Chicago-Based Attorneys
Handling Aviation Accidents Nationwide

Special Certification Review Comes Up Short

On Behalf of | Aug 3, 2020 | Accidents & Incidents, Articles, Briefs, Regulatory & Other Items

Obviously proud of it, the Federal Aviation Administrations (FAA) posted the Special Certification Review (SCR) of the Eclipse EA-500 aircraft prominently on its website.

The document basically said the agency’s approval of the design was entirely proper. One has to wonder about this new found public openness when two of the four appendices are redacted, without even their titles in the table of contents. One of the appendices included is a list of acronyms, so obviously the secrecy surrounding the redacted items is curious, in light of the FAA pushing the document as testimony to its forthrightness in what has become a highly embarrassing stain on the agency’s reputation. Maybe the redactions result from a report originally not intended for public consumption, but when release was decided – to reluctantly respond to criticism – there was something either proprietary or self-incriminating in these redacted appendices; in any event, there is something rather clumsy going on here. (See Aviation Safety & Security Digest, ‘Airplane Certified By FAA Despite Concerns,’ homepage.)

“The team did not identify any unsafe conditions needing immediate attention within the areas reviewed,” concludes the report. Note the careful caveats: “within the areas reviewed” and “immediate attention.”

There is enough, publicly, to suggest that the review is not thorough and may lack objectivity.

According to Nicholas Sabatini, the associate FAA administrator for safety, the review was chartered to conduct an “independent analysis and evaluation” of the EA-500’s controversial certification. The review, Sabatini declared, said the EA-500 met “required standards” and did not uncover any “unsafe condition needing immediate attention.” Well, if unsafe conditions have already been dealt with through airworthiness directives (ADs), or they were not covered by the limited scope of the review, then everything is fine.

The only problem is that a close reading of the document may in fact suggest things are not so fine.

For one thing, the AD process is not intended to be a bandage on products with unsafe conditions found before issuance of a type certificate (TC).

For another thing, the purported independence of this team’s review is questionable. Of the eight members of the review team, six are from the FAA. This is significant because the pressures for a manufacturer to receive its type certificate (TC), and then its production certificate (PC), are usually critical milestones in the process that investors typically link to infusions of capital to fund further work by the company. These pressures are so evident at all levels of the FAA work force that the process is known as the “TC Express,” a metaphor comparing the political pressure to the momentum of a freight train thundering down the track.

The seventh member of the team is from the Department of Transportation (DOT), the senior agency to the FAA. DOT published on 2 September its own “independent” review (“Managing Risks in Civil Aviation: A Review of the FAA’s Approach to Safety”). This document identified “some adjustments” the FAA could make in the wake of a 3 April hearing by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in which current and former mid-level FAA employees testified that the agency was “too cozy” with the airlines.

The DOT representative on this certification review can hardly be expected to warn that the FAA has become “too cozy” with airplane manufacturers.

The eighth official, and the head of the effort, is a former Boeing executive with certification experience. He was also a former manager of the FAA’s Atlanta Aircraft Certification Office. This individual cannot be expected to find fault with a certification process that has the signs of industry-FAA collusion written all over it. Witness, for example, the numerous Special Conditions the FAA has issued, which allowed the new B787 Dreamliner to be certified. Same for the Airbus A380, which was certificated to numerous Special Conditions because of its unique double-deck design.

The FAA has boasted, “No team members were involved in the [EA-500] Type Certification Program.” What the FAA is not saying, and which the team individual concerned admitted to Congress, is that while he was not involved in certificating the design of the EA-500, he was up to his eyeballs in the process of certificating the ability of the manufacturer to serially reproduce the airplane. The production certificate (PC) is what really gets the aircraft into the marketplace.

There is the appearance of hair-splitting to give the appearance of objectivity.

Not the least of which is the fact that the report of the SCR was submitted to Nicholas Sabatini, the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety. His office has overall responsibility for certification issues.

A report comprised entirely of experts outside the FAA and the industry, and submitted to peer review before being presented to FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell, might have better met the test of “independence.”

As it is, the FAA spent about $43,000 in support of this 30-day review effort, producing a report on 12 September, the Friday before the Wednesday, 17 September, House Committee hearing into Eclipse EA-500 certification.

The report itself is confined to four issues: cockpit displays/screen blanking, stall speeds, trim and flaps. There’s not a word in the report about one of the most controversial aspects of EA-500 certification that arose during the hearing: the FAA acceptance of “IOUs” from Eclipse to satisfy items not meeting industry standard after certification was granted. It bears mention that the term “IOU” is not an approved category for systems that don’t meet certification standards.

As Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), Chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee, groused:

“One of the most disturbing findings to me in the IG’s report is that instead of mandating that problems be resolved, the FAA accepted ‘IOUs’ from Eclipse to resolve the problems at a later date. In this case, an ‘IOU’ was allowed on the avionics system that ran the plane. I question the practice of using ‘IOUs’ in any instance. However, to use an ‘IOU’ on the avionics system that is used to run the EA-500 which has no stand-by instruments (also known as back-up systems) from a new manufacturer who has no prior experience and on a system so critical to the aircraft is unbelievable!”

The exclamation point, by the way, is in Costello’s prepared remarks. Question marks and exclamation points are sprinkled throughout his and Rep. James Oberstar’s (D-MN) testimony. Oberstar is Chairman of the full Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. As a general statement, it is not a good thing when the oversight committee chairmen express their displeasure with exclamation points. One would have thought the SCR would have attempted to address the matter of “IOUs,” if simply to head off or blunt Congressional astonishment at the practice.

Nor does the SCR address the June 2008 incident at Chicago’s Midway Airport, where the crew of an EA-500 coming in to land was unable to retard the engines to idle power. The crew was able to land the plane by shutting down one engine.

As Tom Haueter, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) witness at the 17 September hearing recounted:

“The pilots were flying with one engine that was shut down and another engine that would not advance past idle, and they had no emergency procedures to address the situation

“This dual channel failure of both thrust levers occurred after the airplane had accumulated only 238 hours and 192 cycles [flights] since new. The thrust levers are part of the throttle quadrant assembly. The Safety Board’s investigation found that other throttle quadrant assemblies failed in a similar manner during testing, which suggested there might be a design or quality problem in the Eclipse 500’s throttle quadrant assembly.”

Note that the throttle quadrant was not among the four areas reviewed by the team.

The review team indicated that it examined 96 Service Difficulty Reports (SDR), but a review of those reports (provided in the one meaningful appendix to the study), does not include the June event at Midway. It’s as if this incident never occurred, but it’s one of four ongoing NTSB investigations into incidents and accidents involving Eclipse EA-500 aircraft (about 235 have been delivered to customers).

The review team examined the screen blanking problem, by which one of the three “glass cockpit” screens could suddenly go blank. The team did not consider this a safety of flight issue, as the pilot would have the other two screens on which to rely for flight critical information. On this basis, the workload was deemed acceptable for single pilot operation, and therefore certification for one pilot operation in instrument flight rules (IFR) was determined to be appropriate.

It should be mentioned that the operator of the EA-500 involved in the Midway incident insisted on two-pilot operation, and that it took the combined efforts of both pilots to land the airplane.

In an emergency, there often is more than one thing going wrong, such as a screen blanking out. Can a lone pilot in IFR handle effectively a screen out, a throttle-quadrant anomaly, communications with air traffic control, and referring to trouble-shooting checklists, all at the same time?

It seems fair to ask if withholding the single pilot authorization would have been the more prudent action, especially for an airplane issued “IOUs,” some of which concerned vital avionics.

Because the team had just 30 days, there was not enough time to fully explore issues affecting safety of the aircraft. The team left hints throughout the report that more analysis is required:

  • Page 19: “Undocumented in-service reports of pitch and rudder trim difficulties indicated problems could be related to either reliability or functionality. Eclipse reports that these are reliability problems with trim actuators, but Eclipse did not provide evidence of a root cause analysis to determine the underlying origin of the reported trim problems.” (Emphasis added)
  • Page 25: The “airspeed disagree” issues resulting from water/ice contamination of the sensors have not been entirely resolved and the FAA and Eclipse are “continuing to address this issue.”
  • Page 26: “Information obtained from the Aviation Safety Hotline revealed that the autopilot system is sensitive to turbulence (even in light conditions) and quite often will disengage and will not easily reengage. Considering that the airplane is certified for single-pilot operations and normally operates in reduced vertical separation minimum airspace, autopilot failures will impact pilot workload in single-pilot operations. This information was made available to the SCR Team near the end of its evaluation process and requires additional study.”

These problems could develop into safety of flight issues that would increase the workload on a single-pilot operation. One could argue that certification of the EA-500 should have been withheld until the root causes were discovered and resolved.

While not intended in the Special Certification Review, there is evidence of approving the EA-500 design on a certain date, rather than issuing a certification stamp of approval once all the design and operational issues were resolved.

The report seems like a damage control exercise: “The SCR Team determined that at the time of certification on conforming flight test articles there were no trim issues.” The language is carefully artful and restrictive.

No problems. One is left wondering if a truly independent review, with more than 30 days to investigate, would arrive at the same bland conclusion.