of the software by FAA engineers found the flaw, which the manufacturer is currently working on.