FAA Whistle-blowers Charge Lax Oversight of Jet
By Nick Schwellenbach
WASHINGTON–Federal Aviation Administration employees were improperly rushed by senior FAA officials in Washington, D.C., to approve a new aircraft despite the employees’ safety concerns, according to the Transportation Department’s top watchdog and FAA whistle-blowers who testified before Congress last week.
The plane, the Eclipse 500, is known as a very-light jet or “taxi jet.” An emergency landing this summer by an Eclipse 500 was caused by a design flaw in its software that should have been identified by the FAA, according to Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel.
It is another example in a pattern of lax oversight by the FAA that has compromised safety, according to remarks by House transportation committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) and other members of Congress. Oberstar said this weak oversight stems from an FAA initiative that created an excessively cozy relationship between the FAA and the aerospace industry that it oversees.
In response to complaints from FAA employees, Scovel substantiated allegations that there were regulatory lapses in the oversight of Eclipse Aviation Corp. and the Eclipse 500.
Among the lapses at the FAA, according to Scovel:
* The FAA approved the production of Eclipse 500 despite “two serious, overarching deficiency issues” with Eclipse’s quality control system and its suppliers;
* The FAA agreed to numerous “IOUs” from Eclipse on numerous safety deficiencies found in order to meet FAA-imposed deadlines to approve the design of the Eclipse 500 by the end of September 2006;
* Eleven planes were delivered by Eclipse to its buyers before all safety deficiencies that were identified were corrected;
* Without imposing a “cooling off” period of time between working at the FAA and going to work for the aerospace industry, the FAA allowed one of its engineers who oversaw Eclipse to take a high-level position there; and
* FAA test pilots recommended that the Eclipse 500 have a two person crew, but, due to a customer service complaint from Eclipse, the FAA rescinded its test pilots’ recommendation.
“FAA’s desire to promote the use of [very light jets] may have contributed to its decision to accelerate” the approval of the Eclipse 500, Scovel said in his written testimony. This “may have resulted in reduced vigilance on the Agency’s part.”
Scovel also said the FAA inspection team that identified deficiencies was replaced. When a new team of inspectors was appointed, they were limited in their ability to fully inspect the Eclipse 500 by John Hickey, a senior FAA official based in Washington, D.C, who led the new team.
According to one FAA whistle-blower, David Downey, employees at “the FAA became privy to a mis-sent email detailing an [Eclipse Aerospace Corp.] strategy to use [John Hickey]’s influence in the software certification issue.”
In a mid-September 2006 meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., two FAA employees, Downey and Dennis Wallace, said they challenged their deadline pressure on the grounds that they could not properly test the Eclipse 500’s software in time.
According to Wallace, an FAA manager told Downey that he “shouldn’t have to come to Albuquerque to do his job.”
The chair of the House transportation committee had harsh words for the FAA.
“Complacency has crept into the highest levels of FAA management,” said Oberstar in a critique of the FAA’s customer service initiative, which emphasizes a partnership with industry. Oberstar said that the FAA’s customer should be the flying public, not the industry it regulates.
Congress removed from the FAA’s “promotion of aviation” goal after the 1996 ValuJet crash and “required FAA to focus exclusively on safety as the highest priority,” according to a transportation committee backgrounder on the hearing.
Oberstar criticized what he said appeared to be a “predetermined” date for approving Eclipse’s design for its aircraft by September 30, 2006.
The FAA “should not sign off until a plane is ready,” Oberstar said.
After shunting aside its own inspectors’ concerns, the potentially deadly consequences of lax FAA oversight of Eclipse and its jet almost came to fruition this summer, as detailed in written testimony from Scovel and the aviation safety chief of the National Transportation Safety Commission.
While approaching Chicago’s Midway airport to land this June, the pilots of an Eclipse 500 routinely applied some power to deal with wind. Then, after landing, with wheels touching the tarmac, the pilot decreased his two engines’ power to idle. But the plane was accelerating.
No matter what the pilot and his co-pilot did, they kept accelerating. The end of the landing strip was ahead. The landing was aborted and, without any immediate good option at hand, the pilots climbed the plane into the sky.
After consulting their plane’s quick reference emergency procedures, the two pilots cut the power to one engine. It worked.
But there was a big problem: The other engine was idle and unresponsive to attempts by the pilots to apply power through the throttle. According to Thomas Haueter, chief of aviation safety at the National Transportation Safety Commission, “Fortunately, the airplane had sufficient altitude to reach the runway for a successful landing.”
“Without the resourcefulness of the pilots, the visual meteorological conditions that prevailed at the time, and the airplane’s proximity to the airport, the successful completion of this flight would have been unlikely,” Haueter said in his written testimony. Two pilots and two passengers narrowly avoided a crash.
A week after the incident, the safety board investigation into this incident led the safety board to issue “two urgent recommendations” to the FAA regarding the throttle controls that involved software on the Eclipse 500.
According to Calvin Scovel, the problems with the engine and throttle were ones that “should have been resolved before” the FAA certified the design of the Eclipse 500 as safe.